Why jihadist insurgencies persist

Even the best efforts to build peace
sometimes end up financing chaos. As Aisha Ahmad explains, it comes down to a
complex web of resources, uneasy alliances and ongoing corruption. So what can
be done?

By: /
23 May, 2018
Ammunition is seen during the regional anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane in Inaloglog, Mali, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Aisha Ahmad
By: Aisha Ahmad
Assistant professor, Political Science, University of Toronto

As Canadian forces prepare to join the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Mali, many questions have emerged about the goals of this dangerous new mission.

In addition to supporting an ineffective peace agreement between the government and two rebel coalitions, the sharp end of the mission also involves cooperating with other military players to fight against jihadist insurgents in the restive northern regions. After five years of international military pressure, however, Malian jihadists have held on strong, developed a powerful hidden presence, and even increased their territorial holdings.

Canadians have already experienced similar frustrations firsthand in Afghanistan. Canada deployed over 40,000 troops and invested $18 billion in its 12-year Afghan mission. Yet today, the Taliban continues to maintain a significant shadow presence across the countryside, and an increasingly radical jihadist insurgency in Afghanistan continues to undermine the prospect of peace.

One of the most alarming traits of modern jihadist insurgencies is their ability to survive and endure, even in the face of intense external military pressure. The fact is, we can push jihadists out of territory, but we cannot make them disappear. Rather, these groups evolve and mutate below the radar, waiting patiently for the next opportunity to reassert power and seize control once more. When they do re-emerge, they also have a surprising ability to regain support from some communities.

What explains these jihadists’ uncanny ability to win back power — and even popular support?

The answer to this puzzle has remarkably little to do with jihadist ideology or identity politics. Rather, there is a clear economic logic behind these patterns of jihadist resurgence. Following the money at ground level reveals that the jihadists are not actually winning the ideological battle; they are simply capitalizing on the fact that the local allies we partner with are often losers.

The fact is, international interventions flood conflict zones with foreign resources, which create a series of perverse incentives. These incentives change the cost calculations and the behaviour of local armed groups, especially the international community’s local allies. Too often, foreign dollars socialize and incentivize these local allies to behave poorly — and indeed, even sabotage mission success. As a result, the international community has repeatedly found itself working with poorly behaved local partners who have a stake in continued instability, while jihadists use this embarrassing fact to present themselves as the better and more stable political alternative.

The intervention-resource curse

Why do international dollars have these negative effects? Research shows that easy money can have a highly toxic effect in civil wars; diamond mines, oil fields and foreign aid can all have adverse economic effects in conflict zones. And international interventions are the embodiment of easy money, as billions of dollars in foreign assets are pumped into impoverished war-torn nations. When massive international assets are brought into a conflict zone overnight, they can act like a lootable resource. But unlike a natural resource that armed groups would have to steal, in an intervention, these militias are often handed a portion of foreign resources willingly, in exchange for their alliance.

When these foreign dollars and weapons flood a conflict theatre, rival armed groups redirect their attention towards these assets, with the goal of coopting a larger share of the loot. Most importantly, it is not our jihadist opponents that are gouging the lion’s share of these resources; it is our own local allies that are feasting on the spoils of intervention. Armed groups that are “on side” are best positioned to profit from an intervention, and they compete over foreign resources as they would over a diamond mine. Tellingly, scholarly literature on the “resource curse” suggests that access to lootable resources might incentivize an armed group to fight longer and abuse its population more recklessly.

What most policymakers have failed to consider is that unintended consequences of interventions create opportunities for jihadists to compete well, and even return to power.

Unlike a diamond mine, however, intervention resources are not bound to any specific territory; they can be renegotiated and redistributed. If an armed group feels excluded, it can decide to break away from its existing coalition, form new splinter groups, and threaten violence in exchange for a bigger slice of the pie. If it succeeds in winning a larger share, another group may feel slighted, and repeat the same pattern. As each group imagines it is being marginalized, the number of spoilers increases, and the international community finds itself in a never-ending cycle of fragmentation and rebalancing local power arrangements.

International interventions therefore inadvertently create two perverse incentives for local armed groups: to loot and to split. Research already shows that these two factors make wars longer and bloodier, but the story does not end there. What most policymakers have failed to consider is that both of these unintended consequences of interventions also create opportunities for jihadists to compete well, and even return to power.

Easy Money, Nasty War: Learning from the Afghan case

First of all, easy money encourages bad behaviour, and militias are typically prone to bad behaviour. Indeed, the scholarly literature shows that when an armed group has access to an external source of revenue, it no longer relies on its population for support and can therefore be more undisciplined in its violence. When the international community allies with local armed groups, supplying them with cash and weapons with few strings attached, this opens the door to new levels of violence. In these cases, armed groups don’t even have to loot; they are being handed these foreign assets willingly.

