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Failed States, Terrorism, and Afghanistan

(Based on the urgings of my father and co-blogger, my next few posts will deal with the most contentious foreign policy issue under debate today: should America escalate in Afghanistan or return to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy? I am hesitant to address this issue because so many excellent opinion makers have already covered it so well. We started this site to take a different approach to foreign policy, though, and we feel we must discuss Afghanistan. Over the next few weeks I will provide my thoughts.)

The biggest national security problem facing America is still Al Qaeda. The Taliban government was an awful government, but their only crime against the US was harboring Al Qaeda. Thus, every opinion about Afghanistan--be it from an academic, political, media or military sphere--must deal with these Islamic extremists who use terrorism to further their aims.

However, it is a mistake that America focuses exclusively on Pakistan and Afghanistan in this debate. The problem is not that Afghanistan or Pakistan did, does and could harbor Islamic extremists in the future; the problem is that failed states--like Afghanistan following the civil war that ended in 1994--harbor Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda.

Like the mythical hydra, Al Qaeda will always replace every member we kill. Fortunately, we know that Al Qaeda lives in the swamp of failed states. Instead of metaphorically cutting off their replaceable heads, we must drain the global swamp. We must deny them sanctuary in failed states.

Ergo, if the US only uses a counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, we risk allowing them to fail once again.

I have struggled before with how to define a failed states. Thankfully, think tanks have done the research for me. Whether one uses Foreign Policy working with the Fund for Peace, the Center for International Development and Conflict Management’s Peace and Conflict 2010 or USAID and the World Bank’s State Fragility Index, we can identify confidently the states at greatest risk of failing. By comparing issues like civil violence, political control, economic prosperity and human rights, we can predict the future survival of states.

Since the initial communist takeover in the late seventies, Afghanistan has toyed with failed state status. Incredibly violent, politically uncontrollable, and economically stagnant--the instability led to a perfect training ground for Al Qaeda. Even after the Taliban emerged victorious from a long civil war, their repressive government kept human rights, economic progress and social justice from taking root, the perfect safe haven for Al Qaeda.

While Afghanistan occupies our current national attention, it is not the only failed state that could harbor terrorists. Yemen is in the beginnings throes of an insurgency, Al Qaeda continues to make inroads in the anarchic Somalia, and though Iraq appears to have emerged from their civil war, the situation with the Kurds in Mosul remains tense. Finally, sub-Saharan African states continues to populate lists of failing states, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Guinea, and Chad.

Every failed state, a state without political control or economic progress, could harbor Al Qaeda. A precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, even to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy, risks letting it return to civil war and failed state status. As others have said, we can wage counter-terrorism forever. The terrorists will simply replace their fallen. Does anyone really think we can kill our way out of this problem?

Removing failed states, as a true long term strategy, will prevent the causes that allow terrorism to exist. The issue is not terrorism, or even Al Qaeda. The issue is failed states.

eight comments

Half of the world, 3 billion people live on under $2.50 a day, 80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. Poverty is a global problem and is probably the key catalyst to a failed state. To generalize quite a bit, people focused solely on survival normally get a very limited education, it creates desperation, and it leaves the door open for chaos or dictatorships. Rich nations like Saudi Arabia may have violence within, and a repressive government but aren´t in immediate danger of becoming failed states. To address the problem of failed states would be to address global poverty which is such a broad issue it may be beyond any single nation´s capability to address. There are factoids floating aroud there that world hunger could be solved for just a X tens of billions of dollars, but to me when half the world lives in poverty that sounds unrealistic (not in terms of actual currency, but rather what the redistribution of that currency would do to supply/demand).

Afghanistan still risks failure in the long run if it is stabilized, we leave, and leave behind a corrupt regime. I realize its completely heartless to say, but Afghanistan as one nation among a growing number won´t put an end to the swamp, and the amount of effort we have put into it over the past 8 years still hasn´t pulled it from the brink of being a failed state.

I do believe aid programs and programs to assist in providing infrastructure and economic opportunity to nations are an excellent investment not necessarily for national security reasons but just because it is a charitable and moral thing to do and provides jobs and futures for people. While aid may influence the root cause to a small degree, what is needed is simply better more accurate human intelligence. I think so much of the intelligence commmunity is still so geared to its old cold war style of operations that it has failed to adapt to deal with terrorism, or worse adopted counterproductive methods (and to some degree in a couple of cases I believe the paranoia from terrorism is overdone like “nuclear backpacks”). For instance I think Pakistan is closer to becoming a nuclear armed failed state than most people want to admit, and while launching drone strikes may get rid of a hydra head it contributes to undermining the government in Pakistan. I still can´t believe Al Qaeda has not successfully been infiltrated to such a high degree as to render it completely unoperable.

