Retribution or Reconciliation? Post-Conflict Attitudes toward Enemy Collaborators

The forthcoming article “Retribution or Reconciliation? Post-Conflict Attitudes toward Enemy Collaborators” by Kristen Kao and Mara Redlich Revkin is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Armed groups such as rebels or foreign occupiers often seek to govern territory, requiring the cooperation of large proportions of the civilian population. These civilian “collaborators” serve in a variety of non-combat roles as taxpayers, cleaners or clerks in governance institutions, or wives of fighters; they are often widely perceived as enemy collaborators after conflict ends. Although most of the people who support and enable insurgencies are civilians—both men and women who serve in these diverse non-combat roles—the bulk of the literature on attitudes toward post-conflict justice and reconciliation focuses heavily on male fighters. As a result, there is a need for more research on how individuals in post-conflict societies perceive the culpability not only of fighters but of the many civilian collaborators with economic and social ties to the insurgency.  

Through a survey experiment conducted in an Iraqi city that was controlled by the Islamic State for three years, we find that variation in the type of collaboration an actor engages in signals culpability, strongly determining preferences for punishment and forgiveness among the population at-large. For example, Islamic State taxpayers receive, on average, punishments that are nearly three levels less harsh compared to those desired for fighters, which on our five-point scale is the difference between six months of community service and capital punishment. Substantively, this means that voluntary tax payment to the Islamic State is treated as harshly as involuntary participation in acts of collaboration that directly support fighters (such as cooks for or wives of fighters). In line with some previous research in other contexts, respondents who were exposed to violence by the Islamic State tend to have a greater desire for retribution and revenge than those with fewer grievances. However, perceived volition behind an act—a relatively unstudied factor—is even more important.  

By widening our analytical lens to consider a more realistically broad spectrum of enemy collaboration, we avoid affirming a false dichotomy between victims and perpetrators that is commonly assumed in post-war settings. This research offers novel insights into the microfoundations of enemy collaborator culpability, which is a necessary first step toward reconciliation. Moreover, our results reveal a significant gap between public opinion, which was on average more forgiving of Islamic State collaborators than the harsh, one-punishment-fits-all approach currently taken by the Iraqi government. This mismatch between policy and public opinion suggests that policymakers should consider lighter sentences as well as non-carceral restorative justice mechanisms such as rehabilitation programs, community service, or sponsorship by tribal and religious leaders. 

We encourage other scholars to replicate and extend our experimental design in other post-conflict settings that differ from Iraq in important ways including regime type, culture or religion, duration and recency of conflict, as well as patterns of violence. And we hope that this research agenda will contribute to the development of better models for understanding the determinants of preferences for justice and reconciliation that can inform the design of evidence-based policies and programming for securing peace in post-conflict settings.  

About the Author(s): Kristen Kao, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Political Science at University of Gothenburg and Mara Redlich Revkin, National Security Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. Their research “Retribution or Reconciliation? Post-Conflict Attitudes toward Enemy Collaborators” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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