Ever since the end of the Cold War, there has been much chatter about the problem of failed states. Now we are seeing some of the terrible consequences of state failure on the periphery of the broader West Asia.
In Pakistan, terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Taiba have established themselves as a state within a state. They have virtual free reign in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and a lesser, but still substantial, amount of leeway in the Northwest Frontier and other provinces. That makes it all too easy for them to launch attacks such as those that killed at least 183 people in Mumbai, or other attacks that kill North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or Nato, soldiers in Afghanistan.
Across the Indian Ocean, pirates are terrorizing passing ships. The International Maritime Bureau reports that 92 ships have been attacked and 36 hijacked this year off the coast of Somalia and Yemen. At least 14 ships and 260 crew members are being held hostage.
The essential problem in both Somalia and Pakistan is a failure of governance. The question is: What, if anything, can outside powers do to bring the rule of law to these troubled lands? In the 19th century, the answer was simple: European imperialists would plant their flag and impose their laws at gunpoint. The territory that now comprises Pakistan was not entirely peaceful when it was under British rule. Nor was Somalia under Italian and British sovereignty. But they were considerably better off than they are today—not only from the standpoint of Western countries, but also from the standpoint of their own citizens.
You might think that such imperialism is simply unacceptable today. But you would be only partially right. There have been a number of instances in recent years of imperialism-in-all-but-name. Bosnia and Kosovo—still wards of Nato and the European Union—are prominent examples of how successful such interventions can be in the right circumstances.
The real difficulty with emulating these examples is not a lack of legitimacy. That can always be conferred by the United Nations or some other multilateral organization. Harder to overcome is a lack of will. Ragtag guerrillas have proven dismayingly successful in driving out or neutering international peacekeeping forces. Think of American and French troops blown up in Beirut in 1983, or the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993.
Too often, when outside states do agree to send troops, they are so fearful of casualties that they impose rules of engagement that preclude meaningful action. Think of the ineffectiveness of African Union peacekeepers dealing with genocide in Darfur today or of UN peacekeepers dealing with genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
If Nato won’t do enough to win the war in Afghanistan, its highest priority, there is scant chance that it will commit troops to police Pakistan’s tribal areas or Somalia’s coast. And if Nato members won’t act, who will? That difficulty renders moot ideas such as the one just put forward by foreign policy theorist Robert Kagan: “Have the international community declare that parts of Pakistan have become ungovernable and a menace to international security. Establish an international force to work with the Pakistanis to root out terrorist camps in Kashmir as well as in the tribal areas.”
It is a tragedy that such proposals have no chance of being acted upon until some truly great tragedy occurs. If we suffer another 9/11 or worse and the culprits can be traced to Pakistan, then the US and its allies would summon the wherewithal to act. But not until then.
Edited excerpts. Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Comment at email@example.com