Tag Archives: Islamists

The Conscientious Nation-Builder’s Dilemma

6 Nov

Why do state-building efforts fail?  It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  To address the limitations of state-building, I want to use the perspective of the “conscientious nation-builder”: a well-educated and well-meaning foreigner working within the bureaucratic apparatus of a governmental organization undertaking a nation-building effort.  This framework problematizes the notion that nation-building is fundamentally a technical exercise and helps explore the contradictions and paradoxes faced by nation-builders that not even the most nuanced solutions can solve.

An assumption made by most political scientists and nation-builders is that most states carry out governance evenly in their territories.  Risse et al. in Governance Without a State challenge this notion, arguing that in most states in the world, state power is severely limited beyond cities.  In place of state power, local governance structures operate.  These structures interact and negotiate with the state.  This is even more true in states such as Somalia, the DRC, and Afghanistan which have undergone extended nation-building attempts.  If many developed states cannot effectively exert their power on rural areas, attempting to recreate this model in states already suffering from a severe lack of capacity presents obvious problems.  Risse’s volume argues that nation-building attempts should work with existing state-local partnerships rather than working toward an ideal-type state.

Nation-building operates on the implicit assumption that there are inherent, concrete benefits in nation-building.  Ariel Ahram, in Proxy Warriors, argues that this isn’t always the case:

“The problem is that so many efforts to strengthen states and eliminate militias have proven quixotic if not counterproductive.  Existing policy options do little to alter the fundamental incentive structure that allow leaders in most developing countries to continue to rely on localized, informal militia forces.  Peace building and international trusteeship are susceptible to subversion by both their sponsors and their recipient or target states.  Reenacting Europe’s blood-drenched history by allowing strong states to weed out the weak is dubious on both practical and moral ground.”

Similarly, Rory Stewart argues that the presence of the state is not always necessarily better than its absence in Can Intervention Work?:

“It is true that there were no police and civil servants in the villages of central Afghanistan, and there had not been for over twenty-five years.  Yet I walked entirely safely alone and unarmed for three hundred miles through them without being robbed or murdered, because the area was generally densely controlled, in a way that had little resemblance to the descriptions or prescriptions of the international community.” 

While Ahram argues that states do generally provide security more effectively to their people, he also posits that attempts to assert a state’s monopoly on violence in areas where it doesn’t exist may only further endanger the population’s physical security.  If militias are often no worse than states, and attempting to implement state primacy has negative effects, why do nation-building attempts seek to do just that?  I think there’s an element of control: it’s easier for outsiders to understand states as Westphalian, rather than dealing with local rulers, structures, and customs.  If states do not fit this blueprint, international actors have more difficulty interacting and negotiating with non-state actors that practice governance.

Ahram and Risse et al.’s functional approach to states and state-buildings is refreshing, but they miss an important point in their policy prescriptions.  People generally want states for the same reasons nation-builders do.  Even if states are abusive, they provide order and predictability that may or may not be provided by the non-state actors that fill the void.  For the conscientious nation-builder, this presents a puzzle.  While the end goal of a state monopoly on violence will likely be popular, the road to that point is littered with barriers that may make the enterprise counterproductive.  Even if the target state does achieve a monopoly on violence, human security may be no better than it was previously, and many people may have died along the way.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State argues that authoritarian high-modernist attempts to remake society are destined to fail.  The logic of the state revolves around ordering complexity, or what Adam Elkus would call “binning“.   However societies tend to resist this attempt at uniformity.  Individual interests clash with bureaucratic logic, and local social structures do not all function in the way that the state finds easiest to control.  Therefore there is a fundamental tension between the state (order) and society (disorder) that authoritarian high modernism finds itself unable to overcome.  It is simply impossible for a state to regulate society without conceding to the society’s culture, history, and structure.  The project of nation-building can be conceived as authoritarian high modernism.  For example, Rory Stewart argues that state-building attempts in Afghanistan, and in particular a national development strategy, failed to adapt to the specifics of the Afghan situation:

“This specialized language–drawn from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy before being inserted into the multilateral policy-drafting process–was bewildering…Among the sixty-nine separate tables and charts in this 137-page plan, including ones on “predicted teledensity” and “status and accomplishment, national police and law enforcement,” the following words did not appear: Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance, and consent.  Were you to delete the word Afghanistan and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking.”

