Ian D. Quick |Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015
Current ambitions to stabilize and reshape fragile states are of very recent origin. Most of the techniques and tactics that are now fashionable were unheard of a decade ago, and virtually none of them predate the end of the Cold War. As author and researcher Graeme Smith has noted, that makes international development and security assistance akin to pre-modern medicine, “when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting, or drilled into skulls to treat madness.”
|Congolese police following an attack |
on Kinyandoni, North Kivu, DRC, May 13, 2009.
A common feature of all these cases was sustained international engagement. Self-anointed experts drew up plans and programs to strengthen the rule of law, state authority, and effective and accountable institutions—all familiar buzzwords of stabilization and post-conflict recovery. High-level conferences moved money around, while attendees spoke of peace-building benchmarks and mutual accountability. Then, in each case, everything fell apart with stunning speed. The expatriate experts, despondent to be back at square one, streamed off to other crises to recharge their optimism. Locals, lacking that option, just put their shoulders back to the wheel.
In short, there is a yawning gap between what we’ve repeatedly said that we would do in fragile states and the results that have actually been realized. This status quo is not sustainable, and it is creating huge frustrations.
Just prior to the string of crises mentioned above, the g7+—a group of countries that international development organizations have designated as fragile—had declared foreign aid to be “inapplicable, unsustainable and incompatible with our in-country national agendas.” Just after the deluge, the U.N. convened a high-level panel on peacekeeping and an advisory group of experts on peace-building. Both found a system close to its breaking point, with a chasm between what was being asked of international interventions and what they were able to deliver. On the ground, meanwhile, the distance between rhetoric and reality has all too often turned terms like “stabilization” and “state-building” into dirty words, not to be used in civilized discourse.
Yet the question of how to adjust expectations has largely been sidestepped. Both of those U.N. panels kicked the can down the road and called for more joint planning and “context-driven solutions.” Think tanks, for their part, are agitating for “problem-driven” and “iterative” approaches. But such question-begging is not adequate in the face of major ongoing multilateral interventions in a half-dozen countries and unpredictable crises in a half-dozen more. The challenge, and it is an urgent one, is to close the credibility gap and redefine what “good” really looks like.
There is a yawning gap between what we’ve repeatedly said we would do in fragile states and the actual results.
In fact, the tools to do this are already available. A more pragmatic policy mix can be found at the junction of two increasingly solid lines of empirical research. The first is historical, tracing how political and social institutions actually change over time, rather than fixating on the forms that they have eventually assumed in a handful of rich countries. The second is geographic, looking at “fragile” countries as real, physical entities rather than the abstractions of civics textbooks.
In May 2009, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed group known by its French acronym FDLR, attacked a police post in Kinyandoni, a small town in the eastern Congolese province of North Kivu. The group killed one officer and wounded several others, freed a prisoner and then torched much of the equipment that had been supplied by international partners. The police themselves fled shortly after the attack and refused to redeploy back. In fact, they had to be restrained from public disorder and looting by the local army detachment, in a near-perfect reversal of how things were supposed to work in what the U.N. now bills as “islands of stability.”
A little while later, U.N. officials went to Kinyandoni to discuss the incident with local notables. The latter complained readily enough, but about the police rather than the FDLR. The charges were grave: The officers were lazy, didn’t speak local languages, didn’t understand how local authorities worked, and stole from the population. All in all, the implication was that nobody was terribly upset that the attack had occurred.
This raised eyebrows at the time. Community leaders were clearly willing to co-exist with an armed group, and a partially foreign one at that, if it helped them to resist the expansion of central government institutions. Seen from a long-term perspective, however, what is striking about the incident was not its novelty but its ordinariness.
In the 1970s, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, flush with cash from a boom in world commodity prices, had tried a series of measures to curtail the power of traditional authorities in the eastern regions of the country, including this same area around Kinyandoni. Legislation and executive decrees set out new criteria for the appointment of local chiefs, outlined a system to rotate them between different areas, and appropriated their powers over land and policing. All this faced strong local resistance and widespread noncompliance. Within a few short years, Kinshasa gave up the attempt, lacking the strength to simply impose its will.
