H-Diplo Review Essay 134- "Gambling with Violence"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 341

13 May 2021

Yelena Biberman.  Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.  ISBN:  9780190929961 (hardcover, $105.00); 9780190929978 (paperback, $31.95).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor:
Andrew Szarejko | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Shubha Kamala Prasad, European University Institute

A dirty secret of civil wars is that states often ally with nonstate actors in violation of international humanitarian law to counter the strongest rebel group(s).[1]  In her book Gambling with Violence: State Outsourcing of War in Pakistan and India, Yelena Biberman offers a concise theory for understanding state-nonstate alliance behavior during civil wars.  The theory is developed using cases from India and Pakistan (and East Pakistan) and then tested on non-South Asian cases to verify its generalizability.  The book is a part of Oxford University Press’ Modern South Asia series.  The admirable breadth and depth of qualitative research across three countries of the South Asian subcontinent make the book an important contribution to understanding the geopolitics of internal conflict in South Asia.

The book has a central motivating question - under what circumstances do states feel the need to ally with local nonstate actors in a civil war?  To answer this question, Biberman borrows from IR theory and provides a balance-of-interests framework for explaining state and nonstate motivations.  She asserts that “States ally in ways that maximize their interests: some just want to hold onto what they have; others want more” (9).  The state’s goal is to either reestablish sovereignty or maintain the status quo.  If the local balance of power favors the state, then the state feels no need to ally with nonstate actors.  However, if the local balance of power favors the rebels or is equal, then the state looks for nonstate allies.

At the core of her argument, Biberman actually flips Thucydides’s well-known maxim on its head to show that the strong “cannot always do what they want” (11) and the weak can often inflict suffering that the strong cannot deal with directly. During a civil war, this translates into situations where the state is either losing ground to or is at parity with the insurgents.  In such situations of disadvantage or equal power vis-à-vis the rebels, states turn to nonstate actors for “violence outsourcing.”

Why do nonstate actors agree to cooperate with the state?  The book places nonstate allies into two categories based on their motivations – opportunists and activists.  Opportunists seek short-term material profit.  Activists seek the fulfilment of a long-term (normally ideological) goal.  Biberman hypothesizes that the former are more likely to ally with the state in situations of equal power balance between the state and the rebels since they see no profit in allying with the losing side. The latter are more likely to ally with the state even in situations where the state is at a disadvantage if such an alliance will help achieve long-term objectives.

There are both gains and risks for state-nonstate alliances.  For a state, there are certain advantages to using local allies, for instance, access to local intelligence and knowledge of the terrain.  However, there are also risks with taking on a nonstate ally, like the ally turning on oneself or the loss of local and/or international legitimacy.  For the nonstate actor, there is a similar gamble.  Collaborating with the state could help achieve short-term material gains or long-term ideological goals.  The state, though, might abandon or not deliver on the promises made for reaching the aforementioned aims.  Rebels and their sympathizers might also retaliate.  Thus, a state-nonstate alliance during a civil war is a gamble with violence for both sides.

Biberman draws out her theory using two pairs of cases from South Asia.  The first pair of cases are Pakistan’s alliances with nonstate proxies in East Pakistan[2] in 1971 (Chapter 3) and India’s alliances with nonstate actors in Kashmir from 1988 to 2003 (Chapter 4).  These cases trace the main argument using rich qualitative evidence.  Pakistan’s alliances with local lashkars (tribal militias) against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP) in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and India’s alliance with nonstate proxies like Salwa Judum against the Naxalite insurgency in Chhattisgarh are the next set of cases (Chapter 5).  The second pair, though probably familiar to South Asians and scholars of South Asia, are less known in the West, as the author points out, and highlight how the goals of a state that is facing rebels might vary.  The Indian case shows the conditions under which states want to reassert sovereignty over a territory while the Pakistani example demonstrates a situation where the state would rather maintain the status quo.

In order to test the external validity of the theory in non-South Asian contexts, Biberman successfully applies her framework to Turkey’s alliance with the Islamist Kurdish Hizbullah against the secular Kurdish insurgents (PKK) and Russia’s alliances with nonstate proxies against Chechen rebels. These additional cases illustrate how the theory proposed in this book is not South Asia specific.

The author does an excellent job of walking the reader through her theoretical expectations in the case studies and shows how and whether these expectations are met with the data available.  She collects her evidence from an impressive variety of primary and secondary sources across seven countries that include archival data, NGO reports, media stories, and interviews with elites, ex-militants, witnesses, and victims.  She also contextualizes her argument by drawing on both ancient texts like Kautilya’s Arthashastra as well as contemporary literature on alliances.[3] Additional field research for the Turkish and Russian cases have generated data that also make the theory more convincing.

The richness of the case studies does not take away from the book’s readability.  The reader encounters many interesting anecdotes and figures related to the nonstate allies of states, for instance, the wedding-singer militant leader Kuka Parrey in Kashmir, the politician Mahendra Karma in Chhattisgarh, and Putin’s proxy in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.  Biberman also makes a concerted effort to link figures like these across her cases to show the similarities in their fates as per her theoretical framework.  Despite the fact that the book covers a wide geographical base with the cases, the reader never feels lost.  The purpose of each case is clearly spelt out.

