Tea With a Warlord

by Stephanie Schorow

War is always brutal, but the violence that erupts during civil war seems to bring out the worst of the worst in humankind.

The specter of slaughter of neighbor by neighbor – in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Uganda and elsewhere – can lead us to believe that ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity is a deadly tinderbox, ever vulnerable to sparks, no matter how long groups have lived peacefully side by side. Fotini Christia, Assistant Professor in the School's Department of Political Science, challenges that world-weary pessimism.

Through her intrepid field research with Afghanistan warlords, Christia has steadily analyzed the personal, political, and cultural forces that cause a regional or tribal leader to take up arms against a neighboring group, and what allows that same leader – sometimes with mind-boggling rapidity – to put aside the guns and embrace a former enemy.

Christia finds that under certain conditions, even groups sworn to take revenge on one another can overlook longstanding grievances and form new, supportive alliances.

What Can Turn Enemies into Allies?

What is the key? Whatever gives a group a strategic military or economic advantage – even if the action drives them into the arms of their supposed enemies.

"Groups are driven by balance-of-power considerations," says Christia. "That means that, as relative power changes, so do alliances. Groups then come up with narratives and stories about why they make the alliances they do."

For example, leaders may rail at a competing group, painting them as implacable or traditional long-time foes. After an alliance is reached, leaders develop a new narrative, now telling stories that portray their former enemies as worthy opponents or long-lost brothers now welcomed into the fold of a new union.


Excerpted with permission from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. First published in Soundings, the magazine of the School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at MIT.

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