Failed states and their threat to our country

Posted on April 21, 2011


Why does David Cameron support the war in Afghanistan? This is the title of a speech I’m giving soon, in which I examine his stated reasons for backing our involvement and explore possible ones. “Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK or on our allies”, the Prime Minister told MPs last June. He has held this line consistently since 2006, when the British were sent to Helmand. It partly flows from a belief that terrorist organisations flourish in failed states, and if we abandon Afghanistan, the country will become a failed state once again and a home to al-Qu’aida. This belief has informed another, which is that the lesson of Afghanistan is we must intervene early in failed states through a mixture of force and aid to prevent them from becoming a more serious threat in future. ‘When we fail to prevent conflict and are obliged to intervene militarily, it costs far more’, Mr. Cameron wrote in the foreword of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). ‘That is why we will expand our ability to deploy military and civilian experts together to support stabilisation efforts and build capacity in [failed] states, as a long-term investment in a more stable world.’ Unfortunately, his threat perception is myopic, and although failed states don’t pose a direct threat to our country, the belief that they do puts our security (and our prosperity) at risk.

The conventional wisdom that failed states are ideal homes for international terrorism is not true, and the solution is not a quasi-military one, as David Cameron believes, but a diplomatic one. Last Friday, Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote an insightful op-ed for The Washington Post dismissing the link between failed states and international terrorism. ‘From a terrorist’s perspective, the notion of finding haven in a failed state is an oxymoron.’

Al-Qaeda discovered this in the 1990s when seeking a foothold in anarchic Somalia. In intercepted cables, operatives bemoaned the insuperable difficulties of working under chaos, given their need for security and for access to the global financial and communications infrastructure.

Four years ago, in their essay ‘The Misleading Problem of Failed States’, analysts Anna Simons and David Tucker made the exact same point. ‘In chaos, not even terrorists are safe or, more to the point, in order to be safe to train and plan, terrorists would have to divert their already limited resources to provide their own security or pay protection money to others.’ Organisations like al-Qu’aida find haven in weak states, in areas where the government has no authority, and they are sustained by a local population marginalised in the country. This is the case in Pakistan and Yemen, and the task for Whitehall and Washington is making the governments of these weak states do what we want them to do even if they don’t want to do it. We need a primarily diplomatic strategy, therefore; but Pakistan and Yemen suggests we don’t know how to create one, and the UK National Security Strategy makes no attempt at articulating one. (If you want to know about other problems with the NSS, read my latest piece for Egremont).

‘While failed states may be worthy of [our] attention on humanitarian and development grounds’, writes Stewart Patrick, ‘most of them are irrelevant to U.S. national security.’ It is true for the United Kingdom; from buying into the conventional wisdom about failed states, however, the government risks committing us to an expensive but futile counterterrorism strategy. Britain will invest cash and military personnel in unfortunate, but strategically unimportant countries because of an unproven assumption. Meanwhile, where there are terrorist safe havens, in weak countries with proud, autocratic governments, we will find ourselves fumbling about diplomatically. This strategy puts our security at risk and will prove expensive to a cash conscious Treasury.