Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Failed States, Counterinsurgency, and Nation-building

Here's an interesting piece arguing that failed states are not the existential threat to global order that many leading counterinsurgency theorists assume they are. It's a good point. It's become a truism that failed-state problems will eventually spill outside their borders to threaten US interests, but that claim is supported more by anecdote than by analysis.

Sure, Afghanistan sheltered the 9/11 terrorists, Colombia exported huge quantities of cocaine, and the collapse of tiny Rwanda led to a continental war. So how have we solved these issues? We unseated the Taliban from Afghanistan, so they've moved their terrorist hospitality suites to Pakistan and now Afghanistan exports huge quantities of heroin. Colombia could hardly be considered a failed state these days thanks to Uribe's heroism and smart US support, but still exports only slightly less huge quantities of cocaine. And while we continue to ignore festering conflicts in central Africa, nobody really seems to have an plan for what we should be doing instead.

Conversely, while the overriding perceived threat from failed states is that they might produce international terrorists, the 9/11 plot was financed by supporters in Europe and the Gulf petrocracies, and the terrorists themselves were educated in Europe and got their critical flight instruction in the US. Yes, the Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda during this period, and we quite rightly curb-stomped them for it, but that doesn't prove al-Qaeda couldn't have succesfully attacked us without their safe haven. The terrorists who have attacked Britain have had no need for safe havens in failed states.

None of this is to say that we should abandon the struggling parts of the world to their fate and pull back into isolationism. But the still-infant success of counterinsurgency theory in one part of the world shouldn't delude us into thinking "boots on the ground" will solve all the world's problems, or for that matter that conventional strategic power is obsolete. Development also matters, and freeing trade is the single most important thing the government can do on this front. Military partnerships to strengthen legitimate governments of chronically weak states will pay dividends in the unstable and unpredictable future. And there will always be parts of the world that beg for the old superpower bootprint.

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