The pattern repeated itself during the Second Congo War, lasting from 1998 to 2003. For most of this period, the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RCD-G)—a Rwanda-backed rebel group—was in loose control of much of North Kivu and tried to establish its own proto-administration. Its ambitions, too, were fiercely resisted by local militias and traditional authorities, who quite correctly viewed RCD-G officials as agents for a narrow set of interests and foreign godfathers. Later, as the war wound down, the RCD-G’s key figures stacked military, police and administrative posts with their cronies. Many of these officials ignored their notional superiors when it suited them, and made little attempt to hide their widespread involvement in parallel taxation and illegal land seizures. As a consequence, when faced with police detachments of unknown loyalties and intentions, local communities would inevitably scrutinize senior appointments and new deployments with an eye to their past behavior. Quite often they would resist where the calculus didn’t seem favorable.
The same dynamic was clearly at work for the attack in Kinyandoni. The incident, and others like it, became a learning moment for a stabilization strategy that was very much predicated on the notion of extending central government authority.
Eventually these questions bubbled up to the strategic level, and a new U.N. stabilization framework in 2013 acknowledged that in areas that had experienced prolonged periods, sometimes a century-plus, of utter misgovernance, there was often no existing foundation on which to rebuild state institutions. International partners would accordingly shift their focus from surging in new officials and capital investment to a process of building “mutual trust and legitimacy between state and society.” The locus of effort would thus be local. Facilitated dialogue would help elucidate grievances about state institutions and identify where and how they could play useful roles, rather than assuming their benevolence.
It remains to be seen whether this more modest approach can thrive in the DRC’s broader political landscape. What is certain is that the underlying story of painful failure and still-tentative adaptation is a common one in the fragile-states sector.
The road to the Kinyandoni incident began in the early 1990s, when it rapidly became the conventional wisdom that institution-building offered a way out of serious crises. Since then, the U.N. Security Council has mandated peacekeeping missions to help reconfigure political, security and judicial institutions in no fewer than 14 different cases, ranging from tiny East Timor, with a population of 1.1 million, to huge countries like the DRC, with a population that exceeds 70 million. In 2004, Francis Fukuyama opened his short book, “State Building,” with the proclamation that both Iraq and Afghanistan presented “problems with known solutions,” and concluded with another: that “learning how to do state-building better is thus central to the future of world order.” In 2010, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) proudly declared that development assistance to fragile states accounted for 38 percent of all aid globally, with “the focus on state building as the central objective.”
Yet that surge of activity has given way to a crisis of confidence. Thought leaders now argue that much of this first generation of work was seriously misguided. They deride the prescribed approaches as “institutional mono-cropping” and the results as “isomorphic mimicry,” building Potemkin villages that look reassuringly familiar for donors but cannot possibly deliver the desired results. That such criticism reaches all the way to the founding beliefs of state-building endeavors is perhaps best illustrated by the names given to proposed alternatives, be they “problem-driven,” “politically smart” or simply “different” development aid.
The lesson for engagement in fragile states seems beguilingly simple: a rediscovery of the common-sense politics of public policy.
Underlying all of this recent criticism is a shift in the historical frame of reference. Attention has pivoted from the form institutions ended up taking in rich countries to how they evolved over time, often over the course of centuries. (Revealingly, Fukuyama followed up “State Building” with “The Origins of Political Order” and “Political Order and Political Decay,” a combined 1,000-plus-page, two-tome survey of comparative political development “from the very beginning of mankind.”) Much of the intellectual groundwork here was done by the new institutional economics, a loose school of research that first arose in the 1970s. Its adherents sought to puncture the fantasy of neoclassical economists that the “rules of the game” that prevail in advanced liberal democracies could simply be taken as a given, and examined how, why and when those rules developed.
Perhaps the key insight in this regard has been that moments of transition—when the rules of the game suddenly shift—are critical. As the recently deceased Nobel Laureate Douglass North summarized, speculative long-term efficiency gains are weak incentives for action in environments where “all politics is real politics, and people risk death when they make political mistakes.” Elites do not dive headfirst into root-and-branch institutional reforms given immediate uncertainties about how well things will work, and an invariably uneven distribution of costs and benefits. Populations living on the survival line have even less room for error, and correspondingly strong reasons for caution. To ignore this and demand rapid and drastic reforms is to “kick away the ladder,” as the economist Ha-Joon Chang put it, by which more stable polities climbed to their present state.
