Tag: failed states

The Monopoly

Why should academics and policymakers prioritize a state’s acquistion of  “… the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”? Obviously, this monopoly is fundamental to masking the violence of the state in daily domestic affairs, but what about in areas where that violence cannot be masked under the guise of a neutral, rational-legal state that speaks for the “nation” in the first place? Is a Eurocentric model of the state still an appropriate priority for all territories, particularly in regions which have a long history of embattled states as well as fractured societies, and which are experiencing multi-pronged challenges to state authority?

Historically, of course, “pre-modern” states did not always feel the need or desire to acquire a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. For example, one of the greatest imperial states in history, the Mughal Empire which eventually covered much of modern South Asia (including Afghanistan), never sought or obtained a monopoly on violence and this “failure” did not hinder its progress. At the height of its power in the 17th century, the Mughal empire was more opulent than all of Europe combined. The cultural and particularly the architectural achievements of this imperial state are still considered among the finest in the world. Technologically, in 1526 it was the first to introduce the combined use of handguns and cannons with its military in the sub-continent. While its military superiority would eventually decline, it was never more than a decade behind its rivals in terms of military technology. In any case, in the early and middle period of the empire, the Mughal army could defeat any single opponent on the open battlefield, including European upstarts (see Child’s War 1686-1690). Economically, the empire produced goods for the world market. The arrival of European merchants only further extended direct trade links to northern and western Europe, although prior to industrialization there was little to nothing that the Europeans could offer in exchange for goods produced in South Asia except silver bullion.

The Mughal state had some of the trappings of a modern state, including a large bureaucracy and an extensive police and intelligence apparatus. However, it did not seek to disarm the peasantry or dispossess local and regional rivals who acknowledged its superiority. In fact, as Peter Lorge argues in The Asian Military Revolution (Cambridge, 2008, pp. 130-131), Mughal emperors sat atop a vast “military labor market” of over 4 million infantrymen. The Mughal state’s confidence rested on the fact that it had the best concentration of infantry and equipment as well as a massive treasury and spy network. The goal of the emperor was not to disarm its local and regional rivals, but to manage violence. In other words, the objective was “… to maintain the internal balance of center and periphery, not to annihilate external threats to the throne,” (Lorge 2008, p. 138). This balance was maintained in part by keeping the state literally on the move  en masse from one hot spot to the next. The treasury could also be used to purchase a sufficient additional supply of soldier in order to deny those resources to regional rivals. In any case, military resistance to this peripatetic imperial state by regional rivals was often part of an elaborate bargaining procedure for improving one’s rank within the finely graded official status hierarchy. Of course, once it was weakened by fighting against the guerrilla tactics of the Maratha Confederacy in the mid-17th century, the empire began a steady decline, eventually succumbing to domination by their British vassals and the creation of a “modern state” which did vigorously pursue a strategy to disarm the countryside and to monopolize legitimate violence. Notably, however, the emperor remained remarkably legitimate to large numbers of Hindus and Muslims even up to the dying days of the empire as the Great Rebellion of 1857 demonstrated.

I ask the question about the need for a monopoly not because I want to bring Babur & Co. back from the dead (although… well… that would be fun… after all, nobody parties quite like a Timurid…) but because it is clear that there are several territories in contemporary international affairs where the claim to a monopoly on legitimate use of violence is clearly unlikely to be established in the near future. Labeling such states as “failed” or “failing” in lazy and counter productive.

In places like Afghanistan, for example, the state does not have the monopoly of the legitimate use of force and won’t for the foreseeable future; Afghans know they will have to pay homage indefinitely to a range of actors who have the ability to threaten the use of violence against them: warlords, insurgents, foreign troops, the police, etc. As Noah Coburn argues in Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town (Stanford 2011, pp. 182-207), the Afghan state cannot serve as a vertical container of societal conflicts because many of the major actors in society are rivals of the state. Coburn adds that even the notion of a discrete border between the state and society is an artificial construct maintained in large part by society to prop up the state. In other words, the Afghan state is so weak and porous that it is up to society to sustain the illusion of the state as rational and professional. Maintaining the illusion allows aid to flow and keeps the peace, such as it is. Nonetheless, the population is not motivated solely by fear of violence, Afghans value the idea of a sovereign state and the integrity of their state’s territory. The people of Afghanistan do not want their country partitioned or to have their state’s sovereignty further diminished or humiliated by regional or global actors. At the same time, people are realistic enough to know that the state will not vanquish the insurgents and warlords — even with massive international military and financial assistance.

