Hard-Earned Humility

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week, nearly twelve years after the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime, President Obama spoke of a “hard earned humility when it comes to [the U.S.] ability to determine events inside other countries.” Recent events in Syria and elsewhere have hinted at the fact that the U.S. is no longer into shaping the world through regime change. At the UNGA, President Obama made it crystal clear. We all know from experience that it can quickly backfire. Toppling an unfriendly regime is easy. Finding a replacement isn’t.

As teams of CIA paramilitaries were first sent into the rugged valleys of Northern Afghanistan in October 2001, building a state there was not really on anyone’s agenda. The U.S. had learned from the Brits and the Soviets that long term involvement in Afghanistan was never a good idea. Getting sucked in was not an option. Yet, pre-emption, state-building, and regime change were all part of the plan, at least on paper (see the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy). The result was an overly ambitious and at times contradictory foreign policy called the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), which progressively led to complex, expansive, and largely unsuccessful state-building missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  

These days are behind us, at least for a while. U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq and are now leaving Afghanistan. Yet, if one is to believe what President Obama said on Tuesday, that his country still plays (and has to play) an “exceptional role” in world affairs, one can only wonder what type of leadership and actions President Obama has in mind. Since 09/11, much of the focus of U.S. country assistance outside Iraq and Afghanistan has shifted towards identifying sub-state actors on the ground that exercise capacities to control populations and collect information about their social relationships and transactions. The idea is to work with our SOBs so to say, so that we can get information on the ones who threaten American long term interests and security. Overall, the trend seems to be towards controlling disorder more than imposing political order: keeping insecurity at bay, at least to a level that (U.S.) decision-makers deem acceptable. In light of last week’s tragic events of the Westgate mall in Nairobi, one can only wonder what the acceptable level is. Are countries like Somalia and Afghanistan orderly enough or do weak and failed states necessarily threaten international security? 

About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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36 Responses to Hard-Earned Humility

  1. Collin says:

    I don’t think weak states necessarily threat international security. According to the “Failed States Index” (http://ffp.statesindex.org/rankings-2013-sortable) Mauritania is a weak state. But does it effect international security? It depends on how you define ‘international security’. Countries where islamic paramilitary groups are present are rapidly considered a threat to international security in western opinion. Of course there is a truth in that: these groups often have links with groups in other groups that share their ideas. But countries that are been called weak states mainly because of drug wars, Mexico for instance, are they considered to be a threat for international security? Of course these drug wars are a bad thing but are they a threat to the Western World? Africa? Asia?

    • Collin says:

      It is threat because of the drug trade but it doesn’t want to attack other countries and spread their ideology.

      • Ferdinand says:

        Isn’t the drug trade a problem of certain country. It could lead to big problems within a country. But it becomes an international tread when those groups have the will / ideology and become strong enough to operate and endanger other countries.

  2. Vvl says:

    I agree with Collin that weak states aren’t necessarily a threat for international security. When looking at international security, I think the focus shouldn’t be primarily on states, and if they are weak (and thus a threat) or not. Rather, when looking at international security, I think the focus should be on ”groups of people” instead of states. Looking at the last few years, attacks (such as the Nairobi attacks) are mainly executed by groups (Al Qaida, Al Shabaab) or by individuals (such as the Boston bombings). And yes, it is true that the most dangerous groups, such as Al Qaida, tend to settle in weak states. But I don’t think that weak states and international threats are as directly linked to one another as is suggested.

    • Collin says:

      I think it’s a combination. A weak state can be a threat for international security when it’s in possession of prohibited weapons. The accusation of Iran for instance.

    • Dnl says:

      You both agree on this one when you say weak states tend to provide for terrorist groups and terrorist groups tend to settle there. But weak states can in fact form a threat for other countries. Pakistan is a good example. The United States is hugely involved in the Pakistan politics and they are 24/7 “protecting” Pakistan government from terrorist attacks, just to not make it a rogue state, since Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

      • martvrieze says:

        I think the real problem with “failed states” is that they do not have the capacity to completely withstand radical groups because the state lacks the monopoly of violence. The U.S. did not go to war in Afghanistan because they couldn’t get along with the Taliban regime, they percieved the regime as Nick Cage accurately describes as a regime that harbored terrorists. And as Dnl puts it, they do not want these states, like Afghanistan to become “rogue” and provide terrorists with the means to harm the west.