The lesson for engagement in fragile states seems beguilingly simple: a rediscovery of the common-sense politics of public policy. The aim is to identify problems worth solving, from the point of view of stakeholders with interests that will be affected or influence that might determine success. But there is a necessary implication that is harder to swallow. There was little reason to think that the rapid forward march of “Big Government” would be welcomed in Kinyandoni. There is equally little reason to think it will be welcomed in other places with a long history of absent or predatory state institutions. A widely acceptable solution may thus involve only minor institution-building, or none at all, in the medium term. For outsiders, that means bringing themselves to put faith in arrangements that seem unfamiliar, ad hoc and perhaps even regressive.
In June 2006, a company of the U.K.’s 3 Para Battle Group landed in Sangin, in the north of Afghanistan’s Helmand province. They were attacked almost immediately by local militias, and pitched fighting continued for months on end. Sangin became an unlikely staple of tabloid covers and TV talking heads back in the U.K., alongside a slew of breathless paperback accounts with titles like “Danger Close,” “A Million Bullets” and “3 Para: Real Combat. Real Heroes. True Story.”
These ground-level narratives document the hard-won triumph of technology and know-how over terrain and small numbers. High-tempo helicopter operations enabled resupply, rotation and casualty evacuation. Gunships, close-attack aircraft and a forward base 10 miles away provided fire support. An extensive logistics “tail” kept the U.K.’s Scimitar and Spartan armored vehicles operational and brought in a mind-boggling range of supplies from international sources.
All this is impressive, and the accounts nerve-racking to read. But viewed from another perspective, it provides an overabundance of evidence that Afghanistan’s own security forces could not possibly replicate the feat of 3 Para. British planners were acutely aware of this from the outset. They had always been skeptical about the sustainability of the deployment into Sangin, and had instead pushed hard for a more modest presence around Helmand’s main centers of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk. Yet the political pressures were immense. Afghan officials from then-President Hamid Karzai down to the provincial governor insisted that “if the black flag flies over any of the district centers, you may as well go home because we’ll have lost our authority to govern.” Government authority was, for them, an all-or-nothing proposition. The U.K. went along in an effort to prove itself a credible partner in Kabul, and perhaps more importantly in Washington.
Once in place, the deployment stretched out as it became clear that Helmand’s governor was a political unknown and could not reach a modus vivendi with rival factions around Sangin. The 3 Para Battle Group was replaced by a Royal Marine brigade; total U.K. forces increased threefold to 9,500; then some 20,000 U.S. Marines flooded into the province. Expeditionary to the bone, the latter committed not only to the Sangin Valley but also to villages hundreds of miles to the south in Helmand’s “desert of death.” The logistical complexities increased apace. The political complexities did likewise, with each step outward implicating a new array of old tribal factions, new settlers, narco-traffickers and Pakistan-based Taliban. The central government’s remit depended upon an ever-more-complex array of alliances, backed by the big stick of NATO’s military prowess.
Of course, the U.S. and the U.K. became increasingly uncomfortable propping up this status quo. U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 strategy review finally adopted the maxim: “Don’t clear and hold what you cannot transfer.” His subsequent statement of intent prioritized a core “secure area” encompassing key population and economic centers, where insurgents had to be denied access or control. Outside of this, they would merely be “disrupted” or kept on the back foot.
In his memoirs, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates singles out northern and southern Helmand as falling outside the logical “secure area.” Time proved him right. NATO’s heavy counterinsurgency approach rolled on unchanged for a few more years until it scaled back to Obama’s expressed intent, but when foreign troops were finally pulled out, Kabul’s control over the Sangin Valley immediately began to fluctuate. Each loss of ground prompted anguish in the British and American press about the sacrifices that had been made over the years to “clear” it.
Looking back at this history, one can’t help but ask a basic question. Was the Karzai rhetoric of a “flag over every district” the right conceptual starting point? Was this really what a state such as Afghanistan, with an unbroken 25 years of civil war and conflict in the rear-view mirror, must look like?
Stakeholders must be prepared to accept that “good” will look a lot more like Nigeria or Pakistan than like Switzerland.
The empirical answer is an unambiguous “no.” Worldwide, stable international borders bely a reality of fairly widespread violence. A recent IRIN feature on the world’s “forgotten conflicts” included long-running violence in 41 countries. Most of these score much higher than Afghanistan on any given index of government capability, and much lower on any reasonable assessment of topographical difficulty. Even when such wars end, they tend to recur: About 60 percent of countries that have experienced a civil war since 1945 have had a second, and 40 percent have had three or more. This risk is clearly concentrated in weak and marginalized states, which experience conflict at a rate between 10 and 40 times higher than rich ones.
