Skip to main content

On the Rights of Warlords: Legitimate Authority and Basic Protection in War-Torn Societies


This article examines the legitimacy of the use of force by armed nonstate actors resisting the imposition of state rule over territories they control. We focus on the rights of warlords: subnational strongmen who seek autonomy within geographically demarcated territories, but not secession or control of the state itself. We argue that behind the resistance to state-building lies a twofold question of legitimate authority: the authority of states to consolidate power within their own internationally recognized borders and the authority of warlords to resist that expansion, by force if necessary, when it threatens social order and the protection of basic rights. This article draws on just war theory to develop a set of conditions under which such resistance may be justified, explores the argument's practical implications for state-building under the tutelage of third parties (e.g., the United Nations), and demonstrates its empirical relevance through an application to Afghanistan.

Corresponding author
Robert A. Blair is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs, Brown University (
Pablo Kalmanovitz is Associate Professor of Political Science, Universidad de los Andes (
Hide All

Thanks to José Hernán Aguilar, Nehal Bhuta, Shawn Fraistat, Claudio López-Guerra, Catherine Lu, Frédéric Mégret, Carlo Nasi, Kevin Russell, Daniel Viehoff; participants in the 2014 Global Justice after Colonialism conference at McGill University; audiences at the Centro de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo Económico (CIDE) in Mexico, the European University Institute in Florence, and the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá; and to the four anonymous reviewers for APSR. Special thanks to Tatiana Neumann for her help and support throughout. Authors are listed alphabetically. Both contributed equally.