  3. Afghanopoly says:

    I think you two perfectly identified the tensions that exist in the 2002 U.S NSS and further U.S. policy, in particular the tension between going after rogue states, whose foreign policy directly threaten international security and trying to rebuild failed states, for they provide fertile ground for terrorism and organized crime.

    According to the 2002 U.S. NSS: “The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.”

    I mentioned a shift towards “identifying sub-state actors on the ground that exercise capacities to control populations and collect information about their social relationships and transactions.” That is very much in line with Vvl’s idea of focusing on “groups of people.” Given the political and financial price of building states, American foreign policy seems to be shifting towards identifying non-state armed actors that can fight those “groups of people,” or at least provide enough information for the U.S. to do so.

  4. IvN says:

    What I found striking about the speech of Obama was that he actually admit that the US has failed to create a political stability in Afghanistan. They did not succeed to create a regime that fit in their standards. However, he still sees the US as a country that has to play an exceptional role in world affairs. Even after Afghanistan and Iraq he still thinks that the US is the actor who has to take the lead. But to reach that role in a good manner, the way to do that is changed. Direct intervention in states does not seems to be the case in the future. They will focus more on information and groups. So they kind of changed the rules to keep their position in the world affairs.
    The question what the acceptable level is for the US is hard. I think that they have learned from their mistakes and will not be involved in a conflict without a good plan. So they will tolerate more. Only a direct threat to the US, or more indirectly to the US via the international order, will lead to an action from the US. Weak and failed states are no longer the only argument for action.

    • Nic.Cage says:

      First of all, the internal stability (weak/failed) of a state was never the main argument for intervention from the US. After the cold war, Afghanistan went through a long period of political instability during which the US never bothered to intervene. The main reason for intervening was the fact that the Taliban regime harbored members of Al-Qaida.
      Secondly, I don’t think the US has become more tolerant of state behaviour than before.
      Take for example Iraq versus Syria:The Iraq intervention was targeted against a leader who refused to cooperate with the international community, most notably with weapon inspectors. Saddam Hussein was considered to be an unstable leader, and had already proven to be unreliable in the past (most notably the Kuwait invasion). Assad is considered a lot more reliable and receptive than Saddam Hussein used to be. Also, the US’s greatest fear for Syria, would be a radicalist Taliban-like regime change.
      So I actually don’t think that the US has actually changed their opinion on state intervention.. Obama still uses a lot of the same rhetoric that his predecessor had also used: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xIwdug75C8.

    • sergiu says:

      Since United Nations will remain compact U.S. will have a leading role. They had the title of “‘world referee” and history gives us the reason why. The League of Nations ( the institution before U.N.) mostly failed because U.S never made part of it. Wilson create it , but the Congress didn’t accept it. We saw what happened after with the rising of the Second World War.
      Having U.S. at the U.N. is like having a breadwinner in the house. You cannot live without. They accepted this role and if we like it or not, we must adapt at this “‘exceptional role”‘.
      They surely lost some world legitimacy and they surely made some mistakes but we gave them that position.(and they quite earn it with their political and military force ). By recognizing that power , we , in some kind of way, subjugated under their judgement.
      Going to war, nowadays , without the support of U.N and U.S is like suicide. Maybe they will get involved in collateral wars, but this is what they always did.(to support the Afghans, to support the South Koreans, to help Israel, etc etc ) . Syria is to dangerous and the economy is not sustainable now.

      • Roy says:

        My opinion in addition to Sergiu’s statement.

