Thursday, October 26, 2006

Failed States, Insurgencies, and Civil Wars

Although most people agree that there is such a thing as a failed state, it's hard to agree on exactly what the term means. There is overlap between failed states, insurgencies, and civil wars, and at the margins it's impossible to tell when one becomes another, but the concepts are distinct.

To me, a failed state is one in which the central government is unable to prevent its territory from being used as a launching pad for significant acts of violence abroad. An insurgency is an armed group powerful enough to engage a country's military, but not powerful enough to threaten the government's fundamental control. When an insurgency becomes that powerful, you're probably looking at a civil war.

Let's try some examples. Taliban-era Afghanistan was not a failed state. The Taliban permitted al-Qaeda to run Afghan training camps, and welcomed Osama bin Laden as a guest. These were not failures on the part of the Taliban, but rather policy. And the conditions that led to the Taliban were not those of a failed state, but rather civil war.

Iraq in its current form is not yet a failed state. Certainly the government's reach is limited, but for now, violence there is mostly internal. I would say that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war in which the presence of foreign troops is dampening some of the violence. If that violence begins to spill across border, Iraq will be a failed state.

Various governments in Latin America are unable to control their narcotics traffickers, who are heavily armed, control significant territory, clash with government forces, and smuggle billions of dollars of their product abroad. I wouldn't argue, though, that the states in question should yet be considered "failed." If these groups continue to grow in power, the insurgencies they represent could worsen, perhaps eventually into civil war. But as long as the violence is primarily internal, we aren't dealing with a failed state.

It's widely recognized that the United States is unable to control its borders, with regard either to people or drug smuggling (I know "control" here is a controversial term. I use it to mean "achieve a desired policy outcome"). Is the US a failed state? Again, I would argue not: illegal immigration is primarily an internal matter, and the drugs smuggled into the US are consumed within US borders.

What about Mexico, then? It can't stop its people from crossing illegally into the US, right? True, but I would argue that Mexico doesn't want to stop these crossings. Illegals in the US remit a huge amount of money to relatives back home. If it's policy, however, tacit, by definition it isn't a failure. Moreover, the movement of people itself isn't violence, although it does raise the question of whether even without violence a cross-border phenomenon can become serious enough to invoke thoughts of failed states.

Lebanon, it seems to me, is the current poster child for failed states. The elected government is unable to control militias (chiefly Hezbollah); the militias control significant territory (southern Lebanon); they use that territory as a launching pad for significant acts of violence abroad (rocket attacks and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, provoking this past summer's war with Israel).

Right up there with Lebanon is Pakistan. The Pakistani government is unable to control its tribal areas, which are used by the Taliban and al-Qaeda to attack Afghanistan. If it's true that the government was unaware of A.Q. Khan's nuclear trafficking (doubtful), it raises that interesting question about non-violent but serious effects again: is a government's inability to control something as monumental as trafficking in nuclear technology and know-how something we recognize as state failure?

France is unable to control its Muslim-dominated suburbs. Attacks in those suburbs are getting worse; police describe the situation variously as an intifada and as civil war. But the attacks are internal; the "no-go zones" are not yet being used to launch significant attacks abroad. So France, it seems to me, is facing a gathering insurgency, which, given the percentage of Muslims in France and our increasingly connected, open-sourced times, could eventually become a civil war. But France is not a failed state.

There's a lot of room for discussion about the terminology in this post, I know. I'm looking forward to comments, and then to offering some policy prescriptions.


Sean Chercover said...

Great post, Barry. First, I very much like the way you've defined your terms, and I'll go with them.

I agree that Iraq is not a failed state, but a state in the midst of a civil war (not on the brink, as many of our politicians would have us believe, but in the midst).

And I agree about the "various governments in Latin America," and about Mexico. Mexico's policy is clear, if unstated.

I have a problem with the idea of Pakistan as a failed state. Because, like Mexico, I think Pakistan may be indulging in unspoken policy. Unlike Mexico, Pakistan claims that their policy is diametrically opposed to the reality on the ground, but I suspect that the military dictatorship running Pakistan is playing the international community with rhetoric that the community wants to hear, but has a contrary unspoken policy. I may be wrong. I don't insist upon it; I suspect it. What do you think about that possiblitly?

France...well, I have a hard time with the idea that France is on the verge of civil war. Maybe you know something I don't (actually, you know lots of things I don't, but I mean, about the situation if France). But I don't see France descending into civil war, or becoming a failed state.

Anonymous said...

Then the UK is presumably a failed state... They are unable to prevent their territory - Diego Garcia - being used as a launch pad for significant act of violence abroad, since Diego Garcia is the US's primary launch platform for acts of agression and war against sovereign states in the middle east.

Anonymous said...

What's the correct term for a state without any central government, failed or not? I'm thinking of Somalia.

Barry Eisler said...

Sean, I didn't mean to imply that France is on the verge of civil war. If the troubles in the banlieus become more widespread, sustained, and organized, though, we might think of it as an insurgency. Great survey on France in the current Economist, BTW.

Harry, Somalia is commonly thought of as a failed state. I don't know that much about the situation on the ground there, other than that Ethiopia has troops there. As for significant acts of violence abroad, I don't know... it may be that commentators are thinking of Somalia's potential as a terrorist training ground when they call it a failed state.