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The Perils and Possibilities of Engaging Non-State Armed Actors in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

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The Perils and Possibilities of Engaging Non-State Armed Actors in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding  

Andrew Watkins

Violent acts committed by warlords and other non-state armed actors are fixtures of global news headlines. These violent acts—often discussed in vivid prose and framed against landscapes of lawlessness—create the image of warlords and armed groups ruthlessly destroying their countries in an attempt to gain political and economic power.  Civilians struggle to survive in the milieu while the international community tries to find ways towards the cessation of violence.   This narrative gives rise to the comforting but dangerously inaccurate assumption that societies exist in a binary of peace or conflict.  What is left out of this dualistic framework is the gray area in between where the difficult work of peacebuilding is rooted.  Dig beyond the gory headlines and a far more complex picture emerges in which potential spoilers to peace processes make decisions based on a rapidly changing yet interconnected web of power-relationships, economic incentives, and political objectives all within the context of country-specific circumstances.

Understanding these currents is the key to finding spaces where potential spoilers can be effectively engaged.  The central argument of this paper is that while it may be convenient to write off warlords and other potential spoilers as intractable enemies of peace to be dealt with solely by coercive force, there do exist possibilities for their integration in the peacebuilding process.      

Who Are the Spoilers?

The term “spoiler”, coined by Stephan Stedman, is used to denote a broad swath of state and non-state armed groups who oppose and seek to counter—actively or passively—peace processes.[i] From his work, a wave of scholarship followed in an attempt to understand the complex and dynamic interplay of warlords and other potential spoilers in the context of societies beset by violence.  The natural progression of this scholarship was to further classify potential spoilers.  At the forefront of this effort, Steadman began his analysis by defining spoilers as leaders and parties who believe peace from negotiations would jeopardize their power, worldview, and/or interests and use violence to undermine them. He is careful to make distinction between groups where power is maintained from the top by leaders, for instance Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and those where it is wielded by the followers as in Rwanda during the Hutu led genocide of 1994.  In sum, he identifies three distinctive categories of spoiler based on their goals and commitment to achieving them. He labels these spoilers limited, greedy, and total and notes that they can act from inside the peace processes they are a part of or from the outside when they are excluded.[1][ii]

Critiquing this typology, Marie-Joelle Zahar argues that there are no fixed spoiler types and that instead, a potential spoiler’s willingness to commit violent acts in pursuit of its political or economic goals depends on context-specific conditions that influence its capabilities and its opportunity structure.[iii]  By this measure, warlords, militias, para-militaries, and other potential spoilers are less static actors and more flexible entrepreneurs of violence adapting to the cost-benefit scenarios confronting them at any given time.  Ken Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson university, expands this critique of fixed spoiler designations in the context of Somalia by defining such groups as having the means and/or incentives to perpetuate three distinct crises in the country: protracted warfare, violent lawlessness, and state failure.[iv]   Again, it is the capabilities possessed and opportunities perceived that dictate action.  Inherent to these critiques is the point that by labeling potential spoilers within a normative framework as Steadman does, the transformation of actors—in some cases from spoilers to state makers or the opposite—is inadequately addressed. Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a scholar from Columbia University, explicitly examines such transformations in her research on warlords in Afghanistan by focusing on the incentive structures that have precipitated changes in the way individual warlords use violence to achieve their goals.[v]

The work of defining spoilers in terms of power, opportunity, and intent has increasingly drawn on a widening scholarship of economics in fragile conflict and post-conflict zones. Regardless of how they are defined, non-state armed groups must fund themselves.  These funding priorities can both help identify potential spoilers as well as offer insights into how spoilers may act and how they may be coopted in the context of the economic incentive structures they face.  James Cockayne, director of the Center on Global Terrorism Cooperation, argues that the financing strategies of non-state armed groups broadly fall into three categories: predation, parasitism, and symbiosis.[vi]  Through this lens, predatory spoiler groups such as the LRA in central Africa attack the local population for food and supplies and have an economic incentive for the central government to remain weak.  In contrast, symbiotic groups such as mafia organizations in Europe or drug cartels in South America have a vested interest in strong but corrupt states where they can wield influence parallel to that of the government’s.  As such, Cockayne’s analysis offers a way of defining spoilers and examining their actions based on economic motives.   These categories, he argues, generally explain how armed actors interact both with the civilian societies and the frequently weak state structures they encounter.

