Warlords In Afghanistan: Inverse Authority Of Power In A Fragile Nation

In this article The Golden Investor argues that warlords, despite their infamous name, are the best providers of certainty in fragile countries like Afghanistan during shifts of the common authority in the nation.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union the Afghan empire entered a new stage of uncertainty, the gap left behind led to a struggle for power. Different regions were subject to the authority of strongmen who sought to profit from the weakened stability of the state. This led to the fractionalization of the Afghan landscape, where several entities started to exert their dominance in certain regions as governmental control diminished. However, the primary battleground was centered in and around Kabul, as control over the capital city meant attaining symbolic authority and the legitimacy needed to accrue financial rewards (Dorronsoro, 2007). The Golden Investor will show in this article how warlords operate and why they are so successful in the fractured nation of Afghanistan.

The rise of warlords is a symptom of relatively lower institutional power. Warlords are often location rigid and therefore are the first in line when overall state governance breaks down. Their ability to provide and protect people is an essential part of their recurring resurgence over the past decades (Malejacq, 2019). Warlords act like chameleons under different regimes, their ability to capitalize on power changes is a vital part of their existence. These are the most basic reasons why warlords attain and hold local support over several periods of time. The longer this continuity lasts, the stronger their following and unconditional support when the common authority fails to keep control.

The lack of a strongman around the neighborhood of Kandahar gave the opportunity to the Taliban to prosper on the ongoing uncertainty and instability in the region. Their ideologic mantra helped their initial surge in Kandahar, however, over the course of the years the further surge towards the North of Afghanistan was largely attributable to their strong military force, with strong horizontal network of common schooling and military experience (Farrell, 2018).  Taliban fighters outperformed warlords in the strategic game of war-making with the financial and logistic support coming out of Pakistan. This eventually led to the fall of Kabul, where Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, had to flee to the capital. This surge of the Taliban could be defined as a fight towards legitimacy as common authority. Relatively successful warlords like Dostum and Massoud proved yet again their skills to surge and retreat at the right moment. Again, they rose back to power when their regions lacked leadership, but were competent enough to accept their defeat in time and hand over their control to the new unrecognized authority, the Taliban.

However, after the 9/11-attacks the warlords got an essential role in the Taliban sweep in 2001. Facilitated with financial and military support by the United States warlords like Dostum, Ismail Khan and Fahim thought to regain their territory. With the help of the strong superpower the warlords got control of the provinces, again providing security after the new power vacuum that was a result of the Taliban sweep. Warlords often abuse their power with predatory extraction, which works contra productive to the state-building process (Maley, 2002). Therefore, the warlords were quickly side-tracked by the United States in an effort to reinstate a centralized government. However, this ongoing rise-and-fall dynamics should not be seen as a weakness, rather as a characteristic of successful warlords.

Eventually, former warlords found a way to maneuver themselves in the new government, which resulted in a government with a large variety of actors, including former Taliban and warlords. Even though it was debated whether these actors wouldn’t undermine the function of the state, warlords had again found a way to fuel their ability to exert power. The high level of diversity in the government resulted in increasing suspicion when individuals within the government misused their function. The growing amount of corruption led to disappointment in a large part of the population (van Bijlert, 2009). More and more people did not feel represented by the central government anymore, which indirectly led to the increased insurgency of the Taliban. And yet again the warlords proved to hold a pivotal role in the smooth transition of authority back towards the Taliban.

The undermining role of warlords within the parliamentarian structure was one of the reasons for the failure of the created government. Warlords should be seen as human representations of a set of institutions. The low interconnection between different actors in the parliament, all with their own set of beliefs and interests was doomed to fail. However, this does not mean that warlords never function well. Their strength to assert power in an inverse conjunctural wave to common authorities (see Figure 1). In a country like Afghanistan where the strongest common authority changes entity over time, warlords function as a security net when the country lacks common governance by a common authority.

Figure 1 – Warlord control works inversely to common authority

Allowing warlords into the parliament caused the inverse waves of control to merge into one wave with great peaks and deep drops leading to more instability over time. This is exactly what happened in the post-2010 era where only after ten years of conflict there seem to be the first efforts towards creating one common authority.

To conclude, warlords do not always function as destructive monsters, their role as a security net in changes of power is a very vital one for a fragile country like Afghanistan. However, the international community is right when they assess that warlords benefit greatly from these changes in power as it reinstates their significance and legitimacy. The United States was right to side-track the warlords in their effort to create a strong government, but their inability to keep these strongmen out of parliamentary positions greatly overturned their progressive and ambitious plan.


Dorronsoro, G. (2007). Kabul at War (1992-1996) : State, Ethnicity and Social Classes. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.

Farrell, T. (2018). Unbeatable: Social Resources, Military Adaptation, and the Afghan Taliban. Texas National Security Review, 1(3), 58–75.

Malejacq, R. (2019). Warlord Survival : The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan. Cornell University Press.

Maley, W. (2002). The Afghanistan Wars.

van Bijlert, M. (2009). Doing Good or Doing Better : Development Policies in a Globalising World. Doing Good or Doing Better : Development Policies in a Globalising World, 157–173.

Leave a Reply