        I think it’s very easy to blaim the countries that act and make mistakes in the proces. Interventions like the one in Afghanistan are new, there is no guide how to do it faultless. It ‘s falling and getting up, changing the strategy in the proces suitable to the specific country.
        I don’t deny there should have been collected more intelligence from the start but if the Netherlands would have been in the spot of the US in 2001 there would have been unending political debates what to do, and nothing substantial would have happened (without interference of other countries). Al Qaida would probably still be stronger than it is today and more terrorist attacks would have been planned. In the end we just need a ‘brainless pitbull’ to do the filthy work, if the US wouldn’t have that role who would? (I’m absolutely not justifying every decision that was made) But:
        “Achteraf is makkelijk praten en de beste stuurlui staan aan wal”

      • Ferdinand says:

        I believe the U.S. took this role uppon it self it is not like te rest of the world gave this task to the U.S. I believe you can see it the other way around, if the U.S. always acts first than other Western countries will likely act less fast, because it is not necesarry to act anymore. I have to agree with sergiu that going to war without the support of the U.N. or U.S. is not that smart.

  5. 2ways says:

    In addition to the above comment of Afghanopoly & IvN; This change of tactics has already been happening in Afghanistan for years. Although the US placed Karzai in power, it is merely a puppet-regime that is currently working with old power-holders in specific (small) areas of Afghanistan. The so called “warlord-governers” (as described by Mukhopadhyay in his paper ” “Warlords as Bureaucrats: The Afghan Experience,”) have the actual power on the ground and gain legal legitimacy besides their traditional legitimacy. This ‘exceptional role’ the US want to play therefore is a role which is very difficult to see by the outside world. The strange thing is that in fact they tend to have even more influence than they used to have since they now not only control a central government that is in most cases weak (and can’t act in a lot of warlord controlled territory), but they actually control the warlords now. This new tactic in my eyes is smart, for it reduces territorial breeding grounds for terrorists, costs less American lives (less or no groundtroops) and causes less controversy in international politics since they are less visible.

    This new tactic can to a certain extent also be applied without overthrowing a government. As long as the US manages to get internal/local powerholders in positions where they hold power over parts of the country it isn’t really necessary to overthrow an entire government.

    To answer the blogs final question, no I don’t think a failed state means a direct threat to the international community. As is the case with the Taliban in Afghanistan: as long as there is no breeding ground for terrorist groups (which there often, but not always is) a failed state causes no danger simply due to the fact that an attack or invasion won’t be coordinated enough to cause major harm to the international community. The Taliban were considered the most radicalist group in Afghanistan (except for the ‘foreign’ group Al Qaida who used Afghanistan territory purely for it’s lack of control and law) but they caused no threat to other countries. They wanted to make an Islamic state out of Afghanistan, nothing more.

    • Sophie says:

      2ways, I agree with you that this new tactic sounds like an attractive alternative for the extensive interventions that have often proved failures. But I fear this will not be easy in the current circumstances.
      I think you’re right that in order to actually take on terrorists, the US will have to work on lower levels than the central government, but I think it’s too optimistic to say this leaves the US with more influence. You say that the Americans ‘actually control the warlords now’. But these so-called warlords are still independent actors, on which the US is dependent. As has been suggested in class, the local leaders may be only waiting for the US to get out – which they eventually will – to take over and go on doing what they want to do.

      Not overthrowing the government will also form a problem. As Thurgeis suggests, a strong – for example authoritarian – government will not tolerate foreign forces on its soil. But I think it also remains important to install a stable, in the eyes of the West, tolerable, government, for a state to ´fit´ into the international system. Think of getting foreign support and a seat in the United Nations. Maybe this will change over time, external support, for example, can already go directly to sub-state groups, but we’re not there yet. It still is important for a country´s position to be a ‘non-failed state’ in the sense that it has a functioning government that is (more or less) legitimate in the eyes of its population and of other countries.
      Moreover, at the moment, the US won´t be able to sell an intervention that leaves an ´unfriendly´ regime in place, to its home audiences.

      This ´new tactic´ that´s been mentioned in the other reactions is certainly a direction he US will take, and it will have to, but – apart from the practical risks of not having enough influence to actually make a change – it might also not coincide with the framework of ideas and expectations that the US and the international community have created over the last decades. This will have to change first.