Canada and its NATO partners saw these patterns play out in the Afghan theatre. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the US teamed up with the warlords of the then-Northern Alliance, providing them with sacks of cash and crates of guns to fight the Taliban. The Taliban quickly (and intentionally) dissolved into an insurgency, and these warlords then formed the Afghan government under newcomer and then-President Hamid Karzai, who was supposed to serve as a neutral symbol. Yet Karzai quickly developed a new base of personal power, and the old strongmen carved up the country and assumed comfortable positions of leadership in Kabul.

Being aware of their unsavoury past, US commanders on the ground tried to rein in the excesses of the warlords, hoping to keep their local allies in check. But the intervention was a bonanza, and most of these local allies barely maintained a semblance of dignified restraint in the face of easy international money. Karzai received sacks of cash to purchase the loyalties of these strongmen. Not only did foreign resources go directly into the pockets of warlords, but their official government positions also provided them with cover as they engaged in profitable illicit activities. Even Karzai’s late brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, was alleged to be one of the country’s biggest narcotics dealers, who ran Kandahar like his own private fiefdom, while Canadian forces were struggling to stabilize the province from Taliban insurgency.

Canadian soldiers wait in a wheat field for a helicopter to supply water and food during a special operation at Sanjaray in Kandahar Province, May 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

The easy money did not, however, mollify these local Afghan allies, reduce their extortion or foster political stability. Quite to the contrary, the competition between these allied actors resulted in grisly violence and corruption. Indeed, Afghanistan’s current vice president, general Abdul Rashid Dostum, and his men stand accused of raping and torturing a political rival, Ahmad Ischi. While current President Ashraf Ghani managed to pressure Dostum into exile in Turkey (though he retains his post and his power base), the president consistently faces political standoffs with unruly warlord governors who continue to battle for a larger share of power and wealth.

There is a direct correlation between these shocking forms of government corruption and abuse and support for the Taliban insurgency. Survey research by Integrity Watch Afghanistan in 2016 revealed that 51 percent of the Afghan population believe that corruption drives support for the Taliban. Evidence from the field suggests that it is not the Taliban’s ideological appeal that explains this potential shift in support, but rather the appalling failures of the local actors the international community has allied with.

On the ground, these statistics are manifest in the heartbreaking stories of individuals who are fed up with these violent excesses, corruption scandals and personal abuses. One member of the Canadian Armed Forces, who spoke confidentially, recounted their experience vividly: “I spent a year in Afghanistan as part of the Kandahar provincial reconstruction team… I remember speaking with one Afghan man who used to sell melons in a local market in Panjwai. The Afghan National Police at the multiple checkpoints would take his melons on the way there, and his money on the way home. He would often return home with nothing at all. He now grows opium for the Taliban.”

This story is not unique to the Afghan case. As Canadian peacekeepers head to Mali, they will encounter equally problematic allies. Currently, the international community is working with and supporting an array of armed groups, some of which have ethnic ambitions, and others that are closely affiliated with cocaine-trafficking mafias. In contrast, in their base in the northern Kidal region, the jihadists have managed to generate local support by providing some basic services while keeping taxes low. In places around the world such as Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq and Somalia, jihadists capitalize on the embarrassing failures of their rivals in order to present themselves as a better alternative.

Divided and Conquered: Looking ahead to Mali

Second, international interventions can, without the least intending it, cause armed groups to split into multiple factions, thus making political resolution increasingly difficult. Because intervention resources shape the local balance of power in a conflict zone, these foreign assets are a source of competition among rival armed groups. In such a competition, there are inevitably some groups that feel they are not receiving their fair share of the loot. These armed groups are incentivized to exit and spoil the existing political agreement, and try to force a new negotiated settlement that gives them a better deal.

The Malian case illustrates this pattern vividly, in a bewildering tale of rebel fragmentation, betrayal and spoiler behaviour. In 2012, a coalition of jihadists and ethnic rebels seized control of the three northern regions of Mali, and later tried to take over the entire state. Alarmed by the prospect of a jihadist takeover of Mali, the international community reacted quickly in early 2013, and the rebellion was beaten back by a robust French-led military intervention.

Faced with defeat, the ethnic insurgents separated from the jihadists, and forged their own alliances. These militia groups divided and evolved into three key coalitions in 2014: the “pro-government” Platform, the “pro-separatist” Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), and jihadist factions that were excluded from the peace talks. In 2015, both the Platform and CMA coalitions signed a peace accord, promising to work alongside the government and the international community in exchange for support and material. The jihadists fought on, rejecting the legitimacy of the Malian government, the international forces, and the Platform and CMA armed groups.

Yet, the jihadist insurgency has stayed relatively cohesive, whereas the Platform and CMA militias have been subject to extreme levels of fragmentation. Despite the accord, both Platform and CMA affiliated factions have regularly clashed in communitarian violence, splintered into new factions, and switched sides in a baffling display of unexpected team-ups and double-crosses. As these groups split or change loyalties, their primary motivation is to reposition their communities in the peace negotiations, and then demand a larger share of resources from the state and international community. Indeed, Platform and CMA factions have even allied with their sworn enemies and against their own larger kin groups, in order to rebalance local power distributions in their immediate communities.