Power and Legitimacy

Attempting to identify spoilers is an important first step in the process of peacemaking and peacebuilding.  However, what makes such identification so difficult is the reality that dramatic changes often take place within local power structures during times of conflict.  New political elites, economic elites, and entrepreneurs in violence (warlords, militias, etc.) come into being and occupy different spheres of power and legitimacy.  These spheres shift and change—overlap and collide.  Some gain from the violence though access to new economic activities or political spaces brought about by violent turmoil.  For example, the militias operating in eastern Congo have been able to profit from access to mining operations and other ‘lootable’ resources while militias in Sudan’s Darfur region have used force of arms to occupy the political space opened by conflict there.  Often, these groups are able to take advantage of superior force of arms in a given space to claim a monopoly on power, for example, the smattering of warlords in Afghanistan.  One thing common to all elites is that they have different incentives to either support the establishment of a new status quo or attempt to change it. This has important consequences for the peacebuilding process.

Non-state armed groups often fill the void where states are unable or unwilling to assert their dominance.  Weber defines the state as an entity having a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a territory.”[vii]  However, conflict zones are characterized by states that have lost this monopoly in reality or in the eyes of their people.  Thus, what is “legitimate” becomes unmoored from its Weberian foundation.  In this context, alternative forms of power, control, and coercion develop to fill the void. Nowhere is this void more visible than at the margins of the state where warlords and non-state armed groups principally operate.[viii] They derive power from their position at the frontiers where states have difficulty extending power.  This can be said of rebel groups such as the M23 in Congo, the FARC in Columbia, and the smattering of rebel groups in Darfur.  Though they may attack the heart of the state, their source of power remains at the periphery.  This is in part because of the security of distance.  It is also a factor of the legitimacy such groups are able to cultivate amongst the local population.  Mukhopadhyay expresses this legitimacy in terms of the value propositions such groups offer the local population.  In return for relative stability and an end to warlord violence offered by the Taliban, the local population ceded much of its independence in part out of fear of the Taliban and in part out of what or who might replace it.  The same rings true for Somalis living under the Islamic Courts Union, Colombians in FARC controlled territories, and Sri Lankans under the Tamil Tigers.

As spheres of power and legitimacy shift, ad-hoc systems of local governance often begin to take shape. Legitimate needs for such things as courts to adjudicate disputes and security to conduct trade and protect property are developed outside the state framework and are legitimized to the extent they are supported by the population.  Sometimes, this process is controlled by newly empowered political and economic elites. Menkhaus notes that in Somalia, businesspeople often find themselves in a position supporting these ad-hoc governance structures and blocking the revival of a strong state for fear that a strong state will be predatory.  Other times, it is the need to simply survive that forces citizens to operate outside state control. Nitzschke and Studdard focus on the economic dimensions of this choice by noting that war economies serve different functions for different groups.[ix] Specifically, the existence of three distinct economies, namely war, shadow, and coping economies, combine to weaken the hand of the state as they provide a semi-legitimate alternative to it.  In these new spheres of power, it is the non-state armed groups, warlords, and other potential spoilers who are often ascendant absent the state presence.  This point is central to understanding the possibility of engaging spoilers in peacebuilding since the violence they perpetuate causes destabilizing shifts in local power and legitimacy from a central government to a more diffuse range of sub-state entities.

The Role of States and Mediators

Understanding who spoilers are and how they have cultivated power and legitimacy are essential starting points from which to begin an analysis of how states and mediators can effectively engage them in furtherance of the peacebuilding process.  Steadman sets the stage for the context of such engagement by describing the difficulty mediators face as the “fog of peacemaking.”[x]  The fog includes questions of spoiler goals, intent, and capabilities as well as the degree to which the spoiler groups are united, the amount of control carried by the leadership over its fighters, and the likely effects of mediator intervention on these points.  Steadman emphasizes the importance of mediators being equipped to get through this fog, which is often accompanied by extreme propaganda emphasizing maximalist goals, in order to get to the true intent, capabilities, and goals of potential spoilers.  Once this is done, he argues that three broad policy tracks can be undertaken: inducement, socialization, or coercion.  The first seeks to take positive measures to address spoiler grievances; the second establishes a set of universal norms for judging the legitimacy of party actions; and the third entails coercive military action.