Have you read Matthew Hoh´s letter? How about we start in Mexico?


Whoa, whoa, whoa!!

Failed states a genuine problem, but it’s a very far leap to go from AQ as our primary NS problem and then to transpose that to failed states.

We don’t have the ability to build states everywhere. Some places are just going to be extremely resistant to a nation-state structure because their borders are drawn illogically, others because native institutions are just far too weak. Afghanistan is one of those, but at least our massive commitment of troops and money allows us to possible make something that will stand on its own ten or twenty years down the line. We aren’t going to be making that kind of commitment anywhere else in the near future.

AQ is the enemy, and the theory of violent jihadism is the main problem. I’d argue for keeping this frame because at least it’s one that’s manageable and can be clearly explained and fought.


@ Chris- I totally agree with your points about global poverty. One post can never do any topic justice, but once we can change the dialogue to failed states, then clearly our approach needs to go much broader than thinking about Al Qaeda or current insurgencies. Global poverty is a huge problem even ignoring its moral implications.

@tequila- Unfortunately I disagree. I just don’t see us ever stopping Al Qaeda with killing and bombs. We need to stop their ideology, and the best way to do that is to stop failed states. Clearly, they thrive on states that cannot bring prosperity or security to their people.

That said, invading failed states is not the solution. The US conducting unilateral operations is not the solution. Failed states can be cured with many different means besides military action, in many cases preferable to military action.


I remember having this discussion before. My analogy is a rat infested house in disrepair. Say you did nothing but restore the house to pristine condition. What happens to the rats? The rats don’t just leave, you now have a house in fantastic condition filled with rats.

Now, same analogy with a twist. Same rat infested run down house. This time you send in the exterminator. Rats die. For a time, you’re rat free, but your house remains in terrible condition. Soon, new rats are drawn in big numbers to take up residence in your house.

My point is here that AQ is a group discontented with even a functioning state. And there are similar terrorist groups that have individual agendas that are a detriment to the societies in which they dwell. So even in a functioning state, terrorists will exist. Now their numbers will be smaller and recruitment suffers, but they will persist. Now, if you drop bombs and hunt them down but fail to address the situations in these states that allow for such successful recruiting, again they will persist.

There must be a balance between bettering the state and hunting down extremists.


Actually to a degree I agree with Tequila. No one really knows what the biggest threat to US National security is. Al Qaeda has pulled it off before and pledged to do it again, but who knows what other threats are out there, the vast majority of people in the US including myself had ever heard of Al Qaeda before September 11th. Whoever they are however, I would lay a wager that they originate from a failed state with severe problems. I also agree the US can´t go around nation building in some modern version of white man´s burden.

However I doubt that we are leaving Afghanistan in a stable state that can stand independently for 20 or 30 years or that Jihadism is a core problem but rather a symptom. It is correct to say a Jihadi mentality is a smaller issue to address but there is that qoute “you can kill a man but you can´t kill an idea”. Poverty and and broken nations are something less elusive that can be concretely addressed, however it is a problem that is much more massive in scale that Jihadism.

@ Matty P, I think renovating the house and denying a nesting place for the rats would marginalize them and deny them the ability to hide to make them easier to deal with. However this is talking about more than renovating one house, but rather a whole dilapidated neighborhood, when one house is repaired the rats go to the neighbor´s house and start a new breeding ground. That is a problem much larger, and there are no easy answers or any will internationally to make a massive committed effort in that direction.


Matt- Great analogy. I do remember the motel analogy. I think it works but to be perfectly honest, the rats of Al Qaeda live off of the left out food of failed states, I guess that means poverty in this analogy.

But basically, move from Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to failed Iraq, to Yemen, and Somalia, they are all failed states. I have thus far avoided making the moral arguments about failed states, but from a national security perspective terrorists live in failed states. They have a presence in some successful modern states, like London or parts of America, but it is tiny and insignificant compared to their numbers in failed states.


@ Chris- I want to be clear, I separate renovating houses, or COIN, from preventing failed states. The US can do so much more than rebuilding nations all over the globe. And I don’t think we should do that.

But we could up our giving and development strategies. This wouldn’t be the military getting involved, but our whole foreign affairs apparatus.

Also, great connection to the neighborhood a part from the run down house.


It needs to be mentioned many members of al queda were middle class, not impoverished.