Failed States, Counter-Terrorism and Obama

Last week, President Obama delivered an important foreign policy speech, which has significant bearing on the future of weak and failed states. In contrast to the wide-ranging aspirations of Bush’s “War on Terrorism”—and even some of Obama’s earlier rhetoric about global counter-terrorism efforts—this speech set forth a modest foreign policy agenda.

During most of the George W. Bush administration (2001–2009), the grand narrative of global counter-terrorism dominated official rhetoric. The 2002 National Security Strategy declared that America and other stable democracies were fundamentally threatened by weak and fragile states. The experience of Afghanistan was used as the main example of how a failed state could become the source for global attacks.

In reality the Bush administration never had the resources, time, or political will to develop a truly global response to threats emanating from failed states. Even if Bush’s rhetoric matched policy realities, failed states have never primarily been terrorism-related threats. Yes, Yemen and Somalia could certainly be added to the discussion involving Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even so, the primary security threats associated with failed states are more local in character.

Obama’s recognition of the obvious last week is worthy of praise: Americans do not have the patience and spirit of sacrifice to sustain an unending, meddlesome global counter-terrorism effort. (Nor do Americans really want to engage in long-term nation building projects as part of a global counter-terrorism strategy.) Besides, such an undertaking was never really achievable anyway. Citizens and leaders in a democracy should be able to call out hubris when necessary. Particularly in an age of budgetary austerity, the U.S.A. has no business sustaining an open-ended illusion that one powerful country can remake vast regions of the developing world for its own ends.

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Hope for Somalia?

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu in wilder days, prior to the African Union peacemaking mission. Photo credit: ctsnow (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Al-Shabab is in retreat. The country has a new president respected by many at home and abroad. Foreign donors are pledging significant new aid. Peace is taking hold in larger portions of the country. This is a season of hope in Somalia. Or, at least it seems that way to outside observers.

But what are Somalis envisioning for their future? Are ordinary people eager for a federal system held together by a Mogadishu-based central government? The new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has impressed Britain, America, and other key states with his rhetoric about a decentralized political system. No significant tasks have yet been completed on the path to a federal Somalia.

Like Afghanistan, Somalia does seem to be an appropriate candidate for shared power between local and national governments. Both countries have long histories marked by intense political loyalties rooted in local communities. Both countries have cultural foundations in pastoral lifeways.

In the case of war-ravaged Afghanistan, federalism is the road not taken. The Hamid Karzai era has been one of centralized political power, backed by foreign military might and international aid.

In Somalia, President Mohamud may yet prove skeptics wrong by pursuing and constructing a democratic federal system in this failed state. Developing a federal structure is hard, even in more favorable environments than Somalia. To succeed, federations need strong momentum in favor of democracy and the rule of law. And decentralized systems require particularly strong courts, in order to sort out power struggles between local governments and the central government.

Putting all of these challenges aside, it is still not clear that most Somalis want a modern state—federal or otherwise. Western governments, the African Union, and the UN may all desire a reconstructed Somali state. Perhaps most Somalis continue to see the modern state taking more than it gives. If that perception continues to hold sway at the grassroots level, maybe the latest state building effort in the Horn of Africa is just old wine in new wineskins. I welcome feedback from those on the ground in Somalia.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO’s Departure

Rural Afghanistan

It is the small, rural places of Afghanistan that will ultimately shape the country’s long-term political future. The village of Istalif is pictured. Photo credit: AfghanistanMatters (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced that an additional 30,000 American soldiers will be leaving Afghanistan over the next year. This announcement drew big applause in the United States, but the more significant Af-Pak news on this new year is emergent support from Pakistan. As NATO – and particularly the United States – draws down combat operations in advance of a 2014 withdrawal deadline, progress in Afghanistan will increasingly depend on internal factors in the region. Pakistan’s new supportive orientation is a welcome development, but it may not be enough to overcome the difficult internal dynamics of Afghan society.

As is well understood in South Asia, but often forgotten in the West, Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan has been driven by its fear of geopolitical encirclement. India, not Pakistan’s failed state neighbor on the West, is the essential reference point in Pakistani foreign affairs. In an effort to stymie Indian influence on its flank, Pakistan began supporting militant Islamist groups in Afghanistan during the 1990s. This support – though changed after 2001 – continued over the last decade.

It now appears, though, that Pakistan’s military – which fundamentally controls the state’s foreign policy decision making – favors a change of course. The generals now appear willing to risk greater Indian influence in Afghanistan for the opportunity to promote lasting, comprehensive peace in their war-torn neighbor. It is shocking how few news outlets in the West have seized upon this development as a watershed. It appears that war fatigue has so consumed Western publics that this news no longer sells sufficiently.

So, if NATO’s eminent withdrawal is focusing minds in Islamabad, the same may not be true in Afghanistan. Here we turn to the internal dynamics that will be decisive in determining whether the country will go beyond state failure.