The United Nations, in a special report by the Secretary-General on enhancing mediation and its support activities, refines Steadman’s focus by noting that any mediation plan must be centered on the intraparty relationships within spoiler groups themselves.[xi] The report lays out a framework through which a variety of inducement and socialization measures can be taken to marginalize those who could potentially block peace deals.  It argues that, “Where there is considerable intraparty disagreement between moderates and hardliners, the leader may sign an agreement but be afraid to implement it for fear of backlash from hardline constituents. Careful assessment of spoilers’ motivation is required for the mediator and the international community to respond appropriately.”[xii] Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK, the JEM in Darfur, the IRA and a host of other spoiler groups show how problematic such internal divisions can be when mediators try to get everyone on board one peace process.  This point is of particular relevance in the case studies outlined below.

Some argue that mediators can be more effective in cases where spoilers who violently threaten the peace process are engaged militarily.  The United Nations has done this on a number of occasions including Somalia and most recently in Congo where it began ‘peace enforcement’ operations.  The United States military has undertaken similar coercive operations against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is no peace accord yet between the Taliban and the American supported government in Kabul though the Karzai government has attempted to negotiate one. The United States government argues that the Taliban is a rouge movement that will continue to spoil the peacebuilding process currently taking place in Afghanistan and must be marginalized by force.  To this end, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, was recently killed by an American drone strike on his way to negotiations with the Afghan government.[xiii]  While some argue that coercive practices are detrimental to the overall peacebuilding process, others note the successes of the Sri Lankan government’s military campaign to defeat the Tamil Tigers and the positive role this development will play in the peacebuilding process in Sri Lanka.[xiv]   

At the opposite end of the coercion spectrum, John Hulsman of the Heritage foundation argues that mediators should work with empowered warlords and representatives of armed groups in the context of broad, locally autonomous governing institutions.[xv]  Realizing the nature of the fog that foreign mediators encounter when entering conflict zones, Hulsman claims that legitimizing some of these groups through their formal incorporation in state structures will better allow mediators to judge their goals and facilitate their participation in a constructive process.  While he highlights the importance of aligning the incentives of potential spoilers and the state, he is less clear about how to deal with such actors when they overtake the state itself in furtherance of goals that may be detrimental to it.

One final note to emphasize on the role of states and mediators in engaging potential spoilers is the extent to which these spoilers are supported by outside forces.  This support can skew the incentive structures of potential spoiler groups and prolong conflict.  In Congo, Rwandan support for a number of militias has weakened the peace process and facilitated continued fighting there.  Similarly, Pakistani support for various armed groups in Afghanistan, Syrian support for the PKK in Turkey, Chadian backing of various Darfuri factions, and a host of others show just how important external influences can be on the prolonging of conflict and destabilization of the peacebuilding process.   

Case Studies

In the preceding pages, the important theoretical aspects of spoiler identity, their sources of legitimacy and power, and the role states and mediators can play in engaging them in the peacebuilding process have been laid out.  But theory in itself becomes relevant only when applied in context to specific cases.  In the following pages, the analytical concepts above are applied to two specific case studies: Afghanistan and Somalia.  Following a brief background of the conflicts and relevant spoilers, the strengths and weaknesses of various engagement policies are outlined. 


Background. Modern day Afghanistan offers a constantly evolving case study in the complexities of integrating non-state armed groups in the peacebuilding process. During the ten-year occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, a mosaic of armed groups formed at the periphery of the state in opposition to the Soviet dominated central government.  Following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of its puppet government in Kabul three years later, these armed groups fell upon each other as they attempted to cement and expand the areas under their control.  These groups tortured and killed their enemies while imposing unimaginable hardship on the civilian population caught in the middle.  Eventually, from the refugee camps of Pakistan, the fervently religious Taliban swept through the country imposing along the way a harsh version of Islamic Sharia law.  As opposed to the cleptocratic warlords, the Taliban offered a relatively more secure, if harshly imposed, system of organizing the state.  The warlords and their militias were not vanquished, but their power and influence was again pushed to the periphery.  This all changed following the attacks of September 11th and the ensuing American led invasion of Afghanistan.  In order to develop a local anti-Taliban force, the Americans looked to the warlords for help pushing the Taliban to the countryside where they have continued to reside.  Though at times operating in parallel to the Taliban, other spoilers and potential spoilers such as the Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, and Al Qaeda forces operate in the state with their own capabilities, intents, and goals.