  6. Ann says:

    Saying that failed states are a threat to international security is a bit oversimplified. There are some states that have failed, but that, as Collin pointed out, are not a threat to the Western world. We might notice something happening due to, for example, the rise in coltan prices, which are extracted in Congo, but much more. We might worry about the humanitarian situation, but might not feel that our own homes are threatened. It might become a threat as soon as global terrorism might find its breeding ground in such a place, but a failed state is first of all a threat to their own society and not necessary the international community.

    As discussed in class, a state needs several assets to function, one of them being adequate infrastructure. However, not only states need infrastructure, but so do potential terrorists. If a state has truly, miserably failed and is in a state of anarchy, wouldn’t that mean that there are no roads for terrorists to speed down? Generally, states as Yemen and Pakistan are considered more a threat then states such as Chad, too weak and failed to even pose a threat. A functioning country with functioning institutions and a promoted state ideology might give terrorists the opportunity to flourish.
    I stumbled upon this FP article (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/06/20/think_again_failed_states) which argues that there are two types of failed states; ‘hapless states’ that are just incapable of producing state policy and executing it, and ‘intentional states’, for which a design has been laid out. The author tries to make the point that some states were born to fail, as the term failed states implies some form of former success, which is not always the case and then concludes with that some of those failed states can be helped. A much heard solution is connecting those failed states to global markets, which would create economic (and eventually political) freedom, though the author argues that those hapless states can sometimes be helped by the West, whilst those intentional ones will exploit the help offered and pose the greatest threat. The question then is; what to do with intentional states, when the failure is so deeply embedded in and intrinsically part of the state?

    • NRG says:

      I agree that failed states don’t necessarily pose a threat to international security. They are however more susceptible to terrorist networks who do pose a threat to international security. The problem with these networks is that they are networks. They are not geographically bound to countries and therefore difficult to combat. For that exact reason I don’t agree with the fact that (potential) terrorists need a working or non-failed state to accomplish their goals. The network that connects several countries provides the means to do so. They might have fresh recruits from Afghanistan, funds from a cell in Saudi Arabia and a training camp in Pakistan. I do however agree with you that a terrorist organization will find it hard to thrive in just one failed state. That is what we see with the ‘Neo-Taliban’ whom are more open minded and seek popular support outside the borders of Afghanistan amongst other islamic fundamentalist group, because without their support the Taliban would not be able to keep so much pressure on the US troops.

    • Hester says:

      What also needs to be taken into consideration is who defines what a failed state is. The Fund for Peace holds the following definition:

      “loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein,
      erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions,
      an inability to provide reasonable public services, and
      an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.
      Often a failed nation is characterized by social, political, and economic failure.”

      But as we saw in for example Menkhaus’ part on Somalia (Political Order in a Stateless Society), a ‘state’ may still function when it is in a condition of statelessness. This will happen because of the small-scale institutions that still exist.

  7. Peteroski says:

    In my opinion you need at least some support of a government to threaten these groups and to go intro a country to get to these groups. The Taliban would not have let the US undermine Al Qaeda if they were actively supporting them. Then regime change, or perhaps the CIA would be the only options to get rid of the real international threats (how Al Qaeda was as opposed to a weak country).

    Furthermore I wonder if the current stance of the US is not also largely imposed by the war weariness of the voters? War is not really an option unless the US would be personally threatened I think.

  8. Thurgeis says:

    First of all I tihnk it’s a little to early to say that the U.S. is no longer into shaping the world through regime change. The fact that nothing is done about the situation in Syria is because of a change in foreign policy of the U.S. would be grossly oversimplifying international relations. Russian and Chinese attitudes are much more outspoken and challenging in the Syrian case, whereas with regards to Afghanistan their interests were less pronounced (or the Amerian interests far more..).
    In addition everything that happened on the international stage ever since 9/11 maybe did shift the power balance and might have made popular support for yet another conflict falter. After Vietnam the U.S. wasn’t exactly eager to get involved in another conflict for a while either. It’s hard to fathom what Obama is really thinking.

