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Afghanistan and Syria: Nonstate Actors and Their Negative Impact on Human Security

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This chapter offers an in-depth look at the presence of nonstate actors in those two failed states. In the case of Afghanistan, he highlights the presence of progovernment groups, including (a) militias, paramilitary groups, and auxiliary police forces (the largest being the Khost Protection Force or KPF) and (b) PMSCs and the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF). Mostly local, many of these PMSCs are led by members of the Afghan government, close relatives of the political elite, or warlords and, in practice, function as militias at the service of a given warlord who may even have contacts with the insurgents, whom he pays off to avoid confrontations. In addition to these groups, there are the insurgents: the Taliban; Al-Qaeda and its Uzbek affiliates, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union; the Haqqani Network; Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin; and Daesh. The conflict in Syria also features numerous nonstate armed actors (NSAAs), including (1) militias, (2) mercenaries and PMSCs (in particular, Russian private security contractors, such as those employed by the company Slavonic Corps), and (3) foreign combatants and terrorists. As both cases show, in these “internationalized non-international armed conflicts,” as they are known under IHL, the direct participation in hostilities of NSAAs negatively impacts all aspects of human security, making them one of the main threats to peace and stability. The central government loses control of large parts of the territory, leading to the collapse of central government structures, as they can no longer guarantee citizens essential services related to security, health, education, or infrastructure. As a result, populations organize around prestate political structures, which develop ad hoc agreements to manage the affairs of an environment without state sovereignty. As in medieval Europe, there is a return to tribal logic and to temporary warlords, reprivatization of the law, and renewed confusion between economic exploitation and political dominance. Thus, the massive presence of various types of NSAAs has increased the level of violence in both Syria and Afghanistan.

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  1. 1.

    Compared to 1990, the number of conflicts in the world has fallen by more than half. However, while the total number of armed conflicts has declined significantly since the end of the Cold War, 2014 saw the largest number of such conflicts of any year since 1999. Moreover, as a result of the escalation of various conflicts, as well as the extreme violence in Syria, the number of war-related fatalities has constantly increased in the period since 1989. Pettersson T, Wallensteen P (2015) p. 536–550.

  2. 2.

    In the author’s view, the “new wars” are like investment firms in which the different armed groups profit from the violence, whether in economic terms or because it enables mobilization around extremist political ideologies. Actual battles are relatively rare; instead, most of the violence is directed against the civilian population. Kaldor M (2016).

  3. 3.

    International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (2004).

  4. 4.

    In the case of failed states, in terms of international humanitarian law, “only Article 3 common to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, which encompasses armed conflicts that take place between armed factions within a country and in which the government is not involved, as well as those rules of customary international humanitarian law that become applicable at the specific threshold of Common Article 3, are potentially applicable.” Geiss R (2009), pp. 133–134.

  5. 5.

    Taylor A (2016).

  6. 6.

    Laborie M (2011a).

  7. 7.

    Krause K, Milliken J (2009), p. 203.

  8. 8.

    Mchugh G, Bessler M (2006).

  9. 9.

    It should be recalled that some states have made use of terrorist techniques. Boyle M (2008), p. 171.

  10. 10.

    United Nations Security Council (2015).

  11. 11.

    These criteria are the basis for the three current official sources providing a definition of “mercenary”: the 1977 OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa; the 1989 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries; and the first Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, from 1977, as part of international humanitarian law.

  12. 12.

    Definition provided in the “Montreux Document on Pertinent International Legal Obligations and Good Practices for States Related to Operations of Private Military and Security Companies During Armed Conflict.” (2008). It is worth noting the restrictive nature of this definition, as the Montreux Document focuses solely on areas of conflict and not on other areas in which PMSCs might also operate.

  13. 13.

    According to the Fragile States Index 2015 (2015).

  14. 14.

    According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 (2015).

  15. 15.

    United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2016).

  16. 16.

    Report of the Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination (2010). p. 9.

  17. 17.

    The Daily Star (2010) Afghanistan Recruits Iraq-style Militia Force.

  18. 18.

    For some, the fact that the Arbaki are an Afghan tradition means they are not militia by Western standards. Militias are made up of people from different walks of life, who have not been properly vetted. In contrast, the members of the Arbaki hail from specific villages and tribes and must be approved by the tribal chiefs. Some believe that the Arbaki concept should be restored as a means of securing Afghanistan, as occurred during the reign of Zahir Shah and in earlier, pre-Communist times. Seraj A (2014).