Engagement Policies (Warlords). The Karzai government has pursued a strategy combining aspects of inducement and coercion towards different spoiler groups in Afghanistan. With regards to warlords, the Karzai administration was faced with a dilemma.  Should the weak state with help from the US military attempt to fight the warlords and insert state officials in governing positions or should these warlords be integrated into the state as warlord-governors with all the legitimacy such positions would entail?  The government chose a middle approach of inducement by implementing a policy of integrating only the most powerful warlords into the state fabric in the hopes that these warlords could channel their local power towards the goals of the state.  By offering these leaders and their fighters a legitimate role in developing Afghanistan, it was hoped that their incentives to spoil the peacebuilding project would be minimized.  The weight of American military might in support of the Afghan government and the fact that it could be brought to bear against potential spoilers, especially warlords with centers of power that could be bombed, served as a further incentive to join the government.

The results of this policy have been mixed.  At one end of the spectrum are warlord governors such as Northern Tajik commander Atta Noor.  With a well-financed and armed base of power in Mazar-I-Sharif, Noor was tapped to be the governor of Balkh province.[xvi] He has since risen to become one of the kingmakers in Afghan politics.  With official estimates of $730 million worth of trade running through Balkh’s border with Uzbekistan, Noor has been able to effectively grease the wheels of local development.  He was also able to bring Balkh province, once a center of poppy production, into the ranks of zero-poppy provinces—a considerable feat.[xvii]  Relative autonomy from Kabul has allowed the governor to implement an administrative framework that, while lacking transparency and true government oversight, has nonetheless contributed to stability and relative economic growth in the province.  Noor is thus able to use his military and economic power to further his self-interest while simultaneously supporting the aims of the state. 

In contrast to Atta Noor, another of President Karzai’s warlord-governor appointees, Gul Agha Sherzai, has fared far worse.  Hailing from the crucially important Kandahar province, Sherzai used considerable financial resources to cement his power through coercion.  In 2013, a five-day protest erupted in the province against the governor’s alleged “…involvement in corruption, embezzlement of development funds, illegal land grabs and for failing to protect Afghan territory from Pakistani inroads.”[xviii] Central to these protests are the land-grabs the Sherzai government is alleged to be involved in. These land grabs, in theory legitimized by Sherzai’s position as a representative of the state, are in practice viewed as entirely illegitimate by the population and blamed for the creation of violent conflict between economic and political elites.  In this case, Kabul has suffered by its association with a warlord-governor who exhibits the cleptocratic tendencies of a warlord more than those of a government representative.

To explain the disparate results and look for a relationship between these warlord-engagement polices, Mukhopadhyay focuses on the relationship between warlord strength and the competition they face for local power.  When a warlord is without rivals, his reliance on the state may be minimal hence he may be more inclined to see incentives that diverge from the goals of the state.  By contrast, state support for a warlord in a competitive power environment by way of the provision of a governorship may lead to the warlord seeing his incentive structure more in line with those of Kabul.  By way of example, one can look at former Herat governor Ismail Khan. Khan created his own army and implemented an extremely conservative social structure in his province.  Unable to take him on directly, Kabul began engaging other groups in his province in order to erode his power base. The strategy worked and eventually led to Khan being transferred to a cabinet position in Kabul far removed from his previous position of power at the periphery.[xix]

Engagement Polices (other non-state armed groups). While warlords have been the primary source of potential spoiler engagement in Afghanistan, there has been another track of engagement aimed at groups such as the Taliban and its Pakistani variant.  As opposed to warlord engagement, the United States has been publically against accommodation with the Taliban and similar non-state groups.  The Karzai government has nonetheless attempted to bring these groups—minus their most extreme elements (Al Qaeda and the like)—into the peacebuilding process.  President Karzai even went so far as to travel to Pakistan to meet with imprisoned Afghan Taliban second in command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in November.[xx]  The goal of this process for Kabul has always been focused on providing an avenue for these groups and their members to have a seat at the table for peace negotiations and ultimately to enter the state-building process.