Hide All
Ahram, Ariel I., and King, Charles. 2012. “The Warlord as Arbitrageur.” Theory and Society 41 (2): 169–86.
Alston, Philip. 2001. Peoples’ Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Anaya, James. 2004. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Arjona, Ana. 2014. “Wartime Institutions: A Research Agenda.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58 (8): 1360–89.
Autesserre, Séverine. 2010. The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Barfield, Thomas. 2010. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Barfield, Thomas. 2011. “Afghanistan's Ethnic Puzzle.” Foreign Affairs. (Accessed December 6, 2011).
Barnes, Jonathan. 1982. “The Just War.” In The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, eds. Kretzmann, Norman, Kenny, Anthony, and Pinborg, Jan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 771–84.
Bhuta, Nehal. 2010. “New Modes and Orders: The Difficulties of a Jus Post Bellum of Constitutional Transformation.” University of Toronto Law Journal 60 (3): 799854.
Biddle, Stephen. 2011. “Running out of Time for Afghan Governance Reform.” Foreign Affairs. (Accessed December 19, 2011).
Bowles, Edith, and Chopra, Tanja. 2008. “East Timor: Statebuilding Revisited.” In Building States to Build Peace, eds. Call, Charles T. and Wyeth, Vanessa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 271302.
Boyle, Joseph. 2006. “Traditional Just War Theory and Humanitarian Intervention.” In Humanitarian Intervention, eds. Nardin, Terry and Williams, Melissa S.. New York: New York University Press.
Brown, M. Anne, and Gusmao, Alex Freitas. 2009. “Peacebuilding and Political Hybridity in East Timor.” Peace Review 21 (1): 6169.
Buchanan, Allen. 2004. Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Hug, Simon, Schädel, Andreas, and Wucherpfennig, Julian. 2015. “Territorial Autonomy in the Shadow of Conflict: Too Little, too Late?American Political Science Review 109 (02): 354–70.
Coates, A. J. 1997. The Ethics of War. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Cramer, Christopher, and Goodhand, Jonathan. 2002. “Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better? War, the State, and the ‘Post–Conflict’ Challenge in Afghanistan.” Development and Change 33 (5): 885909.
Deng, Francis Mading et al., eds. 1996. Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Doyle, Michael W., and Sambanis, Nicholas. 2006. Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Duffield, Mark. 1997. Post-Modern Conflict, Aid Policy and Humanitarian Conditionality. Birmingham, England: University of Birmingham.
Duffield, Mark. 1998. “Post‐Modern Conflict: Warlords, Post‐Adjustment States and Private Protection.” Civil Wars 1 (1): 65102.
Duncan, Gustavo. 2006. Los Señores de la Guerra: De Paramilitares, Mafiosos y Autodefensas en Colombia. Bogotá: Planeta.
Fabre, Cécile. 2012. Cosmopolitan War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Finlay, Christopher J. 2010. “Legitimacy and Non-State Political Violence.” Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (3): 287312.
Finlay, Christopher J. 2015. Terrorism and the Right to Resist: A Theory of Just Revolutionary War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fleck, Dieter. 2008. “The Law of Non-International Armed Conflicts.” In The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law, ed. Fleck, Dieter. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2004. “The Imperative of State-Building.” Journal of Democracy 15 (2): 1731.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2005. “‘Stateness’ First.” Journal of Democracy 16 (1): 8488.
Geuss, Raymond. 2001. History and Illusion in Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Giustozzi, Antonio. 2003. “Respectable Warlords? The Politics of State-Building in Post-Taleban Afghanistan.” Monograph. (Accessed April 26, 2011).
Giustozzi, Antonio. 2009. Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gross, Michael. 2015. The Ethics of Insurgency: A Critical Guide to Just Guerrilla Warfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grotius, Hugo. 1925. The Rights of War and Peace. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hansen, Thomas Blom, and Stepputat, Finn. 2001. “Introduction: States of Imagination.” In States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State, eds. Hansen, Thomas Blom and Stepputat, Finn. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 138.
Hellweg, Joseph. 2011. Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Cote d'Ivoire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Helsinki Watch and Asia Watch. 1988. Violations of the Laws of War in Afghanistan. New York and Washington, DC: Helsinki Watch and Asia Watch.
Human Rights Watch. 2002a. “All Our Hopes Are Crushed”: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch. 2002b. “We Want to Live as Humans”: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch. 2003. “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us”: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch. 2015. “Today We Shall All Die”: Afghanistan's Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity. New York: Human Rights Watch.
ICISS. 2001. The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.
Jackson, Paul. 2003. “Warlords as Alternative Forms of Governance.” Small Wars & Insurgencies 14 (2): 131–50.
Johnson, Thomas H. 2004. “Ismail Khan, Herat, and Iranian Influence.” Strategic Insights 3 (7). (Accessed August 10, 2015).
Kalmanovitz, Pablo. 2015. “Aggression and the Symmetrical Application of International Humanitarian Law.” International Theory 7 (1): 132.
Keen, Maurice. 1965. The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages. London: Routledge.
Luck, Edward C. 2010. “The Responsibility to Protect: Growing Pains or Early Promise?Ethics & International Affairs 24 (4): 349–65.
Mampilly, Zachariah Cherian. 2011. Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Marten, Kimberly. 2007. “Warlordism in Comparative Perspective.” International Security 31 (3): 4173.
Marten, Kimberly. 2012. Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Martin, Philip. 2013. “Coming Together: Power-Sharing and the Durability of Negotiated Peace Settlements.” Civil Wars 15 (3): 332–58.
Menkhaus, Ken. 2007. “Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoilers, State Building, and the Politics of Coping.” International Security 31 (3): 74106.
