When Governments and Rebels Collude

We welcome this guest post from University of Chicago political scientist Paul Staniland.  (Paul’s previous contributions to The Monkey Cage are here.)


The New York Times has a fascinating piece on cooperation between politicians and Maoist insurgents in India. It concludes:

The politicians know how to use the Maoists in their areas of influence to their advantage. The Maoists may not believe in democracy, but they know that it is important to keep ties with politicians for short- and long-term gains. In public, both ridicule each other. But sadly, in this nexus, it is the innocent people who ultimately drown in the cesspool this nexus creates.

These forms of collusion are not uncommon. States cut deals with insurgents, politicians militarize elections by sponsoring militias and hit squads, and governments delegate authority to local actors in a modern form of indirect rule. Cooperative wartime political orders are common in civil wars: rather than a strict dichotomy between states and insurgents, there is often a messy in-between of tacit coexistence, shared sovereignty, and spheres of influence. Governments’ militarization of elections can lead to outcomes ranging from the co-optation of non-state armed groups into the ruling party to the unintended rise of anti-regime insurgencies (I have a working paper here that explores how electoral militarization plays out).

What can we learn from these politics? First, many states put up a Weberian “window dressing” that hides a grim world of coercion, corruption, and politicized neglect. Rather than a rational-legal bureaucracy providing services and representing public interests, private power is often built into state policy. Governments carefully try to manage and manipulate non-state violence, differentially enforcing laws to privilege supporters, throwing their weight behind armed allies, and only monopolizing coercion when it serves their political interests. In rural India, for instance, violence, the police, and politicians can be conjoined. Citizens can get frozen out of political influence as different kinds of armed actors dominate politics.

Second, democracy and violence are far from antithetical; instead, they can feed on one another. The Maoists exploit the needs of politicians for resources, protection, and votes, while politicians take advantage of the Maoists’ desire for money and a shield from state repression. In Karachi, mainstream political parties have armed wings; in the Philippines, local strongmen with private coercive capacity are integral to building and holding political power. As an Afghan official says of the armed group/political party Hezb-e Islami, “They can work in the government, and they can fight against the government.” This isn’t just the domain of weak states in the developing world – Chicago’s politics in the first half of the twentieth century involved links between ruling parties, criminals, and non-state armed groups (and allegedly still do).

These claims have important policy implications. State building was all the rage in the aftermath of 9/11, but it advantages some and disadvantages others, rather than necessarily creating a neutral, rationalized state. This helps to explain why the international efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan foundered in brutal violence, including party-backed militias, politicized security apparatuses, links between armed groups and the representatives of state power, and resistance by ruling regimes to the technocratic good governance initiatives of their foreign backers.

A push for elections may simply shift the nature of violence into a murky realm that, in Will Reno’s words, does “not fit easily into a simple schema of state collapse and ungoverned spaces.” Of course, in some cases reforms and international initiatives work as planned – but the consequences of state building and liberalization gone awry can be bloody and destabilizing. Even in a world where elections have become an international priority, politics on the ground can lead to enduring forms of order that have little resemblance to conventional wisdoms about how states and democracies are supposed to work.

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