All of this puts the conscientious nation-builder in a difficult position.  Nation-building institutional culture prioritizes addressing and implementing abstract concepts, such as the rule of law and accountable governance, over deep country-specific expertise and an ability to adapt to local situations.  This isn’t a new problem: Scott notes that well-intentioned officials in 19th century Germany failed to successfully codify local forestry practices.  Even if the conscientious nation-builder wishes to get local input on nation-building plans and work with existing social structures, they face two significant impediments.  First, securing physical access to local populations can be impossible in conflict zones.  Nation-builders in Afghanistan spent almost all their time in compounds and needed enormous security details to move beyond those walls.  Second, it’s very possible these ideas that cut against the grain of nation-building culture won’t receive any support from higher-ups (akin to Ferguson’s concept of ‘development discourse’).

The conscientious nation-builder has to deal with the myth of internal sovereignty, the potential harm caused by nation-building, and an institutional culture that leans toward implementing formulaic solutions, but all these may yet be surmountable.  However, the last challenge, that of societies that stubbornly refuse to move away from non-liberal forms of local governance, may be a bridge too far.  Working with these local forms of authorities clash not only with the belief in state primacy, but also with the democratic consensus that permeates nation-building projects.  Rory Stewart again:

“There had been many regimes in the last thirty years, backed by Americans, Soviets, Saudis, Pakistanis, and now the UN mandate: royalist, nationalist, Marxist, Soviet, theocratic, and pro-Western, with many constitutions.  But there always seems to be one power in Kamenj.  Mohsin’s [the local strongman] was not the state that the international community or indeed many Afghans wanted–it was conservative and patriarchal.  But did the international community understand it, or have the formula to transform it?”

Even the conscientious nation-builder is simply not equipped to deal with this problem.  Working with rather than removing people such as Mohsin challenge the very intent of the nation-building enterprise, but so does not working with him.  Instead, as many nation-builders have done before, the conscientious nation-builder may well work with Mohsin and attempt to persuade him to liberalize his rule and surrender to state power, which he will likely agree to do without following through.  The conscientious nation-builder then has arrived at a policy destined to fail with only the best of intentions.

What is the conscientious nation-builder to do?  The problems in this post are not resolvable, but their negative consequences can be dampened.  First, the conscientious nation-builder should place the physical security of a population above everything else, and should work toward diffusing this norm within their institution.  Second, they should elicit and privilege advice from locals and country specialists who have seen previous nation-building attempts fail.  Finally, the conscientious nation-builder should be aware of the limits of the nation-building enterprise.

*A special thanks to Sara Fitzpatrick for editing and to Shervin Malekzadeh for helping me come up with these ideas.

French Troops Are Not the Answer: Mali, Intervention, and Political Engagement

16 Jan

Following France’s intervention in northern Mali four days ago, the prospects for a rebel advance to Bamako look bleak.  Despite a brief resurgence of the rebel advance following initial French airstrikes, it looks as if French firepower will halt further rebel movements southward.  Though the French intervention has changed the military dynamics for the immediate future, it has done next to nothing to address the root causes of the conflict, and furthermore, regional stability.  The Mali crisis, which has now become the Sahel crisis, is too complicated for a purely military solution, and so the UN and regional actors must get serious about their diplomatic efforts.

France’s intervention, according to some critics from the far left, is simply a neo-colonial enterprise undertaken by a power-hungry former colonial power.  This reading, however, is simplistic.  The intervention came at the behest of the acting government (concerns regarding the government’s legitimacy aside), and France’s actions are widely supported south of rebel/Islamist lines.  The intervention stopped the very real threat of an Islamist advance on Bamako, a fate that no one, non-interventionists included, want.  Despite these mitigating caveats, there are still many factors that problematize a French-led military solution.  First, there are no reports on the feelings of northern Malians regarding French intervention, partly because news coming out of Islamist areas is limited, but also because even if there individual voices reaching the outside world, they would received little attention.  There is an air of arrogance surrounding France’s actions.  This is a military operation, and the opinions (or fates) of civilians are secondary.  A French officer who appeared on the BBC World Service said, “France wants peace, but the rebels want war, and so France has no choice…We intend to crush our enemies” (The quote is not exact; I am paraphrasing from memory).  Finally, France has vowed that this will not be another Afghanistan: the operation will last just a few weeks.