    I agree with “2ways” on the part that the apperant new tactic that the U.S. is using in Afghanistan is probably a smart move. However I don’t see it being applied anywhere else soon, without toppling over a regime first. A regime that perceives itself to be rightfully in power will most likely not accept foreign interference on a regional level, even if it would mean greater stability and security. Most regimes that would need intervention are rather authoritarian and mostly not to keen on sharing power.

    The article that “Ann” cites to me seems to be much in line in what I have noticed in the world. Quite a number of countries that the West has intervened in often made good progress rebuilding as long as “we” were still around, but it all rather backfired as soon as we left. It seems to me that political infrastructure and institutionalism are a thing almost comparable to culture, in that it takes a population a while (and by that I mean up to multiple generations) to get used to the new powerstructures. For us they are a thing we were born and raised with, they come natural.
    The international threat that failed states might pose can, in my opinion, be viewed in this light. A stated might remain weak for a while, even after intervention, societal and institutional developments may not take a course that the West would like to see, but maybe we cannot expect these countries to evolve into exact copies of Western states. Calling a state failed while evolving might be to early.

    On the other hand I also support the idea of looking at the context. Is the failed state situated in a region where it held an important stabilizing function or was otherwise an important power, it can be interesting to keep a very close eye on affairs. A destabilization of one country might spillover to an entire region if the region as a whole is rather weak. Starting out as a only a marginal threat (to the West anyway) and gradualy evolving into something serious.

  9. Laura says:

    In addition to the discussion above and especially to the last comment of Thurgeis I think we should take care not to reduce the concepts of international security and the international community to an American or western perspective. Failed states inherently have an international component, because the potential for conflicts is high and once these conflicts have evolved, they can spillover to neighbouring countries or cause large-scale migration flows. Thus, failed states make other states in the region vulnerable. While the issue of failed states doesn’t necessarily threaten international security in a direct manner, they still are in part international in nature and therefore impose duties on the shoulders of the international community. In this sense, failed states are not even that far away from the western world, as last week’s refugees drama off the Lampedusa coast painfully showed.

  10. In response to the previously discussed notions about international security and failed states I believe it is not the existence of a failed state that threatens security but rather the breeding ground they provide for radical factions. I would have to agree with Collin and Ann that although there are a number of failed states in the world, and that they do not inherently pose a threat to international security.

    In relation to Ann’s infrastructure argument it can be said that a failed state does need to provide somewhat of a level of infrastructure to be exploited by factions that can pose a threat to international security. If a country truly is in a state of anarchy and destruction a faction would have problems consolidating power and extracting resources before even thinking about striking at the international community.

    Hence, a failed state does not necessarily pose a threat to international security but may do so in the future if certain faction are able to establish their base of operations there and extract resources to use in attacks against the international community.

    Maybe the solution to the problem of failed and weak states isn’t trying to fix the mess once the state has already deteriorated. The solution might be to make sure existing states do not deteriorate into a failed state. One does not even have to intervene in the state directly as by focusing on neighboring states that have an adequate infrastructure, legitimacy, means of extraction, and have ample state power they might be able to achieve a more stable level of statehood through proximity. By focusing on the surrounding states an intervention in the actual failed state may not be necessary as the surrounding state will want to stabilize the neighboring weak state for their own sake. By empowering these surrounding states they may actually take it upon themselves to repair the bordering failed state, making an international intervention unnecessary.

    I understand that in the case of Afghanistan using the surrounding states would be problematic to say the least. However, actually intervening in a failed state that has had rogue factions settle in it has also proved to be problematic. Indeed the US still has an important role to play, but whilst its military is amply suited to combat conventional military threats it is at the same time not the best solution to an insurgency and a failed/weak state’s problems. The United States’ role will be important in relation to international security but this does not mean it will need to be a military one.

