The violent dangers of “failed states”

By Jonathan Power

The current belief of the government of Barack Obama is that there are two major fault lines in the world – one in the Middle East and one in the so-called “failing states”. “From Africa to Central Asia to the Pacific rim nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. These failed states are the perfect incubators for extremism and terror”, President Obama has said.

But is this true? The evidence suggests it manifestly is not as a general case although obviously Al Qaeda’s operations in deeply troubled Afghanistan and Pakistan (which some say is heading towards becoming a failed state) suggest that there has been some truth in the assertion.

Sub-Saharan Africa, which has more than its fair share of very weak states, has not been attractive, by and large, to outside extremists and terrorists. Despite the conflict zones, ungoverned spaces, porous borders, refugees, social cleavages and large-scale corruption most of Africa has not been infected by jihadists, even those countries such as Tanzania and Senegal which have large numbers of Muslims and plenty of poverty.

In the last couple of years there has been some jihad activity in northern Nigeria with perhaps indirect support from Al Qaeda. Recently in Mali Al Qaeda has been reinforcing Tuareg rebels although lately tension between the two groups has pushed them apart. In Somalia, a country with no proper government, the continent’s only truly “failed” state, Al Qaeda-supported militants have sought control but they have now been beaten back. The poorest countries of all – Chad, Niger and Mauritania – have not been infected. Neither has Congo despite its never ending civil wars (although much less now).

The countries top of the list for harbouring Al Qaeda are much wealthier – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Algeria, Morocco, Germany and Indonesia. One scholar estimated that 87% of Al-Qaeda members live or have lived in Western Europe.

Why do transnational terrorist organisations prefer better off, more stable, states? Where anarchy is the norm terrorists must spend precious resources ensuring their own protection. Also terrorists need access to modern communications, transport and financial infrastructure.

The arguments are not dissimilar when it comes to the issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In reality a government, even a terrorist group, needs high levels of expertise and the necessary ingredients and that will not be found in failed or poverty-ridden states. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq spent $10 billion over a decade trying to build nuclear weapons and failed, yet it had far more resources than a weak state or a terrorist group.

What about theft? Two countries in particular, Russia and Pakistan, which are not failed states but where there are doubts about the security of their nuclear weapons or, in the case of Pakistan, Islamist infiltration, have been a cause for alarm. But Russia by the year is tightening up its security. And the US has lent its expertise to helping Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal. Still there must be a question mark over Pakistan.

Some say weak states are good smuggling routes, in particular states that border nuclear-have and biological weapons’ powers in the south of the old Soviet Union and South Asia. Radioactive materials have been detected on trains leaving Kyrgyzstan, one of which was bound for Iran. Bribery can get a smuggler a long way. However in recent years smugglers of such weapons have had little success. Many arrests have been made and convictions secured. Policing has become much more sophisticated.

Al Qaeda from its Afghani redoubt did attempt to make chemical and nuclear weapons and did recruit some Pakistanis with nuclear expertise. It did not make serious progress. Al Qaeda also supported the Sudanese attempt to manufacture chemical weapons. But these are exceptions. The likelihood of other failed states doing the same is almost non-existent. As the network of the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan revealed, the countries that he connected with were those in the middle income band.

In truth, today’s “worry list” is very short – North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Syria. While they can be accused of being weak states in the political sense they are not “failed” states.

The link between state fragility and transnational threats is overblown. There are a number of countries that should worry us because of their serious economic and social weaknesses and fragility of their political structures but they are in no way a threat – namely Kenya, Sudan, Yemen, Congo, Mali, Somalia, the Philippines, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

It is convenient for some institutions, such as the Pentagon, and even some foreign aid advocates, to play on the issue of the danger of “failed states” and use the false argument about the likelihood of terror and the proliferation of arms of mass destruction as a way to win more financial and political support. But in reality a calmer approach is called for. And that goes for President Obama too.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2012

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