But the choice is not between a monopoly on violence or total anarchy. For embattled states the issue is whether the effort to prioritize acquiring a monopoly by defeating the insurgency and all other challengers to the state is realistic. Building up massive armies in weak states through foreign funding is unsustainable if the state is ever to regain full sovereignty. Moreover, the prolonged presence of foreign troops and unaccountable international non-governmental organizations often undermines the state’s authority and autonomy as much as warlords and insurgents. Perhaps the aim should be to develop sufficient violence capability and financial patronage to keep rival coercive threats in check. To paraphrase Coburn’s depiction of the Afghan state a few years ago: it is too weak to be despotic but strong enough to keep warlords from the temptation of increasing their despotism. Perhaps that should be considered both sufficient and realistic as a marker of success, no? If so, then the question becomes how many elite forces, how much hi-tech weaponry, and how much direct budgetary support would be necessary to maintain that balance while gradually strengthening the state’s ability to increase revenue extraction. This advice will be lost on the US and its partners who are moving toward the exit doors, but India, Russia, and Iran may see its wisdom after 2014…


Visualizing the “Misery” of Failed States

Foreign Policy magazine has just released their yearly Failed States Index (“A Year in Misery: The 2011 Failed States Index”), which also includes their photo essay called “Postcards from Hell.”

This photo essay raises the ire of those who criticize it as “poverty porn.” This criticism is usually directed at aid organizations (see here and here) that exploit and misrepresent people’s poverty and insecurity through shocking images to generate support and fundraising. As the infamous article “How to Write About Africa” satirically prescribed:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wander the refugee camp nearly naked, and wait for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.”

The FP photo essay plays into this too. Many of the photos portray those living in so-called failed states as helpless victims or maniacal militants. This is not to say that extreme conditions of repression, poverty, and violence are not prevalent in these states and it’s also important not to sanitize images just to protect our sensitivities. But the photos provide no context on the individual circumstances and strip those in them of their dignity. (See the photos of Haiti, Iraq, Kenya, Burma, CAR, especially). Nor do these pictures help us understand the causes and conditions of state failure and nor do they prescribe solutions. They simply invite shock and awe.

I teach a course on weak and failed states, and while I have the utmost respect for Foreign Policy magazine and assign their articles regularly, I don’t find much analytical value in this index. If anything, we spent most of the semester picking apart the index and pointing out the inconsistencies with scholarly analysis of failed states. And after delving more into individual case studies, my students were more critical of the generalizations and misrepresentations in the photo essay and articles. I’ll give you that teaching about failed states is tough – not least because there is no consensus definition – but the key challenge is to avoid attributing all the world’s ills (terrorism, civil war, poverty, transnational crime) to the amorphously defined “failed states.”

I intend to plow through the index and articles and will post more thoughts in upcoming posts.


Troubling Advances in Pakistan: Signs of Failure? (updated)

My first semester in graduate school I had the pleasure of attending a talk by General Wesley Clark (Ret.). He gave the talk not soon after the attacks of September 11th and the US offensive in Afghanistan. At the time, Clark was just begining a PR offensive that would eventually position him as a contender for the Democratic nomination in 2004.

During the Q&A I asked him a question about the regional dynamics going forward as a result of the Afghanistan offensive. While not criticizing the move (I was for it), I questioned what the potential fallout could be in terms of domestic politics within Pakistan and interstate dynamics, particularly with regards to Iran and Iraq. On Pakistan, I questioned whether we had a solid strategy for balancing our need for strategic support from the Pakistani government with the potential domestic disaster that might ensue as a result of their ‘switching sides’ and the longterm instability we would inevitably have to their north. I asked whether we had a plan to ensure domestically stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan when major military operations in the former ceased. He somewhat chuckled and asked, “You’re not talking about nation-building, right?” The line garnered some laughs from the audience and he then went on to basically avoid the question.

I bring up this anecdote because this remains a major issue for US foreign policy–one that I would say has become even more pressing given recent events, such as the ever increasing civil war (as Dan said, let’s call it what it is) within Pakistan.

Yesterday, Taliban militants managed to extend their control of areas in Northern Pakistan by taking the district of Buner–a mere 70 miles from the capital of Islamabad. This represents the continuation of a trend whereby the Taliban pushes deeper and deeper into Pakistan, even after a mid-February truce that effectively created a ‘safe haven’ for the militants in Swat Valley.

At that time, many called the truce a massive misstep, one that would undoubtedly backfire and lead to further aggression by the militants. One major reason was that the Pakistani military would move into a ‘reactive’ mode–rather than staying on the offensive against the Taliban and trying to both defend and recapture lost territory, the military would simply wait in reserve if the Taliban attempted to make further advances, thereby violating the terms of the truce. Yesterday’s events would seem a perfect example of such a violation. The question now is, what’s next?

That is unclear. The US has been expanding its covert war against militants in the tribal areas for some time, while at the same time pressuring Pakistan (in particular, the ISI) to sever ties to the Taliban and increase relations with India. Some believe this is a bad idea, or at least isn’t very pratical. In either case, it doesn’t address the more urgent and strategically relevant issue of whether or not Pakistan is now headed towards a true collapse into failed-state status. The country has long been internally fractured along ethnic, tribal, and religious lines. The state never had full control over its own territory, but the kind of territorial conquest that we are seeing now is, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, unprecedented since at least the 1990’s (note: readers with better background please feel free to weigh in with comments).

Failed states are always dangerous and pose significant problems, both regionally and globally, for other states. Pakistan has the obvious capacity to pose a problem the likes of which we have never seen–as the combination of a nuclear state falling into the hands of religious militants strikes me as uniquely dangerous.

