Peter Dizikes writes: When the Taliban took control of Kabul, Afghanistan, in late 1996, they soon launched a sustained military offensive to the north, an area they did not control. The following May, however, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, an Uzbek leader of the so-called Northern Alliance, which had been defending the region, struck a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban — who marched right into Mazar-i-Sharif, a key northern city.
All of two days later, Malik changed his mind, recognizing that his group would not have as much power as he had hoped. Quickly joining forces with two other ethnic groups in the area, Malik and his Uzbek followers repelled the Taliban in a bloody battle, eventually regaining control of the northern provinces.
This episode contains a larger lesson: Contrary to the common perception, political alliances during civil wars are not formed along immutable religious, ethnic or linguistic lines, according to the research of MIT political scientist Fotini Christia. As she explains in a new book, “Alliance Formation in Civil Wars,” published this month by Cambridge University Press, such alliances are often created for balance-of-power reasons, and stretch across religious or ethnic boundaries. Moreover, factions can develop within homogenous groups — leading seemingly solid allies, representing the same identity groups, to oppose each other.
“We see a civil war as black-and-white, a two-sided conflict between a government and rebels,” Christia says. “But usually it is a more dynamic situation.” In these more fluid circumstances, she adds, “Two groups can be friends one day and bitter enemies the next.”
The practical upshot of Christia’s findings is that many civil wars, though often described as manifestations of ancient sectarian conflicts, are often fought between factions whose leaders are more pragmatic — possibly suggesting that these wars can be resolved if the right incentives are in place.
“We have to be a lot more nuanced in the way we understand the dynamics of civil wars,” Christia says. “The process of alliance formation and alliance breakdown can take on a life of its own as a conflict unfolds.” Or, as she writes in the book, “policy makers should not be looking to race, language or religion to predict or preclude civil wars’ allies.” [Continue reading…]