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May 01, 2009

Blogging Nagl - The Failed States Myth
Posted by Michael Cohen

John Nagl and Brian Burton have a new piece in the Washington Quarterly arguing that the military must improve its ability to wage counter-insurgency. As regular readers of DA are well aware, I don't see eye to eye with this view. Over the next week I'm going to blog a bit on the article and highlight some areas of disagreement and agreement.

One of the more routine assertions of the COIN-danistas is the notion that the US is not only fighting a long war with Al Qaeda, but is facing a future of responding to the challenge of failed and failing states, which represent the locus of future US security threats.  Now, as I have written before here I think the very notion of a long war with Al Qaeda and more specifically jihadist terror groups is terribly misguided. Not all jihadists are necessarily a direct threat to our national interests and the response to every homegrown jihadist movement is not always via our military. This sort of shoot-first attitude (which led us down many a wrong path in the Cold War) creates a self-perpetuating cycle that can only help ensure we will indeed fight a Long War, with both real and imaginary enemies.

But beyond these misperceptions there is a deeper one that underpins the counter-insurgency model - the failed state as an incubator of terrorism against the United States. Nagl writes:

Trends like the youth bulge and urbanization in underdeveloped states and the proliferation of weapons and advanced technologies point to a future dominated by chaotic local insecurity and ‘‘non-traditional conflict’’ waged by non-state actors rather than confrontations between the armies and navies of nation-states.

This likely future of persistent low-intensity conflict around the globe suggests that U.S. interests are at risk not just from rising peer competitors but also from what has been called a ‘‘global security capacity deficit.’’ Gates recently warned that ‘‘the most likely catastrophic threats to our homeland, for example, an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states.’’ As a result, the U.S. military is more likely to be called upon to conduct counterinsurgencies, intervene in civil strife and humanitarian crises, and rebuild nations than to fight mirror-image conventional forces.

Now I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that non-state actors represent a serious (perhaps the most serious) threat to the United States. But as for the popular notion that catastrophic threats to our homeland will emanate from failing states well I'm not sure the evidence is there. As Stewart Patrick points out in this excellent Washington Quarterly piece from 2006:

Policymakers and experts have presumed a blanket connection between weak governance and transnational threats and have begun to implement policy responses accordingly. Yet, they have rarely distinguished among categories of weak and failing states or asked whether (and how) certain types of developing countries are associated with particular threats. Too often, it appears that the entire range of Western policies is animated by anecdotal evidence or isolated examples, such as Al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan or cocaine trafficking in Colombia. The risk in this approach is that the United States will squander energy and resources in a diffuse, unfocused effort to attack state weakness wherever it arises, without appropriate attention to setting priorities and tailoring responses to poor governance and its specific, attendant spillovers.

Some weak states have incubated global threats - obviously Afghanistan and Pakistan comes to mind. Others are responsible for regional instability (Somalia, Congo, Lebanon and North Korea). But the majority of failed states represent very little threat to America and to address Gates's argument more directly, they are highly unlikely to be the source of a terrorist attack (particularly one involving WMD) against the United States (for example, Haiti, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Cote d'Ivorie, Burma, Uganda, Guinea, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc).

Indeed many of the threats we confront today come states that would hardly be considered failed or failing. Right now we are dealing with a possible pandemic and bloody drug war from a non-failed state next door (Mexico); the pot, cocaine and heroin that kills thousands and leads to crime in America comes from places like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and even Canada. The 9/11 hijackers were trained in Afghanistan, but resided in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other potential jihadists find support in Western Europe.

And Tuesday's excellent New York Times article on cybersecurity bears noting as well. As the article makes clear many of these attacks are coming not from failed states, but instead from places like China and Russia - and not necessarily from the government. In case you don't think is a serious threat consider the words of former direction of National Intelligence Mike McConnell who "argued that if a single large American bank were successfully attacked 'it would have an order-of-magnitude greater impact on the global economy' than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks." McConnell also warned that “the ability to threaten the U.S. money supply is the equivalent of today’s nuclear weapon.”

Considering the multi-varied types of threats confronting the US, it makes the notion of a military response to the phenomenon of failing states that much more of a head-scratcher. Nagl argues that the U.S. military will "be called upon to conduct counterinsurgencies, intervene in civil strife and humanitarian crises, and rebuild nations than." First of all it is hardly clear from the COIN experience of Iraq that such a course of action would even be effective, but beyond Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan how would a military/nation-building response in the vast majority of failed states be in America's interest? Nagl notes that "Insurgency is a classic strategy of the weak, and it has been successful in case after case when the stronger power tried to combat it with sheer military might. After witnessing the United States struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, both state and non-state actors are likely to adopt a variety of insurgent methods to try to keep the U.S. military off balance." Now Nagl uses this argument to dismiss a too great focus on conventional warfare. But to my mind his argument is just a strong a case against counter-insurgency. If non-state actors view insurgency as an opportunity to bloody the nose of the US military (a goal that OBL was seeking pre 9/11) why would the US play directly into their hands?

Nagl also relies on a very selective history to make his case for a future of failed state intervention:

Despite protestations of prominent foreign policy elites that the United States ‘‘doesn’t have a dog’’ in many of the sub-state fights going on around the globe, U.S. forces have been sent to intervene in strategic backwaters like the Balkans and Somalia in the recent past, and there have been demands from within and without for the United States to do even more in places like Darfur and Rwanda. Those pressures will only grow in a globalized world in which local problems increasingly do not stay local.

This is highly misleading. The experience of the US military in Somalia was a disaster and conveniently ignored is the fact that this intervention -- where we sent ground troops and tried nascent nation-building -- was stunningly unsuccessful. As for the Balkans, the United States did not intervene with ground troops (peacekeepers) in Bosnia or Kosovo until only after a peace agreement/cease fire had been reached in both locales - and it was not our military that did nation building in either country, it was the United Nations and other civilian agencies. And while Nagl is right that the demands to intervene militarily in places like Darfur and Rwanda have grown, doesn't it tell us something that such demands have gone unmet? It is hardly accidental that the United States did not send ground troops into kinetic environments as nation builders in each of these situations.

Failed and weak states represent areas of potential threat to the US, but Nagl's response - counter-insurgency and nation-building -- is not only political realistic it makes little sense from either a strategic or tactical perspective. Above all, it is a disproportionate response to what are, for the most part, not vital threats to the United States.

Failed or failing states represent a serious challenge to the global system. They can be breeding grounds for disease, conduit points for criminal networks, sources of regional instability even, in rare cases, home to terrorist groups. But it's crucial to recognize that failed states generally demand humanitarian or development-oriented responses rather than military responses. And in the case of some failed states sometimes the best policy is one of containment (Somalia is one example that comes to mind). But when we start thinking that every failed state is a nail that needs to be dealt with by a hammer we are creating a self-perpetuating reality of more and more unnecessary and ill-advised military interventions.


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Nice post. But how is North Korea a "weak state"? North Korea seems pretty totalitarian to me, not weak at all. Ineffective in providing its citizens with basic needs, yes. But not weak.

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