The US approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan post-911 seems to have helped lay the groundwork for the current situation. US military strategy in Afghanistan was both effective and flawed, allowing key militants to escape and regroup (notably in the Afghan-Pakistan border region). Additionally, without a clear plan to sure up domestic stability in Pakistan we essentially moved the problem of religious militants from one geographic location to another–one that will have a far greater impact on security if it goes the way of the failed state.

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t have pressured Pakistan into an uneasy alliance with the US post-911. What I am arguing is that by doing so without proper attention being paid to the longterm dynamics we would set in motion, and not adequatley planning to address those dynamics in a constructive way, we may have simply set off a very ‘long fuse’ that is nearing its end.

Update I

John Robb weighs in with his thoughts on the likelihood of Pakistan becoming a ‘hollow state’.

The reaction of Pakistan’s authorities has been ineffective to say the least. I’d say this is both a problem of will and one of capabilities.

As some have voiced, we could end up invading the country to secure their nuclear assets if things continue to deteriorate towards state failure…

Update II

Some positive developments, for now.  It appears that a compellent threat from the Pakistani military has worked and the Taliban is retreating from Buner.  But this is far from over, and by the end we are likely to see renewed fighting between the two forces and a further push towards Islamabad.

Update III

Joshua Frost at Registan.net has a great ‘sanity check’ post with interesting history and perspective, as well as a reading list for those interested in the history of the conflict.




There’s a brick building at the corner of P and 18th Streets near Dupont Circle that used to be an overgrown wreck. I first noticed it in the fall of 2003. The grass was tall and unmowed, and there was a bare, dead tree inside the fence. It seemed abandoned. For various reasons I was rarely in the Dupont Circle area between spring 2004 and fall 2006. But one day in fall 2006, I was waiting for a bus to arrive at the bus shelter immediately in front of the building. The building had been spruced up and the exterior was neatly groomed. It also bustled with activity.

As I waited endlessly for the bus to show up, I noticed a plaque that I had missed in the past, which identified the building: Embassy of Iraq.

Ah, I thought, that explains its formerly run-down state, as well as its recent rehabilitation.

Blake Hounshell notes the similarly dilapidated status of the embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is also located on a prime bit of Dupont Circle real estate. Ironically, Iraq is higher on FP’s failed state list than the DPC. But I guess it would be pretty embarrassing if Iraq couldn’t keep its US Embassy functioning. I wonder what the embassies of remainder of the top 10 failed states are like.



Ethiopia launched an invasion of Somalia yesterday:

Ethiopia officially plunged into war with Somalia’s Islamist forces on Sunday, bombing targets inside Somalia and pushing ground troops deep into Somali territory in a major escalation that could turn Somalia’s internal crisis into a violent religious conflict that engulfs the entire Horn of Africa.

The coordinated assault was the first open admission by Ethiopia’s Christian-led government of its military operations inside Somalia, where — with tacit American support — it has been helping a weak interim government threatened by forces loyal to the Islamic clerics who control the longtime capital, Mogadishu, and much of the country.

This war has the potential to get rather dangerous rather fast, as Eritrea is sending troops to Somalia to buttress its neighbor against its rival, and the Islamist militias / government of Somalia calls for a wider, jihadist type of war.

While the US has not been officially in Somalia since the post-Blackhawk Down pull-out in 1994, the CIA had been funding some of the non-Islamist warlords, hoping to help them defeat and capture some other warlords.

[O]fficials said the CIA effort, run from the agency’s station in Nairobi, channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to secular warlords inside Somalia with the aim, among other things, of capturing or killing a handful of suspected members of Al Qaeda who are believed to be hiding there….

Indeed, some of the experts point to the U.S. effort to finance the warlords as one of the factors that led to the resurgence of Islamic militias in the country. They contend that U.S. support for secular warlords, who joined under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, may have helped to unnerve the Islamic militias and prompted them to launch preemptive strikes. The Islamic militias have been routing the warlords, and they now claim to have taken control of most of the Somali capital.

“This has blown up in our face, frankly,” said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research organization with extensive field experience in Somalia.

“We’ve strengthened the hand of the people whose presence we were worried most about,” said Prendergast, who worked on Africa policy at the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration.

In a way, Somalia has eerie similarities to Afghanistan of about 8 or 10 years ago. A country in anarchy after a superpower pulls out, various factions and warlords vie for supremacy. None is strong enough to prevail, until an Islamic fundamentalist militia comes in, routs the feuding warlords, and imposes a sense of order over the country. The order is an improvement over the enduring warfare for the local people, but the government develops ties to a global Islamist jihadist network of forces, such as Al Qaeda.

So now, Ethiopia, with, it seems, more than tacit but not quite overt, US support, is moving in to tip the balance toward the non-Islamist warlords. I guess we’ll see how this turns out.

Oh, and for those of you who celebrate it, I hope you enjoy a nice holiday today.

I’ll be engaging in the very traditional Chinese food and a movie. I’m thinking maybe chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce and The Good Shepard.

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