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  • Outsourcing Violence in South Asia:More a Low-Risk Certitude Than a Gamble for the State
  • Rashmi Singh (bio)

The United States has been the undisputed military power in the world for quite some time. However, this enormous military advantage has not allowed it to succeed in its quest to combat the transnational maneuvers of groups like al Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State. Indeed, although the U.S. government had wanted Osama bin Laden since at least 1999, it took the world's most powerful country nearly ten years after the September 11 attacks to track down and kill al Qaeda's elusive leader. In short, military prowess, despite a state's best efforts, may not be the answer to addressing the dynamic and mobile threat posed by nonstate actor violence. To achieve strategic objectives, nations have begun to rely on unofficial, nonstate armed groups. We see this in the case of states seeking to realize their foreign policy aims as well as secure specific domestic objectives. However, given that the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence is a core characteristic of the modern state, outsourcing violence is both seemingly incongruous and an inherently risky endeavor. Outsourcing carries the risk not only of undermining state legitimacy and prestige but also of creating conditions that augment grievances and fuel violence and conflict rather than achieve peace.

This is the foundation of Yelena Biberman's argument in her timely new book Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India, in which she addresses the key questions of why governments around the world delegate to informal proxies as well as why nonstate actors, in turn, choose to align themselves with state interests. Biberman argues that even militarily superior states often lack the strategic reach at the local level, which is why indigenous nonstate partners are recruited to provide access on the ground. She also stresses that these local assets are "not mere puppets" (p. 2) but instead exercise agency and possess their own sets of interests. [End Page 185]

Arguably, the book's most important contribution is the theoretical model it constructs to explain the alliance between states and nonstate actors. Drawing on insights from structural and neoclassical realism, Biberman proposes a "balance of interests" model whereby civil wartime alliances between states and nonstate actors are the product of both power and interests. States rarely use local nonstate actors when the local balance of power is in their favor; instead, they tend toward such alliances either when insurgents have an advantage in the conflict or when the local balance of power is roughly equal. It is in these circumstances that local proxies augment the state's "tactical benefits" (p. 11) by, for instance, providing local knowledge, acting as force multipliers, or facilitating the use of selective violence by the state. Yet, given the state's relative weakness, this is also precisely when local proxies are the most "unwilling to assume the risks of collaboration" (p. 12) with it.

Not all proxies are created equal, however, and Biberman distinguishes between two main types of local nonstate partners: the "activists" and the "opportunists." The former, she argues, tend to be driven much more by ideals and identity than material gain. As long as they are convinced that an alliance serves their long-term interests, activists will partner with a state—even if it is losing. Opportunists, on the other hand, are the "balance tippers" who "prioritize the immediate material payoffs of collaboration, be it protection or patronage" (pp. 11–12). As such, they are only interested in entering into a partnership when the local balance of power either favors the state or is roughly equal.

Having constructed this model, Biberman then dedicates the bulk of the book to operationalizing it through a series of case studies drawn mainly from South Asia. Over the course of three chapters, she guides us through a series of historical and more contemporary examples. The first case is Pakistan's outsourcing of violence to different Islamist and non-Islamist militias in East Pakistan in 1971. With the balance of power roughly equal, the Pakistani army first recruited 40,000–50,000 "irregular volunteers," or...


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pp. 185-189
Launched on MUSE
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