Aligning the goals of the Afghan state and those of the potential spoilers in this case has been difficult at best.  In attempting to give the Taliban a seat at the table, the Karzai administration, through Afghanistan’s government run High Peace Council, allowed the Taliban to open an office in Qatar during the Doha peace negotiations.  The manner by which the Taliban opened the office—a unique flag and all—gave the impression that the group sought to portray itself as a legitimate, alternative government directly challenging the legitimacy of Kabul.  Karzai immediately pressed for the office to be shut down leading the Taliban representatives to assert they had been deceived.[xxi]

Here, the Secretary-General’s report highlights the limitations of such an approach.  While some in the Taliban may be receptive to joining the process, more extreme elements are set against it, especially given the presence of American forces in country.  This gives rise to the further fragmentation of groups within groups and makes the prospect of aligning the incentives of the potential spoilers with the incentives of the state that much harder.  Further, organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network—groups Steadman would classify as total spoilers—continue to linger at the periphery as a destabilizing presence. Indeed, America has also done its part to imperil these talks by continued kinetic action against Taliban leaders and fighters. The future gives little hope for peace as America begins implementing its drawdown of forces and spoiler groups adapt to the changing power-dynamics the withdrawal will bring about. 


Background. Somalia has come to define the failed state.  Supported financially as a battleground state during the Cold War, the end of that support and the patronage-based system of governance it fostered led to the fall of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.  What followed was a carving up of the country by clan warlords.  The ensuing violence, dispossession, and chaos led millions of Somalis to flee abroad.  Parts of the country, including Somaliland to the north and Puntland to the northeast, developed autonomous spheres of power and continue to maintain fighting forces, polities, and economic structures independent from the central state. In this context, a religious group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)—working in conjunction with a number of the country’s religious warlords—eventually came to dominate much of southern Somalia pushing the clan warlords to the periphery.  Eventually, with the help of Ethiopian troops who had previously supported various warlords as proxies, the transitional government ousted the Islamists.[xxii]  Two crucial aspects continue to dominate the evolution of conflict in Somalia.  First, the country’s four largest tribal groups comprise opposing spheres of influence that shape power relations on the ground.  Second, the international community—through the United Nations, African Union, and other regional bodies—has been central in the peacemaking and peacebuilding process through assistance to the Somali government.

Engagement Policies (ICU). The ICU was the most organized and effective opponent of the transitional national government (TNG) inaugurated in 2004.  The eventual defeat of the ICU and its withdrawal to Eretria forced the government to answer a crucial question: could the ICU or members of it be engaged in the peacebuilding process or were its goals incompatible with those of the fledgling state?  The TNG eventually adopted a policy of inducement to bring former fighters into the peacebuilding process.  This policy was complicated by the fact that in Eretria, the ICU—united with other exiles in the anti-government Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS)—faced the very same question of whether or not to engage with the TNG.  On this, the ARS fractured along moderate and hardline views.[xxiii]  Again, as the Secretary General’s report makes very clear, opponents and supporters within opposition groups are crucial to understand when forming polices of engagement.  The Somali TNG was thus able to gain allies as limited spoilers were accommodated in the state system while simultaneously facing more hardline factions outside the process.   This second group became more likely to engage the peace process as total spoilers. 

Ultimately, the messy nature of these engagement dilemmas culminated in a moderate member of the ICU, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, taking over a new government during a national reconciliation process.  Similar to Afghanistan, the Somali government attempted to align its own incentives with those of its opponents.  The simple fact was that at the margins of the state, the central government in Mogadishu controlled little if any territory.[xxiv]  As such, it had to exert its control through parties that were able to impose order where the government could not. The results of this engagement policy have, like those in Afghanistan, been mixed.  First, a host of non-state armed groups have flourished where the government has been weak or non-existent. Second, while creating a government that is broadly recognized internationally as the legitimate government of Somalia, this international legitimacy has not translated on the ground.  These two issues are directly related to a third: the rise of Al Shabab.

Engagement Policies (Al Shabab and other non-state armed groups). Those members of the ARS who sought to spoil the peace process from the outside coalesced into the fighting force now known as Al Shabab. Linked with Al Qaeda, Al Shabab remains committed to revolutionary warfare and government overthrow against its former allies in the ICU. In allying with the transnational Salafi movement, Al Shabab leaders have signaled their adherence to a political objective that makes engagement exceptionally difficult. This has only been made more so by the new leadership of Ahmed Abdi Godane, an extreme hardline figure.  Godane, in a signal of his intentions, is believed to be the mastermind of the Shabab attacks on a Nairobi mall in 2013.[xxv]  Nonetheless, the Somali government has sought to induce members of the movement into the peacebuilding process. Most notable of these was the integration of Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, one of the founding members of Al Shabab and a former warlord backed by Kenya, as the governor of the Juba region.[xxvi]  Here, the government has brought Madobe as well as the fighters he controls into the peacebuilding process in a region where he and his men can serve as a counterweight—representing the government—to Al Shabab. 