Meanwhile, the jihadists that were excluded from the peace process systematically worked to unify their ranks across ethnic, tribal and communitarian divisions, and create a cross-cutting framework for political order and governance. In March 2017, the leaders of Mali’s Islamist factions announced their mergers into their new Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which created a unified federation of Islamist groups from across different ethnic and tribal backgrounds. JNIM, which has declared fealty to al-Qaeda, established a shadow presence across northern and central Mali, and holds territory in the northern province of Kidal.

The more the armed groups splinter, the greater the number of turfs there are in the countryside, and the more expensive and dangerous it is to move across these factional lines.

Over the past five years, there has been a considerable coordinated effort aimed at undermining these jihadists in Mali, through the French-led Operation Barkhane, the G5 Sahel joint counterterrorism force, and local Malian security forces. Yet while Platform and CMA continue to splinter, JNIM is the one coalition in Mali that is becoming increasingly unified and coherent.

The hyper-fragmentation of Platform and CMA coalitions is an expensive and frustrating problem for ordinary people in Mali, especially for members of the business class who seek to sell goods across the territory controlled by rival groups. The more the armed groups splinter, the greater the number of turfs there are in the countryside, and the more expensive and dangerous it is to move across these factional lines. As Platform and CMA continue in-fighting along ethnic, tribal and communitarian lines, they are making life impossibly expensive and unmanageable for Malians who are trying to earn a living amid the anarchy. In contrast, JNIM draw support across these local divisions by tapping into their broader Islamist identity, making it cheaper and easier for the traders, transporters and tea sellers in the market. The more Platform and CMA coalitions fight and split, the better and more cost-effective an alternative JNIM appears to be.

With friends like these

From Afghanistan to Mali to Iraq, the international community has repeatedly found itself allied with undisciplined and dangerous actors that are incentivized to maintain instability.

Because of the unintended and paradoxical effects of intervention, our local partners often have the most to lose from an end to the conflict. Without realizing it, the international community has created perverse incentives that encourage our local partners to keep foreign forces engaged, while simultaneously sabotaging mission success. We have made it more valuable to have a never-ending peace process, rather than an enduring peace.

Carelessly teaming up with badly behaved armed groups therefore has devastating consequences for long-term mission success. So, what can be done when our local allies are the enemies of peace?

In some cases, the deed is already done. In Afghanistan and Mali, the international community has already teamed up with a number of local partners that have proven to be problematic. Reversing these decisions is not easy, especially when doing so may create dangerous power vacuums in already fragile countries. If Pandora’s Box has already been opened, the international community should focus on damage control. Specifically, lead countries in these interventions should pay close attention to the behaviour of their local allies, by carefully using both carrots and sticks. Coercive diplomatic tools, including the threat of exclusion and even targeted sanctions, may help rein in the excesses of local allied militias, and thus avoid scandalous incidents that undermine long-term mission success.

Frankly, our local partners should be afraid to rape or torture their rivals, or engage in ethnic clashes to gain control over illicit cocaine trafficking routes. Interventions too often reserve coercive tools for jihadists, while giving a free pass to allied rebel groups. If lead countries were to exercise a firmer hand with their own allies, this might improve behaviour of local partners and thus limit the opportunities that jihadists have to capitalize on local grievances.

Moreover, because these interventions have such a dramatic effect on war economies, it is essential that the international community invest carefully in complementary development projects that promote licit and sustainable economic growth. Research shows that aid dumping contributes to toxic patterns of dependency and prolongs civil wars. In contrast, in conflict zones, the private sector can and does play a powerful role in providing goods and services, and even public order. Human beings in the most desperate situations find ways to truck, barter and trade. The bazaar is therefore a place of untapped opportunity, and even hope for these troubled places. Building on this hope, lead countries should expand investment opportunities in the private sector. Supporting small business and industry not only empowers local communities, but also creates healthy incentives for these populations to work towards cohesion and cooperation, and away from fragmentation and instability.

Finally, looking to the future, the best way to mitigate these toxic processes is to prevent them at the outset. Specifically, it is crucial for governments and militaries to more carefully evaluate local partners, analyze their rivalries, and strategize opportunities for reconciling these actors. These necessary and critical steps need to occur at the mission design stage, before irreversible mistakes are made. Indeed, having a bad ally can undermine mission success just as much as having a bad enemy. Prudence and caution in selecting allies at the design stage will go a long way in ensuring that these interventions are not destined to fail.

As our country reflects on the lessons of the Afghanistan mission, and prepares for its foray into Mali, these insights should help guide policymakers shaping Canada’s approach to current and future complex wars. It is no secret that modern peacekeeping is a bloody game; yet, this does not mean that Canadians should abandon their commitment to global peace and security. Courage is needed to resolve these crises. But if we are to go “once more unto the breach, dear friends,” then we may need to choose better friends.

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