France’s mission, to prevent Bamako from falling to the Islamists, is a generally worthy objective, even if the means are debatable, so that’s not the problem.  The issue here is that those directing the French forces see the mission as a purely military operation, and were willing to speed up the time table, even if soldiers had to miss out on little things like human rights and civilian protection classes.  France’s generals are simply not interested in dissecting the endlessly complex dynamics of the conflict, and are much more comfortable seeing AQIM, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and the MNLA as a monolithic terrorist mass that pose a threat to global security.  This intervention then, is based in thinking similar to the neoconservative ideology that produced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (following these abysmal failures, international norms have shifted in favor of shorter, smaller interventions).  France does not care to look at Mali’s long-term future, or think about how intervention will alter the chances of a political solution.  France wants to go in, get the bad guys, and get out before public opinion turns against the operation.  While nation-building is certainly a difficult and exceptionally risky undertaking, the rhetoric surrounding these first four days has said nothing about what, if anything, France intends to do after its intervention is over.  France has unilaterally decided to act without the support of foreign partners, an approach that is dangerous, even from a realist perspective.  The lack of a political/diplomatic front to the intervention speaks volumes to France’s attempt to achieve a “solution”.

So far, the international community response to events in Mali, like Syria, have been placed in a false framework.  The conflict is historiopolitical rather than militaristic in nature, and neither an intervention or the lack on an intervention gets at these roots causes.  Ultimately, the real choice for the international community is diplomacy or a lack of diplomacy.  So far, there can be little doubt where international actors stand.  Ban Ki-Moon named Romano Prodi, a former Italian Prime Minister, as the UN Special Envoy for the Sahel crisis, even though he is heavily underqualified for the post.  As for ECOWAS, negotiator-in-chief Burkinabe President Blaise Campaore is similarly unqualified.  Currently, the proposed solution to the crisis in Mali consists of troops numbering less than 5,000 retaking a desert region the size of Texas and reinstating Bamako’s rule while generally ignoring diplomatic options on the table.  The lack of realism is glaring.  If international actors do not get serious about parsing out Mali’s complex politics and engaging directly with all players, Mali, and the Sahel as a whole, is at serious risk.

 

Conflicts to Watch in 2013 (Part I)

1 Jan

The Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy have both come out with lists of potential conflicts to watch in 2013.  Both provide good summaries of potential global hotspots, but instead of concentrating on potential geopolitical struggles, I’d like to take a brief look at the conflicts that will likely be important for civilian protection advocates.  While the conflicts in the DRC and Burma, for example, are always at the top of the civilian protection list, I’d like to focus on six conflicts that have the potential to 1) impact civilian populations and 2) take a very different form in 2013 than they did in 2012.  Here are the first three.

Sudan

The insurgencies in Blue Nile and South Kordofan are likely to continue, and the government’s heavy handed response is also likely to stay the same.  While these two issues are currently the country’s two biggest humanitarian crises, they might not even be the biggest problems in 2013.  Growing divisions within the NCP caused what appears to have been a coup attempt in November, and combined with the return of #SudanRevolts, Bashir now looks far weaker than he has in years. Jay Ulfelder’s 2013 coup forecasts puts the chances of another coup in Sudan at number two worldwide, an event which is likely to not only initiate major power struggles within the Khartoum elite, but also involve various factions fighting it out on the ground.  There is also a real danger of a low-intensity war between North and South Sudan along the border, as the North continues to bomb within Southern territory.  In South Sudan, cattle raids between the Dinka, Lou Nuer, and Murle tribes are accruing huge casualties, and there are no signs that the South Sudanese governments will seriously address this crisis.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been in the news for years as one of the most violent places in the world, but in 2013, it’s only going to get worse.  In short, U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been a total failure, and the Afghan government does not look ready to govern on its own once U.S./NATO forces begin their draw-down, and eventually leave in 2014.  Afghan security forces are ill-trained and unable to function independently, the government is impressively corrupt, the Taliban remains strong, and Pakistan continues to meddle.  All of these factors point to an uptick in violence in the coming year.  There are few positive signs for 2013.

Mali

Designating Mali as the new Afghanistan is simplistic, but like Afghanistan, Mali is a hot mess.  In March, junior officers angry at the government’s inability to properly supply soldiers fighting a Taureg rebellion in the north mutinied, and then, perhaps accidentally, seized the state.  A few weeks later, Tuareg rebels succeeded in pushing Malian forces at of northern Mali and declared the independence or a new state, Azawad.  Since then, there has been another coup against a prime minister who pulled too hard on the leash held by the original coup plotters.  Despite facades of democracy, the real power in Mali rests in Kati, an army town outside of Bamako.