  11. E.G. says:

    The new strategy of working with sub-state actors and getting viable information about potentially dangerous groups of people is in my opinion an improvement. Failed states aren’t necessarily a threat to international security but could be like previous commenters said a breeding ground for dangerous groups.
    By monitoring these groups the US can asses their danger to the international community and can when necessary pre-empt. I think that the pre-emptive activities are going to be more small scaled and highly targeted. Perhaps even in cooperation with the local sub-state actors.
    It’s going to look more like fighting symptoms instead of elimination the root cause. In the past the root cause was seen as weak states but as it has shown in Afghanistan fixing the problem is nearly impossible and very expensive. I think the US has learned that fixing the problem entirely isn’t possible that’s why they changed tactics to fighting the symptoms.
    In terms of international leadership I think the US is going to have an information advantage and is the best actor to asses potential dangers. And probably has the best military equipment to execute small-targeted operations.

  12. TheEqualist says:

    The strategy the US is taking is very good. But what Obama said is also very important. He aknowledges that US is a power nation that stil plays exeptional role in world affairs. But sometimes you have to let the own people figure it out. They are the ones that grew up in the drama together and are the ones that knows the environment. Us has tried to help and buil states in the past and it wasn’t efficient. So if they don’t know how to manage the situations, so it be efficient. It’s better that they stay out of it. Because they can’t do very much after all.
    The trend now to have a couple of intelligents on the ground to monitor is much less expensive. They can monitor if there is any threat coming up for the west and so US can intervene in time.
    What happened in Nairobi is very shamefull.But they are fighting their war out there. If the governments are too weak and corrupt it’s there problem. So long al Shabbab doesn’t do a ‘9/11’ attack on the west.

    • Vvl says:

      I agree with you on the fact that the own people should have a say in it all, but I don’t think it’s an good idea to let them figure it out without any help from the West or the US. You say that the US should stay out of it, but how do you imagine it going when they will leave Afghanistan? Do you really think that the Afghans in fact can figure it out by themselves? Im not sure about that. Also, I don’t think the US can stay out of it because it is a fact that they got themselves into it. They have to finish (at least, some sort of finish) what they started.
      Another reason why i don’t agree with TheEqualist on letting the Afghans figure things out by themselves is that I think that the Western world (including the US) can in fact make a difference and help when it comes to state-building. We (the West) do have more experience in building institutions and state building overall. As said, I do agree that the Afghan people should have a say in this all, but I don’t think the US should stay/get out of it.

      • TheEqualist says:

        Vvl in some parts i get what you are saying. The west truely has a lot of experience in statebuilding. #OnPaper. In fact they never put down a good state in these regions. Name one in Africa? for example.

        So on the Long term we should help them because we got the best states #In society eyes. But as of right now, the Us just shown that they can’t adapt to the environment and so are inefficient. So before they want to go further and say alot, they gotta do their homework.

      • I.K.92 says:

        Vvl, I do agree with you that without the help of other countries it is hard to build a state. A weak state that has to fight groups like the Taliban has probably not the strength to survive. So I agree with your first point.
        However, I have to make a remark on your second point. Because the US/ Western coutries are dominant in this world, it does not mean they are the example for all countries. The way the West built states can not be simply implemented in other parts of the world. In my opinion it is so important to listen to the local people, try to understand their custums and their culture. The Western way of statebuilding works in the West, because it is based on the Western culture. It does not work in other areas of the world, because it is not based on théir culture. So, from my point of view, help is welcome, but do not think that our way is the best way to built a state.

      • Vvl says:

        I.K.92, I totally agree with you that we shouldn’t impose the Western idea on the Afghan society/people. That’s not what I want, and I think it’s definitely not what the Afghans want. I think I wasn’t totally clear in my first comment, but what I meant was that the Western world can help with state building only in a guiding way and only when asked for. It will be more like helping with state building than imposing some sort of statebuilding. For instance, there are enough Afghan experts in the Western world (who do live in Europe or US) who actually DO understand the Afghan culture and thus can play an part in advising Afghans and state building.