Engagement with other non-state armed groups has been less successful.  The Al Qaeda leadership has made clear that it sees Somalia as a strategic arena in which it will continue to put fighters and financing in opposition to the government.  In response the Somali government, acting with the United States, Kenya, and Ethiopia, has continued to focus most of their resources on implementing a coercive policy of fighting non-state armed groups as total spoilers and treating the issue as one of law enforcement.


So, is it possible to effectively engage warlords and other non-state armed groups in the process of peacebuilding?  In short, it depends.  No single set of policy prescriptions reigns as universally applicable; however, by viewing the theoretical frameworks outlined above through context of the Afghan and Somali case studies, some central themes can be drawn out.  These trends may help inform similar processes of spoiler engagement in other conflict and post-conflict societies.   

First, given the fact that governments and potential spoilers inhabit divergent spheres of power and legitimacy, mediation must focus on understanding the incentive structure facing each.  For the government, this decision to accommodate the needs of potential spoilers is a divisive one.  By integrating warlords and other sub-state armed groups into the formal state, the central governments in Afghanistan and Somalia have acknowledged their inability to exert their full control over the state—a crucial tactical error in the eyes of opponents to the policy.   But through extending their power via warlord-governors, Kabul and Mogadishu were able to align incentives for cooperation that, if absent, would have only increased the number of potential spoilers.  Increasing the number of actors with a direct interest in the stability of the state corresponds with the further marginalization of those forces seeking to spoil the process.  Integrating potential spoilers is a risky proposition as the divergence in results of governors Noor and Sherazi in Afghanistan can attest.  However, the fact that these actors are in the government’s camp allows Kabul a far greater degree of power over these actors than they otherwise would have.  The same can be said of Mogadishu’s engagement of former warlords and other leaders in Somalia.

Second, potential spoiler groups are not homogenous and are often prone to fracture.  This has both positive and negative implications for the peacebuilding process.  In the case of Somalia, the government’s decision to engage the exiled ICU led to that group’s fracture and, by extension, a decrease in its power base.  While weakening the group militarily, the policy also shed light on the opportunity for members disenchanted with life as exiled outlaws to enter the formal peacemaking process.  This in turn led to the further weakening of the ICU as a fighting force.  The benefits of this policy must however be weighed against the fact that what remains of the ICU, the al Shabab movement, is ever more implacably opposed to the government and its peacebuilding measures.  Similarly in Afghanistan, the inducement of former warlords in the peacebuilding process as legitimate actors in the Afghan state has led some to achieve ever-increasing positions of power.  At the same time, smaller factions left out of the spoils of peace have splintered off for better opportunities outside the state structure. While militarily weaker, these actors still pose a threat to the stability of the peacebuilding process.  Incentive structures must be in place to offer such groups a path to positive engagement in the process. 

Third, as government’s increasingly induce potential spoilers to join the peacebuilding process, total spoilers with aims diametrically opposed to those of the state will continue to entrench themselves outside the process.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Haqqini network have only hardened in opposition to the government and its new allies.  The goals expressed by these groups and the extent to which they will go to achieve them leaves little room for accommodation. Similarly, Al Shabab and Al Qaeda in Somalia remain outside the peacebuilding tent.  The continued presence of these groups is in part due to outside assistance from Pakistan in Afghanistan, and from a host of actors in Somalia.  It is also due to the maximalist goals such groups profess to follow.  It therefore may be most prudent for central governments to engage third-party state supporters of spoilers for the purposes of ending such support. There is no magic bullet for dealing these total spoilers.  However, by increasing its alliance structures with potential spoilers and third-party states, central governments in conflict will able to further push spoilers to the periphery of the state where they are perhaps easier to manage.        

