The United Nations headquarters in New York. (Adam Rountree/AP)

In February, the United Nations’ counterterrorism committee took notorious Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar off its list of designated terrorists. The move marked the culmination of a peace settlement signed in September of last year between Hekmatyar and the Afghan government. Under the terms of the deal, Hekmatyar agreed to stop fighting in return for an official pardon and relief from a U.N.-imposed travel ban, arms embargo and asset freeze.

While the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan welcomed the agreement, others lambasted it as amnesty for a war criminal, known locally as the “Butcher of Kabul.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the deal as “an affront to victims of grave abuses.” The International Crisis Group (ICG), which has long opposed “dealing with brutal Afghan warlords,” warned that the agreement would only “intensify tensions within an already fragile state.”

These objections by HRW and ICG are fairly standard responses to warlordism. Warlords oversee militias that take control of specific territories within the borders of internationally recognized states. They typically do not try to seize control of the government or to secede. Rather, they aim for regional autonomy while leaving national boundaries intact.

Both academics and policymakers generally see warlords as threats to peace, stability and the rule of law. They are called brutal and parochial, a plague that “deprives countries of the chance for lasting security and economic growth.” While the United States sometimes allies with them in counterinsurgency operations, these alliances are usually temporary. The Americans and other foreign interveners almost always aim to displace or eliminate warlords and to help states gain a monopoly on legal violence.

But are warlords always a threat?

In some cases, including Hekmatyar’s, they clearly are. But in research recently published in the American Political Science Review, we argue that warlords and other nonstate armed groups (civil defense forces, for example, or tribal militias) can sometimes offer viable alternatives to the corruption, incompetence and abuse that plague the governments of weak and war-torn states. For example:

  • In Afghanistan’s Herat Province, from the early 1980s to 2004, warlord Ishmail Khan paved roads, built schools and offered a variety of social services unrivaled anywhere else in the country, including Kabul. Though he created relative stability in Herat despite the violence engulfing the rest of Afghanistan, he was nevertheless ousted by government forces with help from his own local rivals.
  • In Ivory Coast’s northern districts in the 1990s, when the government essentially gave up enforcing the law, bands of traditional hunters known as “dozos” stepped in, policing the region and responding to criminal complaints.
  • In the autonomous region of Puntland, Somalia, clan leaders and elders established one of the most effective governments in the country without seceding, even as the state itself collapsed into violence.

When should warlords be recognized as legitimate authorities?

Drawing on both classical and contemporary just-war theory, we propose two conditions that warlords must meet to be considered legitimate local authorities:

  • First, they must guarantee citizens’ basic right to security.
  • Second, they must have significant popular support among those whose lives and livelihoods are rooted in the territories they control.

If warlords do better than their nominal states at these two tasks, we propose that any intervening power, including third-party states and international organizations, should recognize the warlords’ rights to organize and maintain a militia, and to fight back if the state or its foreign backers try to topple them.

Yes, our standards are minimal. But they are realistic. Political theorists typically impose more stringent standards, including some sort of democratic representation, political and civil freedoms, and welfare rights. But that’s too demanding when a nation is embroiled in a long civil war or a state is collapsing.

During such times, neither governments nor warlords can be expected to extend the full array of rights and freedoms that we usually associate with political legitimacy. If warlords can establish social order and protect basic rights, that shouldn’t be dismissed in favor of impossible goals.

We don’t want to romanticize warlords. We propose, rather, that they be compared to the actual alternatives. While most warlords violate human rights, in many conflict-torn or collapsing countries, the government’s record is still worse. Warlords who have more popular support than the state and are better able to protect their people should be internationally recognized for those achievements.

Accepting ‘good enough’ warlords should encourage less violence and better governance

Offering a path to legitimacy should encourage warlords to treat citizens with less violence and more respect. If they want international recognition, warlords should be less inclined to violate locals’ basic rights. If they need to demonstrate popular support, warlords should be less inclined to abuse or alienate a potentially supportive populace. Recent studies suggest that conceding regional autonomy reduces the risk of future secession or civil war. Conceding autonomy for “good enough” warlords may similarly calm potentially troubled situations.

When the international community tries to unseat warlords, it can cause serious harm

During and after civil wars, outside forces (U.N. agencies, regional or world powers, and others) often have tremendous input on the priorities, financing and logistics for rebuilding a state and eliminating threats to the government. These third parties can make or break a conflict’s resolution — and help decide which players remain on the board as the game changes.

But efforts to wipe out legitimate warlords can actually make life worse for citizens, jeopardizing their safety and their fragile basic rights.

The international community might do more good if it would stop treating all warlords as equivalent. Rather, it should carefully compare and assess warlords and state agencies, examining which governs better. In some cases, it may be better to give aid directly to warlords, not as a counterinsurgency tactic but to help them protect the people they govern. The greater the warlords’ relative capacity to protect basic rights, and the deeper their popular support, the stronger the case for aid.

Of course, third parties should focus on facilitating a sustainable peace among state and nonstate forces. But suppressing warlords may not always be the best way to reach this goal. Warlords are not always obstacles to peace and state-building. They may, in fact, help introduce a durable constitutional order, amenable over time to introducing more democratic safeguards in exchange for legitimacy.

Robert Blair is assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University.

Pablo Kalmanovitz is research professor in the international studies division of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City.