      • S.V. says:

        Vvl, to be hones I don’t think the Western world is willing to help any failed state with its state-building process without any form of compensation. Time, money and effort are limited resources so why would the west want to help with an incredibly expensive and complex state-building process in a failed state if there is nothing for them to gain from it. Developmental aid is a great way for the US and the EU to exert influence in these regions and to secure local resources for the future. Simply supporting the plans of local power holders without asking questions or having the ability to revise them would lead to wide scale corruption resulting in the West shelling out huge amounts of cash and expertise without having even the slightest say in what is going to happen with this money. Development and state building aid will always be on the terms set by the international donors offering the support because the recipients simply aren’t in a bargaining position.

        You also say that we shouldn’t want to impose Western ideas on the Afghan people, which is going to be difficult because every single Western administration, organization or consultancy firm involved in the state building process is going to have a perspective informed by the Western framework of ideas and definitions of what a state is as well as what works and what doesn’t when building one. This is the only system people in the West know so how can they possibly advise other cultures on building a state that deviates from their own in fundamental ways. Sure it’s important to listen to the local people and understand their customs and their culture in order to help these people in a more efficient and dynamic fashion but it’s also important to put time and effort into developmental projects that conform to Western values. I think most people in the West would find it morally reprehensible if their government actively supported the state-building process in a country that treats women as second class citizens or persecutes gay people regardless of the entrenchment of these activities in local cultural values and traditions.

      • I.K.92 says:

        S.V., I would like to react on you comment. I understand that my ideology of true local ownership is not the reality and hard to implement. But I, as an cultural anthropologist, think that it is actually a very bad thing that you see development aid as an opportunity to exert influence and obtain resources. When the US and the EU say that they want to intervene in the Afghan case for the sake of Afghan people (to protect the Human Rights for example), but actually want to intervene for their own sake, I think it might be an explanation of the failing of so many development goals. In my opionion, many world problems could be solved when people in power were not so selfish. If statebuilding is exerting influence and obtaining resources, it is indeed doomed to fail. Development, peace and statebuilding could never be created and build when the creators and builders are focused on their own interests.

  13. Afghanopoly says:

    I hear Nic.Cage’s argument that instability has never been the reason for intervening in a given country. I agree with the fact that 09/11 is the one and only reason for intervening in Afghanistan. The fact of the matter remains that weak states were seen as breeding grounds for terrorists (hence facilitating if not causing 09/11), which in turn explains that the U.S. invested heavily in ambitious state-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The following article, published today in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/world/africa/raid-on-high-value-us-target-in-somalia-hindered-by-imperfect-intelligence.html), clearly illustrates my point of a shift in U.S. policy, towards identifying sub-state actors they can work with and keeping disorder to a level they can cope with. In other words: preventing an attack that “could take place on an American company or embassy in the region, or perhaps even in the mainland United States.” At the end of the article expert on Somalia Ken Menkhaus also mentions a potential shift if “more military and covert actions against Shabab” were to take place.

  14. ML93 says:

    I also believe that the US will invest more in covert operations such as the raid mentioned in the article posted by Afghanopoly. This illustrates the fact that US foreign policy concerning “rogue states” is shifting. It is shifting from a conventional way, demonstrated in iraq and Afghanistan, to a unconventional way. The unconventional way will be more focussed on things such as drone strikes, working with local sub-state actors instead of governments and raids by US special forces.
    This development is also seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. Every week news reports about drone strikes in the Afghan-Pakistan border area emerge.The US is slowly pulling its forces back from Afghanistan but that doesn’t mean that the US is done dealing with the country. I think the new policy of the US means that special forces and drones will remain in the area long after next year summer.