To say that Afghanistan is a “failed state” is misleading. This designation suggests that Afghanistan has a tradition of successful centralized government. While its history over the last few centuries has offered brief moments of more effective governance, Afghanistan lacks a clear sense of national identity and an historical experience that unites all of its peoples and places into a common governing structure. Piles of development aid cannot easily change a political culture that primarily looks to local political institutions for collective action. Worse, the present Afghan state is highly centralized, even as it is weak and ineffective in many parts of the country. Federalism – though more appropriate for Afghanistan – is not easily implemented.

Should we therefore be pessimistic or optimistic about Afghanistan’s fate after 2014? Where we stand right now, we should be a bit more optimistic, given the improved external environment for state building. Even so, we should not be shocked if this rugged, landlocked place is still struggling mightily a decade from now.

Geopolitical Issues for Obama’s Second Term (2013-2017)

When Time magazine selected Barack Obama as their 2012 person of the year, they noted that the re-elected president is seeking to emphasize domestic issues in his second term. While this emphasis may come about, it is highly likely that foreign affairs will occupy much of Obama’s time after his second inauguration.

Following is a quick preview of seven key geopolitical issues that will likely occupy much of Obama’s agenda. What is remarkable is how few of these issues were intensively debated in the long 2012 election campaign.

  1. America’s fiscal health
    The early January deal on tax rates is only the beginning of efforts to restore balance to America’s public finances. If the president is successful in brokering a grand bargain with Republicans, defense and foreign affairs spending will inevitably decline in a significant way. Contrary to the perceptions of many Americans, the U.S. does not spend a great deal of money on international aid and non-military foreign affairs. It is particularly the Department of Defense that would have to adjust to an earlier era of austerity.
  2. Climate change
    In 2012, candidate Obama was stunningly quiet about the ongoing climate crisis. After the big letdown at the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, world leaders committed to keep working on a comprehensive plan in South Africa in late 2011. Because of the Great Recession, and a market-driven shift to cleaner fuel sources, American greenhouse emissions are now lower than when Obama took office. Much hard work remains, and major battles loom over EPA regulations and U.S. participation in an international climate change framework.
  3. Iran
    It is quite possible that Iran will develop deployable nuclear weapons during the second Obama term. The real threat may be a chaotic nuclear arms race in the Middle East. As Ray Takeyh and others have argued, a nuclear Iran could be contained. Other consequences of a nuclear Iran may be harder to address.
  4. Political reform in China
    China is on track to become the world’s largest economy by 2020, if not several years before. That progress, and China’s growing influence around the world is directly dependent upon the country’s political stability. China’s new leaders will be severely tested over the next four years to manage political dissent and information flows.
  5. Transition in Afghanistan
    Though Obama did not start the war in Afghanistan, he took direct ownership with the surge of 30,000 additional soldiers into this failed state. The key issue is whether political reconciliation can occur with a sufficient number of the Taliban.
  6. Europe’s future
    Europe starts 2013 with some signs of hope. Notably, borrowing rates are sharply lower for most of the region’s governments. Yet, centrifugal forces in the European Union remain strong, and it is quite plausible that President Obama will have to help manage the disintegration of the EU.
  7. Illegal drugs and the Americas
    For now, immigration has receded as a defining issue in relations between the United States and its southern neighbors. It is not clear how interested Obama will be in proposing new solutions for the drug-related violence and instability confronting Latin America.

Weak and Failed States in 2012

The year 2012 was an eventful one for the world’s weak and failed states. What follows is a quick review of some key trends and highlights from the year that was.

In Afghanistan, the “forgotten war” continued. A long-sought political settlement with the Taliban proved elusive as NATO and the United States prepared for a full military departure in 2014. Insider attacks by Afghan government security personnel on NATO soldiers grabbed headlines, as did continued evidence of widespread corruption and dysfunction in the Afghan government. Afghan watchers are very nervous about the post-2014 era.

In 2012, Pakistan muddled along on a variety of fronts. Relations between Pakistan and the United States remained very strained, even as cooperation improved somewhat by the end of the year. Most critically, the military establishment has strengthened its position with regard to the country’s politicians. Civilian control of the military is only an aspiration at the present time, and true democracy is therefore on hold. Militant attacks on aid workers halted efforts to eradicate polio in Pakistan’s border regions.

In Syria, the ruling Assad clique fought a losing effort of regime survival. If last year was a tragic year in Syria, the year ahead may be catastrophic. The United Nations warns that this key crossroads state could produce more than one-half million refugees in 2013. Intense urban warfare in Damascus and Aleppo could lead to truly awful humanitarian conditions.

Tuareg Rebels in Mali

Mali, previously stable and democratic, suffered major setbacks in 2012. Photo credit: Magharebia (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In three African states, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR), insurgents secured or expanded zones of open defiance. Governments lost the ability to control vast portions of territory, a key marker of state failure. The troubles in the DRC, related to the M23 rebel group, were particularly noteworthy. Rwanda and Uganda again meddled in the internal affairs of their large neighbor, as they did during Africa’s World War of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Despite gains in governance and economic development over the last decade, Nigeria continued to suffer the effects of a well-organized Islamist insurgency. Boko Haram does not seem to represent a mortal threat to the central government, but the Islamists’ activities are further straining religious coexistence in a deeply divided country.