In the north, things are even worse.  Following the defeat of the the Malian army, the situation in the north collapsed into yet another civil war, as the MNLA, a secular Tuareg group, battled Ansar Dine, an Islamist faction.  The Islamists eventually gained the upper hand.  The struggle for Azawad is a complex mix of ethnic and political affiliations, and this deadly, multifaceted conflict has had a disastrous affect on the civilian population.  The conflict has caused a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands becoming either refugees or internally displaced.  On December 20th, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to back the creation of the international force to retake northern Mali.  The plan, according to both Susan Rice (who called it “crap) and Daniel Drezner, has some problems, “…the Security Council has pledged to send peacekeepers on a timetable that makes academic publishing seem speedy, without any idea of how it will be funded, staffed, or operate with indigenous forces, married to vague calls for political action to lay the groundwork for said peacekeepers.”  With or without an intervention force, the lack of any real progress toward a political solution will mean a long, deadly year for northern Mali.

The Coup in Sudan: Some Theories

5 Dec

Though the entire incident is shrouded in confusion, it appears as there was attempted coup in Sudan on November 22nd.  Though the coup did not have any real impact on violence levels or the situation of Sudan’s civilians, the potential impact of regime change on  in these sectors is enormous, and therefore it is an important issue to keep tabs on for civilian protection advocates.  The details of the event are still mostly unclear, and so while it is impossible to establish a comprehensive summary, there are a few ideas that I would like to put forward.  Inevitably, with time, the events of November 21st and 22nd will become more clear.

One theory regarding the incident was that it was simply a government hoax aimed to repressing dissent, and there was never a real threat to Bashir’s regime.  This doesn’t make sense for a few reasons.  Firstly, those arrested come from within the NCP, despite attempts to obfuscate.  Khartoum has no reason to publicize splits within the NCP if it doesn’t have to.  Secondly, the messaging in the early hours following the coup was confused.  Numerous government officials made conflicting statements about who was involved, who was arrested, etc.  Presumably, an government sponsored hoax would have been preceded by inter-agency cooperation and planning, and this seems not to have happened.  While this fact seems to almost certainly point to a putsch attempt, it at least indicates the severe lack of institutional organization within the regime.

While the coup has not led to overthrow of Bashir, it has significant analytical importance for examining the state of the Bashir regime.  Currently, Sudan is experiencing severe economic problems, which culminated in #SudanRevolts this summer.  Additionally, there are doubts about the health of Bashir, who is recovering from a throat operation.  Finally, the NCP is experiencing severe political divisions, with roughly the hard-line Islamists on one side and the reformers on the other.  These three factors, combined with the attempted coup, reveal the extreme vulnerability afflicting the current Sudanese regime.  Theda Skocpol, and other structuralists, has highlighted the importance of state collapse in precipitating revolutions.  Therefore, not only can regimes not fall without debilitating internal strife, but revolutionary movements can only exist if there are signs of state weakness.  If we accept this line of theory, we can expand her analytical framework to encompass coups, and conclude there could never have been an attempted coup without significant state weakness.  The regime is currently not fragile enough to crumble under its own weight, but it is weak enough to produce an attempted coup.

Despite obvious signs of state weakness, Bashir’s security forces responded promptly to the attempted putsch.  Though it seems clear the plotters were hard-liners from Al-Sae’ohoon, the government clumsily and belatedly tried to blame the opposition.  While the coup response was intended to strengthen and consolidate the regime, it seems to have only further isolated Bashir and his cronies.  One major question, however, is how active and deliberate was this coup?  Bashir clearly felt the need to crackdown, but was this because of an imminent coup or simply deep divisions within the NCP?  It is quite plausible that Salah Gosh was indeed organizing opposition within the NCP, but did not intend to overthrow the government.  Did Gosh really put everything on the line as the government has claimed, or was he merely working toward shifting the party’s policies in a more hard-line direction?  With the current information, it’s basically impossible to tell.

There, of course, is a long history of failed coups all around the world.  However, I think it is important, especially in the Sudanese context, to not merely dismiss the coup as a failure, but to place it within a broader context.  The current state weakness may indicate that this was a “dress rehearsal” coup.  What I mean here is that this coup was a first attempt to overthrow the government, which gives the opposition a reading on how the regime would respond to a later coup.  This can be interpreted in two ways.  Firstly, the opposition simply wanted to test out the strength of the regime, and therefore put a small group of individuals together to challenge the regime, with the knowledge that it would likely fail.  This model, however, seems overly conspiratorial.  Secondly, the weakness of the regime encouraged a small group of plotters to try to overthrow the government, but were unable to garner enough support due to others’ readings of state strength.  Opposing factions now know how the government will react to a coup, and may be able to create a larger, successful coup in the future.