  15. lc3102 says:

    Having read each one of the comments made above, it is quite difficult to add something substantially new to what has already been said. Nevertheless, something I have found lacking in all discussions is whether it is humility or pragmatic realism that President Obama offers?
    It might well be that 09/11 was the public reason for intervention, but 09/11 has also been used as a reason for intervention in Iraq. As, in the case of Iraq, were supposed WMD, ties of AQ to the Saddam-regime, and I do not know how much more. To stick to Afghanistan, to say it was a weak state under the Taliban is slightly off the mark as far as I can see. In fact, since the Taliban ruled in an authoritarian manner, yet in line with certain local traditions and with extreme violence, it was most orderly. The religious interpretation of Islam by the Taliban might be weak, but their rule certainly was anything but weak.
    In class and on this blog, we have discussed the issues of state-building, reasons for intervention, change, issues and practicalities of the work on the ground and in the field…yet, we have hardly discussed the issue of how this region (Afghanistan, Irak, the whole Caucasus, etc) is a major area for energy/oil/gas extraction and exploitation. Pipeline construction, oil and gas deals or things like that have not once been mentioned. In fact, I think that the US is more open about their deals that the Netherlands is in this regard. For example, I do not know of one serious journalist that has investigated allegations that the brother of our former Prime Minister, mr. Balkenende, was involved in making money building pipelines for gas and oil transport in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are allegations aplenty however and the brother is employed at Tenaris, an off-shore oil and gas pipeline construction company. However, other personal interests by influential decision makers in the US administration (both past and present) have been noted and written about, without a seemingly noticeable effect.
    In all honestly, I believe that things like those mentioned above, as well as a defense industry needing another threat, have motivated/dictated US involvement in the region much more than the catalyst event of 09/11 that has been heralded as its primary reason. Furthermore, I would like to close with a question on what exactly makes a state a failed state? The government shut-down in the US, economic crisis, immense levels of debt and deteriorating public health in that country could provide potential arguments for the conclusion that a failed state might just be that it is whatever you think it is. In the case of Afghanistan, I would much rather speak of country going trough transitions.

    • E.G. says:

      I think that even though the concept of a failed state is arbitrary, a consensus exist of what a failed state is. Or what the characteristics of a failed state are. Important characteristics are: the government isn’t able to provide security/ control territories, isn’t able to provide public services, isn’t able to uphold basic human rights.
      I think if you apply these characteristic on Afghanistan during the Taliban regime you can conclude that Afghanistan was/is a failed State.
      If you look at the situation prior to the Taliban regime the state of Afghanistan was even worse off. But still I think it’s safe to say that Afghanistan is a good example of what a failed state is.

  16. Sarah93 says:

    Since the interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S has become more reluctant to intervene in weak and failed states with the process seemingly being longer, more costly and difficult than the U.S had expected. Obama during his administration has also not given as much precedence to foreign policy and intervention as Bush did during his presidency which may also explain a decline in U.S intervention. The motivation for invading Afghanistan, as has already been stated by several on here, was not state-building but the immediate fallout of 9/11, state-building however, confusingly perhaps, became a necessary part of the Global War on Terror as it came to be believed by many that a weak or failed state posed the greatest security risk. However, the focus has remained on, as was stated in the original post ‘controlling disorder’ not ‘imposing political order’, with state-building still coming second to counter-insurgency. Weak and failed states can but do not always threaten international security. State’s such as Afghanistan or Somalia can pose a threat to international security in the sense that terrorist groups can and do operate within their borders, such as Al Qaeda, however most of the security risk in fact lies within the borders of the weak states themselves with the majority of terror groups or rebel groups not having an outward agenda. Weak and failed states are also often so weak and failed that they can’t pose an international security risk with them lacking the means, will or skills to cause any serious damage to the international community.

  17. Alucard says:

    As ML93 mentioned, I too think it likely the US will increasingly revolve its foreign policy with regards to counterterrorism around covert operations. This definitely does not clash with Obama’s statement concerning America’s “exceptional role” in the world, as they will still be active in innumerable operations around the globe.

    @lc3103: I tend to think that after many exasperating years spent in Afghanistan coming to terms with reality is in itself quite humbling. Realizing and publicly admitting that finding a replacement regime isn’t easy for the US is, in my mind, an exercise in humility. Especially considering their immense propensity for self-congratulatory behavior.

    As for the main question, I subscribe to the idea already proffered by many in this thread, namely that weak/failed states do not necessarily constitute an international threat, but have an increased likelihood for offering safe havens to terrorist networks, as has been displayed in Afghanistan.

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