There are three main takeaways from this book.  First, both material interests and ideology matter for understanding alliance behavior in civil wars.  The book clearly identifies that proxies who decide to ally with the state might do so not only for material reasons of profit and power but also for ideological reasons.  Second, a theory of state-nonstate alliance in civil wars as seen in South Asia also applies to other regions around the world.  The theoretical framework presented in the book does not uniquely apply to South Asia and plays out in countries as diverse as Turkey and Russia.  The book makes a strong case for the generalizability of theories drawn from and tested in non-Western contexts.  Third, while doing research on covert state policies is difficult, the book demonstrates that it can be successfully carried out by innovatively using a variety of available data sources.  Since India and Pakistan are particularly notorious for not declassifying material related to conflict zones, the author’s ability to gather information based on limited archives, interview data, and secondary sources is significant.

The book is an excellent primer for qualitative scholars on how to use a variety of sources ranging across archives, interviews, memoirs, and secondary material to piece together historical events in order to process trace the path of a theory. Biberman also demonstrates the caution with which a scholar must proceed in the face of conflicting narratives and accounts of historical events.  The book is careful to present facts as facts only when there is documented evidence or multiple perspectives that broadly agree on the information, while an individual’s perspective of an event is indicated to be just that. 

Furthermore, scholars and practioners alike should pay close attention to the author’s acknowledgement of her positionality in the process of data acquisition.  Biberman discusses her privilege in gaining access to a greater number of sources as an ‘outsider’ in South Asia, as compared to local scholars.  She is also aware of how certain stories are recounted to her in interviews in order to convince her of certain perspectives because she is an ‘outsider.’ Rigorous research should build on this model to acknowledge the researcher’s advantages and roadblocks in being able to gather certain types of data in the interest of data transparency.

Diving into the case studies, though, might require the reader to have some background knowledge of the politics and history of South Asia.  For instance, the history of the Kashmir conflict in the light of Partition is not discussed, nor is the origin of the bizarre separation of Pakistan into East and West wings due to the colonial legacy of the 1905 partition of Bengal referenced.  However, while the historical background would have added richness to the cases and given more context for non-South Asia experts, the theoretical argument being tested does not suffer from their absence.

An interesting observation through the case studies is the presence of external actors (mainly a rival state) in aiding and abetting insurgencies.  However, this raises questions about the role of extra-state support for insurgencies based on the theoretical framework.  Does illicit external support increase the likelihood of illicit alliances with nonstate actors since the state cannot openly counter its rival’s actions without instigating an inter-state war?  Does external state sponsorship of insurgents transform into a proxy inter-state conflict with different dynamics?  These would be fruitful avenues for building on Biberman’s theory.

The book also raises an important question about the impact of civil-military relations on the theoretical framework.  Did the state-nonstate alliance work better in the Indian context because of a clear hierarchy of civilian control over military?  In contrast, was the poor alliance in Pakistan due to the military’s greater political power and its lack of interest in investing in proxies as the evidence demonstrates?  The local balance-of-interests then might depend on civil-military relations.  Yet it cannot be accounted for in the theory since the state is conceptualized as a unitary actor.

The cases actually show how the power balance between militaries and civilian governments can encourage or adversely impact the strength of the alliance. While a strong military is a prerequisite for the theory of alliances with nonstate proxies (as explained with the example of Russia’s alliance failure in Chechnya due to its weak and disorganized military in 1994), the political power or will of the military vis-à-vis the civilian government also matters for alliance outcomes.  This can be seen in the case of Pakistan’s weak alliance efforts in FATA due to the military’s lack of interest in aiding allies.  Future research could explore this civil-military dynamic in the context of state-nonstate alliances.

Gambling with Violence contributes to the literature on alliance behavior during civil wars by exploring a new dimension of state-nonstate alliance within a state’s own boundaries.[4] It also strengthens the field of work on insurgencies in South Asia and should be read alongside Paul Staniland’s  Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse and Shivaji Mukherjee’s forthcoming Colonial Institutions and Civil War: Indirect Rule and Maoist Insurgency in India.[5]

In the light of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists on January 6, 2021, it is clear that understanding the relationship between state and nonstate militia is important in both developed and developing countries. The balance-of-interests theoretical framework presented in this book demonstrates that states will ally with nonstate proxies in a civil war when the balance-of-power favors the rebels or is mostly equal between the rebels and the state.  Additionally, given that state-nonstate alliance policies are normally not publicized widely, Biberman shows how research on clandestine operations in data-scarce contexts can be carried out effectively.  This should inspire work on creatively using data from a variety of available sources to carry out research of this nature in order to reveal covert state policies. Overall, Gambling with Violence, makes an important contribution to scholars’ understanding of alliance behavior in civil wars and also provides excellent in-depth cases from across South Asia.


Dr. Shubha Kamala Prasad is a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence.  She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Department of Government, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.  Her research examines domestic sources of foreign policy, spanning substate conflict to diaspora mobilization.


[1] Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocol II are integral to understanding laws of internal armed conflict.

[2] Present-day Bangladesh.

[3] For example, Fotini Christia, Alliance Formation in Civil Wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Jeremy M. Weinstein, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[4] For example, Belgin San-Akca, States in Disguise: Causes of State Support for Rebel Groups (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Daniel Byman.  Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Ahsan I. Butt, Ahsan I. Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy against Separatists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017).

[5] Paul Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Shivaji Mukherjee, Colonial Institutions and Civil War: Indirect Rule and Maoist Insurgency in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).