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.

Corruption Kills … and Other Signs

Effective states are marked by a strong respect for the rule of law. Corruption undermines a culture of respect for the rule of law. Instead, government decisions – both big and small – are shaped by corrupt practices. Or, in the case of “grand corruption,” senior officials simply help themselves to public resources in unlawful ways. In the end, though, all states – even the most effective ones – face a perpetual struggle against graft and official thievery. The images below provide some snapshots of anti-corruption campaigns in places as diverse as Detroit, India, and Uganda.

Corruption Complaint Box in India

An ironic shot (2007) from the Indian-controlled portion of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Photo credit: watchsmart (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

"Corruption Kills" sign in Uganda

This sign from Uganda says it all. When corruption results in ineffective governance, it is indeed deadly. Photo credit: futureatlas.com (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Anti-corruption Poster from Nigeria

What does it mean to inhabit a “corruption-free zone”? Photo credit: jbracken (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

A Protest Sticker in Detroit

Corruption is universal, as this sticker from Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A. suggests. Photo credit: CAVE CANEM (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Anti-corruption Stop Sign

A simple, but powerful statement of civil disobedience. Photo credit: Naberacka (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Helping Failed States in an Age of Austerity

Anti-austerity Protestors in Ireland

Protestors of austerity budgets in Dublin, Ireland, November 2012. Photo credit: informatique (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

According to traditional wisdom, helping failed states is expensive. Right now, Europe, Japan, and the United States are loaded down by a massive debt burden. Emerging powers – including China, India, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa – don’t seem too interested in bankrolling expensive new state-building missions. So, it looks as though we are at an impasse. Except, that we’re not.

The first premise – on the financial costs of helping failed states – is not necessarily true. Successful state-building / reconstruction can involve long deployments of foreign militaries and billions of dollars in international aid. Foreign engagement in Afghanistan, for example, has been anything but cheap. Yet, this costly “big footprint” approach is not the only available option in assisting fragile states. And that is a good thing, given the unavoidable reality of this age of austerity.

Europe, Japan, and America are clearly in the midst of an age of austerity. “Austerity” simply refers to a massive and sustained program of public spending cuts (and tax increases). Even without the massive deficit spending associated with the Great Recession (2007-), these established industrial states were facing structural imbalances. In all of these areas – but especially in Japan and most of Europe – rapidly aging populations are severely straining prior social welfare commitments. In the U.S., a pervasive anti-tax culture has also starved the state, and therefore led to more dramatic tradeoffs between domestic spending and foreign assistance. On current trends, the present decade is likely to remembered by much of the world as a “lost decade” economically, due to the circumstances of austerity.

No matter. The onset of austerity could actually be a helpful stimulus to creative thinking about responses to state failure. Because we must come up with low-cost solutions to state decay, it is more likely that we will do so. Two key options are the following: 1) provide diplomatic flexibility to redraw the territories of existing states and 2) in rare cases, allow “stateless zones,” rather than push the development of modern states where they are not wanted. You can read more about these and other low-cost solutions to state failure in my new book, State Failure: Realities, Risks, and Responses ($4.99, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo).

Critically Weak and Failed States are the Last Holdouts on Polio Eradication

Immunization Campaign in India

India exceeded the expecations of many in its anti-polio campaign. The efforts of local groups, such as the Rotary Club of Nagpur (pictured) are part of the story. Photo credit: Rotary Club of Nagpur, India (Creative Commons license).

In the West, the news media tends to spotlight terrorism risks emanating from failed states, to the exclusion of other important threats. As I discuss in my book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses, state failure is not necessarily linked with terrorist activities, and especially globally significant terrorism. One theme of state failure that deserves more attention is public health. And recent information about polio is a prime example of the key link between state decay and global health threats.

Only three states in the world still have endemic polio. The last holdouts are Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. All three are familiar names to readers of this blog. And the lingering problem of polio strikes a strong chord with me because I have seen the victims of polio-related paralysis first-hand in Nigeria.

These weak and failed state holdouts are remarkable when compared with the global progress on polio eradication. Much has been accomplished since the 1988 launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Here I quote from the World Health Organization:

Overall, since the GPEI was launched, the number of cases has fallen by over 99% . . . In 1994, the WHO Region of the Americas was certified polio-free, followed by the WHO Western Pacific Region in 2000 and the WHO European Region in June 2002 . . . More than 10 million people are today walking, who would otherwise have been paralysed. An estimated more than 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented . . .

The situation in Pakistan is particularly troublesome, given that polio vaccination rates have declined in Balochistan and other regions bordering Afghanistan over the last decade. In Nigeria, cultural resistance to vaccination has been party of the story.

Polio Immunization Campaign in Namibia

Photo credit: coda (Creative Commons license).

Lingering pockets of endemic polio remain a global threat. The World Health Organization warns that these last remaining strongholds could lead to widespread public health problems in much of the world. As WHO’s October 2012 fact sheet states, “Failure to stop polio in these last remaining areas could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”