  19. 19.

    Munoz C (2015).

  20. 20.

    For example, in early 2016, groups of militia members associated with the vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and his political party, Junbish-e-Milli, carried out counterinsurgency operations in the province of Jawzjan. Likewise, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, another influential politician and an ethnic Pashtun, has said that former mujahideen, who fought against the Soviet invasion, could join the fight against the Taliban without government approval. Transparency International (2016).

  21. 21.

    De Winter-Schmitt R (2013).

  22. 22.

    For instance, Watan Risk Management was owned by Ahmad Rateb Popal and Rashed Popal, both relatives of former President Karzai, and NCL Holdings, along with NCL Security, was founded and chaired by Hamed Wardak, son of former Defense Minister Rahim Wardak. Transparency International (2015).

  23. 23.

    US House Of Representatives (2010).

  24. 24.

    Council on Foreign Relations (2007).

  25. 25.

    Foschini, F (2014).

  26. 26.

    Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (2016).

  27. 27.

    In the second quarter of 2016, 872 armed guards were working for the US Department of Defense in Afghanistan. USCENTCOM (2016).

  28. 28.

    In July 2016, the leader of the Al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, announced that the organization was cutting ties with Al Qaeda and would be changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Liberation of Syria).

  29. 29.

    Maurer P (2014).

  30. 30.

    In an August 2016 report, Amnesty International calculated that, since the conflict began in 2011, almost 18,000 people have died in the regime’s prisons in Damascus. Price M, Gohdes A, Ball P (2016).

  31. 31.

    Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment - Eastern Mediterranean (2014).

  32. 32.

    Since the US forces withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq has emerged as one of the most powerful players in Iraqi political and public life. The group is closely connected to Hezbollah and has ties with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Chulov M (2014).

  33. 33.

    Kershner I (2014).

  34. 34.

    The Interpreter (2013) St. Petersburg Sends Contractors to Syria.

  35. 35.

    Galeottin M (2016).

  36. 36.

    Fontanka (2016) In Syria killed dozens of Russian soldiers working for private military company.

  37. 37.

    Quinn A (2016).

  38. 38.

    Galeottin M (2016).

  39. 39.

    Fitzpatrick C A (2016).

  40. 40.

    Statement by the President of the Security Council on “Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.” See Note 10.

  41. 41.

    Sandoz counts 109 different definitions of terrorism. Sandoz Y (2002) p. 321 and 325.

  42. 42.

    Rodríguez Villasante y Prieto J L (2007) p. 221.

  43. 43.

    Ibid, p. 253.

  44. 44.

    Laborie M (2011b).

  45. 45.

    United Nations General Assembly (2005).

  46. 46.

    Munoz C, Military leaders worry about Afghan militias, See Note 19.

  47. 47.

    United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2016) p. 64.

  48. 48.

    Raghavan, S (2015).

  49. 49.


  50. 50.

    Transparency International (2015).

  51. 51.

    US Department of Defense (2010).

  52. 52.

    US Senate Committee on Armed Services (2010).

  53. 53.

    United Nations Assistance Mission In Afghanistan (2016) p. 67.

  54. 54.

    Ibid, pp. 33–57.

  55. 55.

    Roth, K (2015).

  56. 56.

    BBC News (2016) Syria crisis: Air strikes on hospitals ‘war crimes’.

  57. 57.

    Amnesty International (2016).

  58. 58.

    As a result of the international pressure, the government surrendered its arsenal of this type of weapons in July 2014. In November 2015, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the use of mustard gas in the town of Marea, north of the Syrian city of Aleppo, the site of combat between the Islamic State and a group of Syrian rebels. Deutsch A (2015).

  59. 59.

    The Human Rights Council has reported on the existence of hundreds of thousands of detainees. Several thousands more have disappeared after being arrested by the government. Human Rights Council (2016).

  60. 60.

    The New Arab (2016b) Residents flee as Syrian fighters near IS-held town.

  61. 61.

    The New Arab (2016a) Amnesty: Extremist Syrian rebels ‘guilty of war crimes’.

  62. 62.

    Krahmann E, Friesendorf C (2014) p. 17.


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Correspondence to Mario Laborie .

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Laborie, M. (2017). Afghanistan and Syria: Nonstate Actors and Their Negative Impact on Human Security. In: Torroja, H. (eds) Public International Law and Human Rights Violations by Private Military and Security Companies. Springer, Cham.

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