“Dress rehearsal” coups have happened before.  Argentina in 1955 and Chile in 1973 both provide examples of an attempt by a portion of the armed forces to overthrow the government that failed.  In both cases, the armed forces united three months later and succeeded.  Could this happen in Sudan?  While the situation is not totally analogous, there are certainly similarities.  Like Argentina and Chile, Sudan is in a state of crisis and the public has a growing lack of trust in the government.  The initial attempt to seize the state seems to have been caused by the apparent fragility of the government, though it was too soon to actually gather support.  Ultimately, the failed coup attempt weakened the regime, and the armed forces saw that they would indeed be able to seize power.  In Sudan, we have a failed coup that included parts of the armed forces at a time of great state weakness, causing a backlash from the ruling faction.  In response to this coup, Bashir has seemingly isolated himself from both Islamists and the opposition by imprisoning the first and blaming the second.  A successful coup in the future certainly isn’t inevitable, but Bashir shouldn’t count himself lucky just yet.

* I am not a political scientist, therefore any comments or corrections on the theories presented in the last few paragraphs would be appreciated.

The Responsibility to Protect (the State?) in Mali

17 Oct

Ever since Tuareg rebels defeated Malian forces to create the de-facto independent Republic of Azawad in Northern Mali, foreign military intervention has been on the table.  Though it has not happened yet, the UN Security Council laid the groundwork for intervention a few days ago.  While most policy makers have stuck to stressing the need to fight extremism, commentators have also highlighted human rights violations by Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).  Due to these human rights violations, R2P has also entered the picture (it may well not be cited if an intervention happens, but due to the possibility, its applicability should be analyzed).  However, despite numerous executions, destroyed cultural sites, and refugees, the situation in Mali has not reached the level of genocide or a mass atrocity, forcing us to either reinterpret Responsibility to Protect’s (R2P) mandate or discard it as an analytic framework.

The second pillar of R2P states that the international community has the duty to help states protect their citizens.  But in Mali, which state does the second pillar refer to?  Bamako has no control over Azawad, but the international community does not recognize the legitimacy of the Tuareg state.  So who does the international community have a duty to assist when in comes to protecting civilians in northern Mali?  By sanctioning an intervention under the guise of R2P, the international community would assert Bamako’s claim to Azawad, and that the Malian government alone can protect civilians in what used to be its territory.  An intervention would unwittingly reinterpret the doctrine as not only a mandate for civilian protection, but also one for territorial integrity.

This interpretation, however, has its priorities in the wrong place.  It implies that only “legitimate” governments (i.e. recognized) have the the ability to protect civilians.  This is not realistic in Mali’s case.  It is not as if a small rebel group temporarily seized a few towns; Bamako has fully lost control of northern Mali, and is no longer the governing power there.  While seeing Bamako as the government in Northern Mali doesn’t match up with realities on the ground, there are still other problematic implications with this view.  The perception that Ansar Dine is inherently dangerous to civilian populations falls back on the idea of the Islamist bogeyman, where Islamists are universally opposed to democracy and human rights.  To be sure, Ansar Dine is a brutal organization that has committed egregious human rights violations, but its presence in northern Mali does not equate to a genocide waiting to happen.  Secondly, the idea that a military intervention (also known as a war) is necessary to reestablish the control of a government (in which the leader of a recent military coup still holds power) over a territory it lost so that it can reclaim its role as the legitimate protector of civilians is so ludicrous it doesn’t merit further examination.

If R2P mandates an intervention to retake northern Mali, then that implies that not only does the the international community have a duty to help states eliminate a group within their borders that are committing mass atrocities, but that it also has a duty to regain territory held by a group that might commit mass atrocities in the future.  This precedent would lend “legitimate” governments, which includes a lot of brutal dictators, justification for crushing separatist forces, as they might kill civilians in the future.  Given the current debate over R2P vs. RwP at the UN, the doctrine doesn’t need any more problems that will hamper its ability to protect civilians.

Applying R2P to Mali implies that governments must control their territory so that they can protect their own civilians, and that if they lose territory, the international community has the responsibility to help governments regain it whether or not mass atrocities have been committed.  This interpretation does exactly what R2P isn’t supposed to: it uses R2P as a justification for military actions without an intent to protect civilians.  It’s better for the future of R2P if we call the intervention in Mali what it is: an intervention to remove Islamists as part of the global war on terror.