Miller, David. 2012. “Territorial Rights: Concept and Justification.” Political Studies 60 (2): 252–68.
Miller, Richard W. 2011. “The Ethics of America's Afghan War.” Ethics & International Affairs 25: 103–31.
Moore, Margaret. 2015. A Political Theory of Territory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mukhopadhyay, Dipali. 2009. Warlords as Bureaucrats: The Afghan Experience. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mukhopadhyay, Dipali. 2014. Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nardin, Terry. 1983. Law, Morality, and the Relations of States. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Neff, Stephen. 2005. War and the Law of Nations: A General History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nine, Cara. 2012. Global Justice and Territory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Okowa, Phoebe. 2013. “Sovereignty Contests and the Protection of Natural Resources in Conflict Zones.” Current Legal Problems 66 (1): 3373.
Olson, Mancur. 1993. “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development.” American Political Science Review 87 (3): 567–76.
Orford, Anne. 2011. International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Osiander, Andreas. 2001. “Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth.” International Organization 55 (2): 251–87.
Pangle, Thomas L., and Ahrensdorf, Peter J.. 1999. Justice among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Parry, Jonathan. 2015. “Just War Theory, Legitimate Authority, and Irregular Belligerency.” Philosophia 43 (1): 175–96.
Ratner, Steven. 1998. “Ethnic Conflict and Territorial Claims: Where Do We Draw a Line?” In International Law and Ethnic Conflict, ed. Wippman, David. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 112–27.
Reichberg, Gregory. 2008. “Just War and Regular War: Competing Paradigms.” In Just and Unjust Warriors: The Moral and Legal Status of Soldiers, eds. Rodin, David and Shue, Henry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 193213.
Reitberger, Magnus. 2013. “License to Kill: Is Legitimate Authority a Requirement for Just War?International Theory 5 (1): 6493.
Reno, William. 1999. Warlord Politics and African States. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Reno, William. 2008. “Bottom-Up Statebuilding?” In Building States to Build Peace, eds. Call, Charles T. and Wyeth, Vanessa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 143–62.
Roberts, Adam. 2004. “The United Nations and Humanitarian Intervention.” In Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations, ed. Welsh, Jennifer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rodin, David. 2004. War and Self-Defense. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ronderos, María Teresa. 2014. Guerras Recicladas. Bogotá: Editorial Aguilar.
Rotberg, Robert. 2003. “Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators.” In State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror, ed. Rotberg, Robert. Cambridge World Peace Foundation.
Rubin, Barnett R. 1988. “Lineages of the State in Afghanistan.” Asian Survey 28 (11): 11881209.
Russell, Frederick H. 1975. The Just War in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sherman, Jake. 2008. “Afghanistan: Nationally Led Statebuilding.” In Building States to Build Peace, eds. Call, Charles T. and Wyeth, Vanessa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 303–34.
Shue, Henry. 1996. Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Siroky, David S., and Cuffe, John. 2015. “Lost Autonomy, Nationalism and Separatism.” Comparative Political Studies 48 (1): 334.
Staniland, Paul. 2012. “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders.” Perspectives on Politics 10 (2): 243–64.
Stephen, Christopher. 2012. “The Lesson of Bani Walid.” Foreign Policy. (Accessed January 28, 2012).
Stilz, Anna. 2011. “Nations, States, and Territory.” Ethics 121 (3): 572601.
Stilz, Anna. 2014. “Territorial Rights and National Defence.” In The Morality of Defensive War, eds. Fabre, Cécile and Lazar, Seth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 203–28.
Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” In Bringing the State Back In, eds. Evans, Peter B., Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, and Skocpol, Theda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 169–91.
Toft, Monica Duffy. 2009. Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Vitoria, Francisco. 1991. Vitoria: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Walzer, Michael. 1977. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books.
Walzer, Michael. 1980. “The Moral Standing of States: A Response to Four Critics.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 9 (3): 209–29.
Walzer, Michael. 2006. Arguing about War. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2005. “Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective.” Center for Global Development Working Paper Number 57. (Accessed March 29, 2011).
Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2006. Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wellman, Christopher Heath. 2005. A Theory of Secession: The Case for Political Self-Determination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Welsh, Jennifer. 2012. “Who Should Act? Collective Responsibility and the Responsibility to Protect.” In The Routledge Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect, eds. Knight, W. Andy and Egerton, Frazer. New York: Routledge.
Wimmer, Andreas, and Schetter, Conrad. 2003. “Putting State‐Formation First: Some Recommendations for Reconstruction and Peace‐Making in Afghanistan.” Journal of International Development 15 (5): 525–39.
Wolff, Stefan. 2013. “Conflict Management in Divided Societies: The Many Uses of Territorial Self-Governance.” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 20 (1): 2750.
Zartman, I. William. 1995. “Putting Things Back Together.” In Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority, ed. Zartman, I. William. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 267–73.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 31
Total number of PDF views: 645 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1953 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 15th November 2016 - 21st March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.