Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeThe Journal of Power Institutions...Issue 16Book Reviews - General (3)Kimberly Marten, Warlords: Strong...

Book Reviews - General (3)

Kimberly Marten, Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States

London & Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2012, xiii+262 pages
John Russell
Bibliographical reference

Kimberly Marten, Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States

London & Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2012, xiii+262 pages

Index terms


Warlords, Weak States


Chechnya, Georgia, Pakistan, Iraq

Research Fields:

Political Science
Top of page

Full text

1To her credit, in recent years Kimberley Marten has almost single-handedly kept the topic of warlords in the centre of attention for political scientists. Her first monograph on this subject was welcomed in academic circles, therefore, with a degree of anticipation. My own interest was whetted further on learning that there was to be a chapter entitled "Chechnya: the Sovereignty of Ramzan Kadyrov" (pp. 102-138), featuring the controversial young leader about whom I am currently writing a book of my own. Overall, this attractively packaged book does not disappoint and represents a worthy addition to any reading list on the topic of warlords. Unusually, as well as conducting fieldwork in the regions covered, the author in 2004 managed to get herself embedded as a journalist with Canadian forces in Afghanistan. While clearly more of a help than a hindrance to her understanding of her subject, this experience is reflected in the use of some terminology, notably "flipped" in the context of Iraqi warlords (p. 158 and passim), that some might perceive as more soldierly than academic. As with the action of front-line troops, the perception persists that "one woman’s courage is another’s foolhardiness", for Professor Marten is audaciously ambitious in the sweep of her study. In her Conclusion (p. 187), she reiterates the goals of her undertaking: "to lay the foundation for a framework that can guide future scholarship on warlords and states and to provide a reference for policy makers who choose (or are forced) to work with warlords in practice in the future". In an attempt to achieve these goals, her book commences with two short chapters exploring respectively the concepts of "warlordism" (pp. 1-19) and what she terms "universal sovereignty" (pp. 20-30) and concludes with a chapter (pp. 187-200) sub-titled "Lessons and Hypotheses". The apprehension that Marten generates her fair share of controversy seems justified from beginning to end, for she prefaces the first chapter with an unsourced (insofar as the book lacks a Bibliography) epigraph from historian David G. Herrman who states baldly that "warlordism is the default condition of humanity" (p. 1) and ends her book with an equally contentious warning to policy makers that "warlords in the modern world are not future state-builders" (p. 200).

2The bulk of the book comprises four contemporary case studies encompassing Pakistan, Georgia, Chechnya and Iraq, "drawn from two former empires, the British and the Soviet, which both practiced forms of indirect rule that may have laid the groundwork for warlords to emerge later on" (p. 16), employing the two languages that she knows – English and Russian – to access source material. The choice of this quartet raises two questions: firstly, would not an example from a "weak state" in Anglophone Africa have been more pertinent (or, as the author puts it, have more "generalizability") than that of Iraq? Secondly, how fluent is Marten’s Russian? I spotted at least one mistranslation (in note 110 on p. 235) and was surprised at the frequent reliance on translations into the English (by the BBC and RusData) of Russian newspaper articles that are easily accessible in the original.

3However, it is the central assertion of Marten’s hypothesis that invites the most critical analysis: that warlords within weak states are empowered or disempowered by external patrons. I agree with her analysis in that modern-day policy makers concentrate too much on short-term solutions rather than addressing more complex issues involved in medium - to long-term strategies, thus creating the security vacuums in which local warlords flourish. This appears to apply to the US-led actions in both Pakistan and Iraq, but is not so immediately obvious in Russian responses to the situations in Georgia and Chechnya. Indeed, the author honestly confesses to not knowing exactly why President Putin opted not to oppose the crackdown on warlords in the former, while apparently creating one of his very own in the latter.

4One answer to the Georgian scenario is that Marten’s chosen areas - Ajaria (confusingly spelled Adzharia on the jacket) and Upper Kodori - are not Abkhazia or South Ossetia, two more "weak states" that some might claim were run by illiberal strong-arm brokers, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity respectively (neither of whom, curiously, rate a mention in this analysis). In August 2008, when the Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, threatened these states’ sovereignty, Russian action was both forceful and unambiguous. The author attempts to circumnavigate the Chechen conundrum by proposing a "new" argument: "that Russian leaders effectively outsourced Chechnya to a private contractor"(p. 105). To be fair, Marten had posited this argument in an earlier publication as early as 2010, but even then it was hardly new, several commentators, including myself, having reached the same conclusion by 2006-2007.

5The author explains that "a major goal" of this chapter "is simply to demonstrate through careful process tracing that Chechnya is a case that fits this book’s warlord model" (p. 103). If one accepts that "warlords rule by force and personal patronage, rather than governing through institutions" (p. 20), then Ramzan Kadyrov would appear to be a good fit. However, this is to ignore the fact that in many strong states, including Russia and China, a combination of institutional and patronage rule is utilized that does not result in their leaders automatically being characterized as "warlords". Undoubtedly, there are aspects of Kadyrov’s rule that deserve the charge of warlordism, but at the same time there is ample evidence of state-building in his leadership (e.g. his promotion of Chechen language and culture, Sufism and international ties with Islamic states abroad), the very qualities that Marten states that warlords in the modern world do not possess.

6These imperfections, added to such factors as less than scrupulously accurate indexing, (e.g. on p. 256 Adam and Alibek Delimkhanov are conflated into one person), make this a controversial, yet still exceedingly interesting, addition to the literature on the topic of warlords.

Top of page


Electronic reference

John Russell, Kimberly Marten, Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 16 | 2014, Online since 31 December 2013, connection on 24 May 2022. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

John Russell

University of Bradford, UK

Top of page


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License

This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

Top of page
  • Logo FRS
  • Logo FMSH
  • Logo CERCEC
  • Logo ISN
  • Logo RES
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search