Finally, in relation to dealing with potential spoilers one thing is clear: total coercive policies rarely work.  The success of the Sri Lankan government’s offensive against the Tamil Tigers was a rare success that came at immeasurable cost to the local civilian population.  The seeds of future conflict may have already been laid in the wreckage of the Tamil heartland.  In Afghanistan and Somalia, the capacity to implement such campaigns even when supported by the American military or international peace enforcement troops is implausible at best.  Mogadishu and Kabul provide representative examples of an array of states that are too weak to even maintain security in their capital cities much less in the far-flung provinces further afield.  With this in mind, such governments must look to other options for cementing their legitimacy and extending their power over the state.  This does not mean spoilers cannot be engaged militarily.  Indeed, the use of carefully focused military action can push armed groups further to the margins where they are less able to derail the peacebuilding process.  This military action must be undertaken in conjunction with polices aimed at inducing potential spoilers to become participants in the peacebuilding process rather than foes of it.  Only then can prospects for effective and lasting peacebuilding measures truly take hold.

End Notes

[i] Stephen Steadman. “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes.” International Security. Fall 1997. Pg 5.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Marie-Joelle Zahar. “SRSG Mediation in Civil Wars: Revisiting the “Spoiler” Debate.” Journal on Global Governance. 2010.

[iv] Ken Menkhaus. “Governing without Government in Somalia.” International Security. 2006. Pgs. 75-6.

[v] Dipali Mukopahdyay. “Disguised warlordism and combatanthood in Balkh: the persistence of informal power in the formal Afghan state.” Journal of Conflict, Security, and Development. December 2009. 

[vi] James Cockayne. “Crime, Corruption, and Violent Economies.” In Berdal, Mats, and Achim Wennmann. Ending wars, consolidating peace: economic perspectives (Routledge, 2012). Pgs. 192-6.

[vii]H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (translated and edited), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 77­ 128, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

[viii] Ariel Ahram and Charles King. “The warlord as arbitrageur.” 2001. Pgs. 3-5.

[ix] Heiko Nitzschke and Kaysie Studdard.  “The legacies of war economies: challenges and options for peacemaking and peacebuilding.” Journal of International Peacekeeping. 2006. Pg. 224.

[x] Stephen Steadman. “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes.” International Security. Fall 1997.  Pg. 17.

[xi] UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on Enhancing Mediation.” August 2009. p. 11.

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] “Pakistani Taliban Gather to Select Successor Killed in US Drone Strike.” The New York Times. November 2nd, 2013.

[xiv] Emily Wax. “Tamil Tiger Rebels Admit Defeat in Sri Lanka, Vow to Silence Guns.” The Washington Post. May 2009.

[xv] John Hulsman. “In praise of warlords.” The National Interest. March 2006.

[xvi] “Politcs in Afghanistan: Attaboy.” The Economist. April 6th, 2013.

[xvii] Report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. “Afghanistan: Opium Poppy Free Roadmap and Provincial Profiles.” 2008.   

[xviii] Fabrizio Foschini and Obaid Ali. “A New Round of Anti-Sherzai Protests in Nangarhar.” The Afghan Analysts Network. April 2013.

[xix] Dipali Mukhopadhyay.  “Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan.”  Adapted from the pre-publication lecture by the author at Columbia University. November 2013.  

[xx] “Afghans in Pakistan for Taliban Peace Talks.” Al Jazeera. November 2013.     

[xxi] “How Taliban Talks Have Become Deadlocked in Doha.” BBC News. July 12th, 2013.

[xxii] “Somalia Profile: A Chronology of Key Events.” BBC News. September, 2013.

[xxiii] Report by the African Union Mission in Somalia. “The Somali Peace Process.” 2013.

[xxiv]  Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy. “Endless war: A brief history of the Somali conflict.” Accord. 2010.

[xxv] Colin Freeman. “Ahmed Abdi Godane: The new ‘mad mullah’ bent on jihad.” The Telegraph. September, 2013.    

[xxvi]  Nyambega Gisea. “The smiling warlord who controls Ras Kombani.” The Daily Nation. June 2012.


About the Author(s)

Andrew Watkins lived and worked as a journalist and writing lecturer throughout the Middle East and North Africa over the past five years.  His previous research includes an in-depth analysis of border region between Israel and the West Bank which won High Academic Honors from the University of Washington in Seattle.  Currently, he is a Masters Candidate in International Security Policy at Columbia University in New York City.