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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Cityscapes from Fragile States

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, is still struggling to rebuild after a massive earthquake in January 2010. The residential areas in this photo are representative of the low-rise, crowded neighborhoods of many cities in fragile states. Photo credit: Siri B.L. (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Urban growth in developing regions has been rapid for many decades. In some cases, major cities are doubling in population in less than a generation. It is in these places that key challenges of weak and failed states are focused. Cities like Lagos and Karachi are now among the biggest in the world. These two are among the candidates to overtake Tokyo and Mexico City as the largest on Earth.

Lagos, Nigeria Traffic

Lagos, Nigeria is infamous for its clogged roadways. One outgrowth of “go slows” is street hawkers (pictured) who weave among slow-moving vehicles. Photo credit: dolapo (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Lagos, Nigeria Trash Dump

The “informal sector” in developing countries includes many workers who recycle materials from trash dumps and other places. Pictured is a scene from Lagos, Nigeria. Photo credit: boellstiftung (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Karachi, Pakistan School Children

Cities of fragile states are youthful, which is a key cause of their rapid population growth. Above is a school group in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo credit: Photogeraphar 0345-3333888 (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

 

 

The Drones are Here and Geopolitics Will Never be the Same

Predator Drone

The “Predator” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is just one of many drones available for military and civilian use. This picture was taken in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. Photo credit: Blyzz (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

“The United States launched another drone strike in Pakistan … in Yemen … and in Somalia.” These are familiar headlines in the post-September 11, 2001 world, especially under the Obama administration. Some analysts even credit these “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV) missile attacks with turning the tide in the fight against Al Qaeda. And, if Al Qaeda is fading away, governments’ use of drones is on the rise. Geopolitics will never be the same.

A recent Time magazine cover story highlighted the rapid expansion of UAVs in both national security and non-military arenas. The article, by Lev Grossman, is an even-handed assessment of the real and potential benefits and drawbacks of these flying wonders. Civil libertarians and privacy advocates are right to raise serious concerns about the rush to deploy drones in domestic airspaces. In the arena of foreign policy, the geopolitical implications of drones are also worrying. Here are some of the key concerns.

  1. Drones dramatically lower the material and political costs of war. As more countries acquire unmanned aerial vehicles, governments will have new capabilities to launch attacks on other states and their own populations. Minor provocations tied to drone strikes could rapidly escalate.
  2. Just as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is now fond of UAVs, other governments will presumably embrace drones for covert operations. Like “cyber-warfare,” the potential growth of lethal covert operations could be very destabilizing in regions like the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia.
  3. Respect for sovereign airspace (and national sovereignty more generally) is likely to decline, particularly with respect to weak and failed states. Admittedly, there are enormous benefits associated with gathering intelligence through a robot drifting or hovering thousands of feet in the air. Even so, critics are right to worry about neo-imperial over-reach.
  4. More and more innocent civilians may suffer from these drone strikes. In Pakistan alone, U.S. drone strikes have resulted in the killing of 261 to 891 civilians (i.e. non-terrorists / non-militants) since 2004. There is huge potential for much more carnage, especially if UAVs proliferate in certain zones of instability, thereby creating uncertainty about which government or group is responsible for the attack.

With respect to drone warfare, we are now in a period somewhat analogous to the early nuclear era, before the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (1968). The United States has once again led the way in developing and deploying bold new weapons of war. As drone expert Micah Zenko argues, it is very much an open question as to whether the international community will be able to appropriately use these technologies.

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.

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.

Persecuted Christians

I am a Christian. And I identify and sympathize with the tens of millions of Christ followers who face intense hostility and persecution in their daily lives. During this Christmas season, I think it is appropriate to call attention to the plight of persecuted Christians, even as we recognize that those from other faiths also face indignity and repression because of their spiritual beliefs.

Lest I quickly lose all of my non-Christian readers, let us begin with some other notable examples of religious persecution in today’s world. And, given their global influence, let us focus on Muslims.

In India, the Muslim minority (approximately 15 percent of the total population) has long faced discrimination with respect to employment, housing, and construction of mosques. At times, Indian Muslims (and Christians) have endured extreme episodes of communal violence, sometimes abetted by local public officials.

In Europe, the growing Muslim community faces more subtle, but still meaningful discrimination. In particular, Europeans have a long record of placing constraints and bans on mosque construction. In many Europeans countries – past and present – Muslims are forced to worship in “garage mosques” and other concealed worship spaces due to limitations of religious freedom. And, of course, some of these same restrictions are appearing in many localities in the United States, as the Muslim population in America grows.

That said, Christians are uniquely vulnerable to global persecution. And that persecution is particularly common and forceful in parts of Africa and Asia, including in some of the weak and failed states that are frequently covered by this blog.

An excellent source of information about persecuted Christians is The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM). VOM particularly focuses on a few dozen countries that are “restricted” or “hostile” to Christianity. Restricted countries are those that have formal laws or government practices that actively repress Christians (and usually other religious groups). Hostile countries are those such as Nigeria and India, in which Christians are routinely subjected to attacks or severe discrimination despite government attempts to prevent such persecution.

Jos, Nigeria Christians

The city of Jos is part of Nigeria’s religiously volatile “Middle Belt” zone. Pictured are members of the Evangelical Church of West Africa at a groundbreaking ceremony in Jos. Photo credit: Mike Blyth (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

The politically difficult reality is that majority Muslim states compose the overwhelming majority of restricted and hostile states. And the vast majority of all majority Muslim states are “restricted.” Of the more significant majority Muslim states, Turkey, Jordan, Mali, and Indonesia are merely “hostile” environments, according to VOM. (The other key restricted states are China, North Korea, Burma, Vietnam, and Cuba.)

I am a Christian. But it is my divinely-given responsibility to seek peace with all people, including Muslims. It is also a fact that Muslim majority countries are some of the most difficult places for Christians in today’s world. During this Christmas season, Christians in safe environments would do well to not forget those in persistently difficult places.

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.”