Publication: Armed Conflict Survey 2017
09 May 2017
How and why armed groups govern civilians owes much to the particularities of specific conflicts. Nevertheless, there has been a systemic change in the past 50 years. Global political changes have altered who supports armed groups from outside conflict zones, and for what purpose. This shift has had important effects on armed groups’ motivations and resources for civilian governance. Broad changes have also occurred in the character of the states in which armed groups fight, and this has had a corresponding impact on the kinds of social relationships and reactions that these groups encounter among civilians. In particular, many contemporary armed groups have formed in the wake of state failure and the collapse of authoritarian personalist governments. The fragmented social environments that this process creates play critical roles in shaping how, and with whom, armed groups negotiate in order to govern.
Broad systemic change does not influence all armed groups in equal measure. Some of these groups govern civilian areas in much the same way as their counterparts did 50 years ago. At its height in the 2000s, Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam stood out for its comprehensive governance of civilians.1 The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and the Afghan Taliban exhibit more typical contemporary patterns of governance by armed groups. Both face difficulties in governing societies fragmented by earlier processes of state collapse, and both face an international system that has become much more hostile to armed groups. The fragmentation of contemporary armed groups also has precedent.2 Nevertheless, one can observe the broad contours of a fundamental change in the conditions and outcomes of armed groups’ governance of civilians – a change that intensifies the challenges faced by these groups. This essay explains the causes of this change, and how it has affected the ways in which armed groups govern civilians, as well as the ways in which civilians have responded to their efforts. To do so, it begins by outlining the relevant transformations of the past half-century.