Finally, I close this review with some hopeful developments. In Southeast Asia, the long-mismanaged Myanmar (Burma) is moving towards political openness and engagement with the rest of the world. Though sometimes ignored due to its location between China and India, Burma is an important, resource-rich state that deserves more attention. And Burma seems to be steadily moving in a positive direction, thanks in part to a more enlightened set of autocrats.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma’s opposition and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo credit: World Economic Forum (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In the Horn of Africa, 2012 was a relatively good year for Somalia. The Western-financed AU mission is helping the Mogadishu-based government push back militant Islamists. Al-Shabaab lost a huge amount of territory in the last year. And, whatever the reasons, maritime piracy off Somalia declined in the last 12 months.

In Latin America, a new narrative is emerging in Mexico, and perhaps all of Central America. In Latin America’s second giant, economic development and new political momentum is shifting the discourse away from drug violence, even though that violence is still stubbornly high.

Measuring Corruption (in Failed States)

Earlier this month, the respected NGO Transparency International released its annual survey of public sector corruption around the world. The Perceptions of Corruption Index is the most influential effort to assess the relative cleanness of governance throughout the world.

First, here are a few highlights from the 2012 survey, which assigns a score of 0 to 100 to each state, with 0 representing a highly corrupt public sector and 100 representing an extremely clean public sector.

Anti-corruption poster in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo credit: Raymond June (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Anti-corruption poster in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo credit: Raymond June (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

The cleanest clusters and states are: Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand, and Canada. Others scoring fairly well are Chile, Uruguay, Japan, the United States, and a few other European countries.

When examined by world region, Eastern Europe and Central Asia – including Russia, Ukraine and the “-stans” – fare the worst for public corruption. Ninety-five percent of these countries score below 50 points out of 100. (For comparison, 70 percent of the world’s states also score below 50.) Sub-Saharan Africa has the next worst scores overall, with 90 percent of the region’s states scoring below 50 points.  The Middle East and North Africa ranks as the third most corrupt region in the world. And the Americas and Asia Pacific are slightly below the world mark, with 66 percent and 68 percent, respectively, of countries scoring below 50 points.

Figures for the world’s key failed states are fairly predictable. The ten lowest ranking countries – meaning those where bribery, rent-seeking behavior, and corruption are entrenched – include the following failed states: Afghanistan, Haiti, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Somalia, and Sudan. Other critically weak and failed states score very poorly on the survey, including: Chad, the DRC, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, and Pakistan.

But how do we know that these scores are valid? Transparency International freely acknowledges that they are assessing perceptions of corruption, and not absolute levels of public sector impropriety. Just a cursory look at the summary index map reveals an  old pattern, with Western countries judged as less corrupt and non-Western states labeled more corrupt. Perhaps the old process of Orientalism is at play in this influential global assessment.

A more careful look at the numbers, though, reveals some subtle differences that matter. In Africa, Botswana has a score that is identical to Spain’s and a bit better than Portugal’s. Ghana’s mediocre score is meaningfully better than those of Italy and Greece. Chile and Uruguay have similar scores to that for the United States.

What are your thoughts about this survey? Do you give much credibility to these scores and rankings?

Corruption in Afghanistan (A Failed State and The Collapse of Kabul Bank)

The collapse of a bank does not always get the attention it deserves. In the case of Kabul Bank, the largest private bank in Afghanistan, the collapse reveals much about the governance challenges ahead for this failed state.

On November 28th, the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee released its report on the Kabul Bank collapse. Headed by the Slovenian Dragos Kos, the committee issued a stark and troubling picture of corruption at the highest levels of Hamid Karzai’s government.

The fraudulent scheme was relatively simple. Politically well-connected shareholders and executives – possibly including Karzai’s brother – issued huge loans to themselves under false pretenses. Over 90 percent of the bank’s loans – worth more than $860 million – were distributed to only a dozen individuals and their firms. At the same time, Kabul Bank officials kept a separate set of books that claimed the loans were issued to a longer and distinct set of borrowers. In the end, the fraudulent loans were put to very unproductive uses, such as the purchase of villas in Dubai. When details of the fraud began to leak in 2010, panic ensued and depositors began a run on the bank. The resulting bail-out – representing up to 6 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product – is a financial and political scandal of massive proportions.

The Kos committee report evokes the gravity of the scandal:

The importance of the collapse of Kabul Bank cannot be overstated . . . Every citizen in Afghanistan will bear the [bail-out] cost of the hundreds of millions of dollars . . . This is real money from the annual budget of the government that could be much better spent on other priorities such as education, health care, infrastructure, or security . . . The cost of the Kabul Bank crisis should not only be understood in monetary terms . . . This [social] cost undermines the government and international community’s efforts to build viable institutions in Afghanistan.

As the Kos report makes clear, the most shocking aspect of the scandal is not the monetary scale of the bank’s collapse. Rather, it is the corruption and rot within the Karzai government that should get the headline. Electoral fraud, pervasive rent-seeking behavior, and crony capitalism are becoming the hallmarks of the government in Kabul. The story of Kabul Bank is just one more powerful reminder that the state building road in Afghanistan is long and winding, and filled with back-tracking.