No Sustainable Peace without Involving Transnational Partners

Next week the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law will bring together a mix of academics, policy-makers, and NGO representatives to talk about the transnational dimension of ‘local’ conflicts, in Mali and Afghanistan more particularly. Before we all meet in the Hague the Knowledge Platform, in cooperation with The Broker, is hosting and coordinating an online debate on these questions (http://www.kpsrl.org/online-debate). Here is my contribution (for replies and more debate, see link above). If it is true, as former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once said, that “the international system is only as strong as its weakest link,” then fostering state capacities in so-called failed and failing states is a necessity. Since 9/11, state failure has been considered a threat to international security or, in Stewart Patrick’s terms, “an incubator and vector of multiple transnational threats.” Yet, recent international efforts to build states in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have been highly ineffective, if not counterproductive. Last week’s capture of Mosul by an Al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is yet another example, if anyone needed one, of the international community’s failure to bolster state consolidation. Worse, external intervention often leads to more political instability. If Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is indeed that regime change does not bring peace and security. More than twenty years after the US debacle in Somalia, the international community is still ill equipped to deal with complex conflict environments in which armed groups, warlords, transnational networks and whatnots tend to thrive. Even counterinsurgency has failed. Non-state armed actors always seem to find a way to survive: Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and other groups all around the globe always find the support they need elsewhere, in particular through their regional and transnational networks. In face of this conundrum the trend seems to be towards empowering local militias who can compete with these networks at the local level: a new paradigm that relies on non-state armed actors and builds on existing disputes, frustrations, and ethnic divisions to fragment and weaken other non-state armed actors. In the past few years, tribal engagement has been a key feature of the US counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. American soldiers have been recruiting and arming local forces to fight insurgents on the basis that they have valuable knowledge (both in terms of networks and terrain) of areas that remain inaccessible to the state. It has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive, both politically and financially. Yet it has backfired in the past, most notably when some of the “Sons of Iraq” that were sponsored by the US turned against their former patron. It is a dangerous strategy that hinders state-building efforts and overlooks the regional (and transnational) dimension of these conflicts. Strategies that strictly focus on the local level are bound to fail. International efforts cannot succeed without taking into account transnational entanglements. It is precisely because regional powers are sometimes part of the problem that they need to be considered part of the solution. Regional actors have long-term strategic and economic interests in these conflicts and more leeway to operate in these complex environments than does the international community as a whole. These regional actors can no longer be ignored nor can they be sidelined: there will be no sustainable peace in Afghanistan without engaging in a constructive dialogue with Pakistan; no stability in the Middle East without bringing Iran to the table. As the American administration seems to realize this, in the light of the recent events in Iraq, we might see a change of attitude on the international stage. It is the only way these seemingly intractable conflicts can be solved.

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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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