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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

We’ve previously discussed how a government’s control over territory is not a given; states have to spend great effort to project power and build institutions of rule. Frequently, a state’s rule is not absolute; far from the core of its power, state control diminishes even in areas that are nominally under its rule. In border areas, the reality of daily life might involve balancing off the claims of two states, neither of which can fully enforce its authority.

That does not necessarily mean that no one rules. Politics abhors a vacuum. Often, the true authority in a contested or peripheral area might be a criminal boss, or a local bandit, or warlord. Crime bosses and bandits are common fare in fiction, of course. Less frequently discussed, but potentially more interesting, is the warlord.

What do I mean by “warlord”? Let me answer with an example:

During the continuing civil wars in the Congo, the Kivu region of the country was wracked by violence and a severe breakdown in civil control. Instead, political power often devolved to the closest military force, whether government, rebel, or local militia. A typical brigade commander in FARDC, the Congolese military, had the benefit of military rank, which entitled him to a salary, logistical support from the capital Kinshasa, and formal legitimacy; but he would also have informal status in the local power relationships of his area, having de facto control over the local bureaucracy, extracting extra taxes from the hapless civilians, and using military force to control rich resources like bauxite mines or logging operations.

His loyalty would be very much for sale, notwithstanding being an officer for the government; he often collaborates with local criminal networks or directs them himself, using his troops and their logistical abilities to solve problems for the criminals. He will often play both sides in the civil wars, throwing in with one or another of the feuding insurgent groups, often with the full knowledge of Kinshasa. However, the central government puts up with the commander’s unreliability, because even when he is enriching himself and building his own independent power base, his troops still keep the local violence tamped down—and the government lacks the power to replace him or his men with someone more loyal. The status quo is bad, but it would be far worse if the commander were to openly break with Kinshasa and become a direct threat.

What distinguishes the warlord is a combination of three things. The first two are capacity for violence, and the claim to politically represent some constituency. A mafia boss uses coercion, but generally for economic goals; corrupt politicians may seek power and status, but generally within the existing formal framework of their state. But if we look at our Congolese example, we see a third element as well: nominal submission to a distant authority along with practical local autonomy. Warlords exploit gaps in official control to gain power and status, and then use that status strategically to cement their power.

I’m using the term “warlord” in a particular way here, following after Ahram/King 2012. They define a warlord as someone who stands at the intersection of legal and illegal, or of two state or cultural regimes. From this position, they can arbitrage between the advantages of each side, in a way that someone fully committed to one side cannot. 

They cite as an example the Shan warlord Khun Sa, who began as a militia leader for the Kuomintang on the border between Burma and Thailand in the 1950s, but later broke free from them as his forces grew in power. He branched out into opium production, and secured semi-official status from the local government by fighting his fellow Shan rebels.

Khun Sa repeatedly switched sides over the next decades, sometimes calling himself a Shan nationalist, sometimes working with the Burmese government against local competitors; and he often sought Thai patronage as well (and gave hefty bribes to Thai politicians), as the political winds shifted and his opium operation grew. (At his height, Khun Sa controlled some 70% of the heroin production in Burma, with an army of over 20,000 armed men.) In addition, the Thai government tolerated Khun Sa because his forces controlled over a hundred miles of the volatile border region, and served as a buffer against revolutionary forces operating from Laos and Burma. In 1987, when the Burmese were taking American money for “anti-drug” efforts against Khun Sa, the warlord was actually cooperating with both Burma and Thailand to build a major highway through his territory. Later in life, he “surrendered” to the Burmese and disbanded his army, and in exchange was allowed to transform his wealth into legitimate businesses such as real estate and ruby mining.

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The concept of a warlord can be incredibly fruitful in fiction. A warlord character can play the role of ambiguous obstacle and sometime ally of your heroes; often such characters become fan favorites. More generally, the warlord is the natural consequence of settings where government control is tenuous; the presence of a warlord highlights the limits of official control. Questions to ask: What specific, local advantage does the warlord have over the government, and over rival warlords? What resources does the warlord control, and what relationships protect those resources? What would induce the warlord to change sides?