Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Location, location, location

To those who say that Rory Stewart is pessimistic about Afghanistan, he has this to respond:

"[…] the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole. Their previous administration provided basic road security and justice but it was fragile and fell quickly. They are no longer perceived, as they were by some in 1994, as young student angels saving the country from corruption. Millions of Afghans disliked their brutality, incompetence and primitive attitudes. The Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek populations are wealthier, more established and more powerful than they were in 1996 and would strongly resist any attempt by the Taliban to occupy their areas. The Afghan national army is reasonably effective. Pakistan is not in a position to support the Taliban as it did before. It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security.

Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?"

So there is optimism about Afghanistan, but not so much about the rest of the world, including Yorkshire. Or about the US/NATO effort, for that matter:

"It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners. Is a centralised state, in any case, an appropriate model for a mountainous country, with strong traditions of local self-government and autonomy, significant ethnic differences, but strong shared moral values? And even were stronger central institutions to emerge, would they assist Western national security objectives? Afghanistan is starting from a very low base: 30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan. But Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan."

His last point is a rebuttal to the whole idea of systematically seeing in “ungoverned territories” potential sanctuaries for terrorists. As Stewart points out, terrorist groups seeking refuge in such areas are vulnerable because no one will complain too loudly about infringement on state sovereignty if they end up getting Predatored.

Ungoverned territories also have serious disadvantages for the functioning of any organization. They lack communications, banking systems, infrastructures. Areas where state control is lax or inexistent may make it possible, for a group, to train a few people to the use of small arms and the assembling of IEDs, as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) does in the stretch of the Sahara desert between Mauritania, Algeria, and Mali. But the major AQIM attacks that took place against Algerian security forces, civilians, and foreigners have largely originated from the cells located near Algiers, not the southern ones. Saharan cells have mounted attacks against isolated military outposts, in 2005 and 2008, kidnapped tourists (one of which they killed last month), and, over the past two years, killed four French tourists and an American aid worker: tragic events, to be sure, but not destabilizing ones. These cells' biggest potential for harm lies in the (few) people and the money (provided they do not decide to keep all the ransom money for themselves) they send to the northern cells. There is only so much one can do in the middle of the desert…


  1. The threat from ungoverned spaces is a larger concern to those with a sort of Tom Barnett-ish outlook, which is to say those who accept that "disconnectedness defines danger." In this model, the real problem with ungoverned or weak states is that they're not plugged into the (American-led, and America-benefitting) global economic order.

    Now, in order to make that a more meaningful angle to the broader world ("globalization is the rising tide that raises all boats!" doesn't seem to be working that well), there has to be an argument that "connectdness" results in prosperity, and that poverty (but also social dislocation) is responsible for terrorism and other threats.

    Which, of course, is far from certain.

  2. I'd add one nuance to Gulliver's description, which is to emphasize the social dislocation element more than poverty, and to point out that it isn't sufficient on its own for the emergence of globally oriented terrorism etc., but rather a (necessary?) permissive condition.

    And since social dislocation is an inherent part of how societies change and adapt (accelerated to varying degrees by globalization, depending on where you look in the world), those who benefit from the global order had better do what we can to steer that change in directions that are compatible, or the hostile alternatives will continue to proliferate and grow.

    In other words, it's not absolute deprivation that's the problem per se - it's how people perceive themselves in relation to the global order.

  3. "Pakistan is not in a position to support the Taliban as it did before."

    Why is this? Or, rather, would this stay the same for a significant period of time?

    Yeah, that's the part that worries me, too: location. It's just a tough neighborhood. I mean, so is Iraq, but there was some sort of functioning state before, unlike Afghanistan which never really seems functioning for any length of time.

    Okay, subject-matter experts, pile on if need be.

  4. '("globalization is the rising tide that raises all boats!" '

    Oh, I so want to argue with this (hey, I knew the term license raj as a child and when you are part of a globalized, technocratic diaspora, some of this talk can be irritating), but it's sort of not the thread to do it :)

  5. Stewart's point regarding the 'supply' of ungoverned spaces is, I think, quite neatly illustrated by the recently publicized change in cocaine smuggling routes into Europe.

    What might be another side to that coin, the inability to really exercise the surveillance and control over these areas that could deny them to undesirable groups, is illustrated equally well by the failure of the EU's Balkan strategy. Extending European governance networks into Bulgaria, Romnaia, and the former Yugoslavia has failed utterly in to deny them to the organised criminal networks which bring drugs, guns, untaxed products, and sex slaves into the EU and particularly into London.

    It's not just that we cannot occupy all of these spaces, but also that we cannot in reality 'govern' them even when with the per capita resources applied to EU protectorates like Bosnia Herzegovina.

    Perhaps Afghanistan could be usefully seen not as "Obama' Vietnam", but rather as "The Neoliberals' Suez". A war fought for the sake of clinging to an outdated conception of our identity and our potential role in the world.

  6. RA--I'd add just one thing on criminal networks and the cocaine trade: the increasing use of West Africa as trade platform. Guinea of course is the example that comes to mind...this article was pretty good>:


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