The corollary is that uncontested territorial control has always been a project, rather than an inherent characteristic, of nation states. As the political scientist James C. Scott has pointed out, concentrating political authority and hard security capabilities inevitably creates “shatter zones,” areas that are geographically or culturally distant and where people resisting or fleeing central authority tend to congregate. In the present day, we see the limiting cases of this phenomenon in large, sparsely settled states like Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all countries that provide multiple “habitats” with difficult terrain, low population densities and porous borders. In such areas armed resistance is cheap, and intensive governance is prohibitively expensive. Central governments are accordingly pushed into polite cohabitation with local forces, or often even subservience to them.
Afghanistan is only one step removed from these extreme cases. The country’s golden era, under the Musahibans from 1929 to 1973, was notable for its exceptionally light touch in the Pashtun tribal belt of the south. In Helmand this meant working arrangements with a half-dozen tribes, for the most part leaving them with responsibility for local security and justice. To the east, Pakistan’s leaders protest even today that they are similarly unable to bring the fractious border areas under full control, and are no doubt taken a little more seriously after the NATO experience in southern Afghanistan. In both cases we find a remarkable continuity of language and practice with the British Empire’s approach in South Asia, which made liberal use of “princely states” in difficult regions, alongside the tellingly named “hill districts.” In both cases expectations for central authority and control were simply much, much lower.
There is a real tension here with modern security and development discourses that seem unable to countenance ungoverned spaces, or rather, spaces not governed by a recognized state. Over the past decade, NATO’s overreach in southern Afghanistan has been paralleled by expansive “state authority” mandates for U.N. peacekeeping interventions in Sudan, Darfur, eastern DRC, South Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic. The average surface area of this latter group is about 800,000 square kilometers, on an optimistic reading. This represents more than a tenfold increase from the first rush of U.N. “state-building” missions in the preceding decade, alongside a fivefold decrease in average population density.
This fact is rarely discussed, and official rhetoric continues to insist, as in Helmand, on a “flag over every district.” Leaders with finite resources face constant complaints about “losing” territory, allowing “impunity” in frontier areas, and “leaving communities behind.” Desperately limited human and political capital is tied up in the hardest-case localities, with little left in reserve to deal with looming threats.
Eventually, however, the physical realities tend to reassert themselves. Different expectations emerge for difficult and thinly populated regions, just as they did for the United States of the 19th century or Russia of the early 20th. This is not so much cold-hearted rationing as it is a recognition that international resources can hold off geography for a time, but not cancel it.
The credibility gap between the stated aims and actual outcomes of international stabilization efforts has been present for some time, but has recently started to look very threatening indeed. Mega-crises like South Sudan and Iraq have demonstrated that everyday underperformance can deteriorate into nightmare scenarios with remarkable speed. Failure on such a scale elsewhere is not easily contemplated, and doing better will require both fewer promises and better delivery.
Unfortunately, all of the criticisms outlined above remain mere radio chatter among technical experts. Such talk can easily remain irrelevant in a sector that is uniquely prone to rhetorical flourishes and empty political gestures. The goals that proved so quixotic in the DRC and Afghanistan were decided upon at the highest levels of government, including above all those countries’ own elected authorities. If expectations are to be moderated, it is at this same level that the conversation must begin to change. Local and international stakeholders must be prepared to accept that “good” will look a lot more like Nigeria or Pakistan than like Switzerland. This means accepting a status quo that often includes gross inequities, whether reflected in “traditional,” but broadly functional, institutions or “backward,” but broadly stable, regions.
It is not popular to say this. International aid remains firmly wedded to the idea that we can “leapfrog” unjust socio-political systems, in much the same way that we bypass now-obsolete technologies. Yet there is a role for small-“c” conservatism when the stakes are highest. This is especially true when the costs of revolutionary ambition, and failure at equal scale, are not borne by the decision-makers themselves.
Ian D. Quick is a management consultant for peacekeeping and post-conflict interventions. He blogs at rethinkfragility.com, and is the author of “Follies in Fragile States: How International Stabilisation Failed in the Congo.”