State Failure

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People

The civil war raging in Burma (Myanmar) is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, stretching back to 1948, the year of Burma’s independence from Britain. But as hostilities ebb and flow in both time and place, the current war is dated by some as only having begun in 2021, the year of the country’s most recent military coup and crackdown on civil society. But no matter how one measures it, this struggle is bloody and grim. According to the Wikipedia article on “ongoing armed conflicts,” the Burmese Civil War currently has the third highest death toll of 2023, following only the war in Ukraine and the insurgency in western Africa that stretches across more than a dozen countries. Almost 11,000 people have lost their lives this year alone, with a casualty count of perhaps more than 20,000* in 2022. But despite the ongoing and persistent carnage, this conflict rarely makes the news in the United States.

To follow the Burmese civil war, one can consult Burmese sources, available online in both Burmese and English. I especially recommend The Irrawaddy, produced by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand. One of its most interesting recent articles highlights the importance of the country’s smallest state, Kayah (formerly Karenni), in successfully taking on the Tatmadaw, the brutal Burmese military. The article claims that resistance fighters in Kayah have killed 2,065 junta soldiers while losing only 153 of their own in the past two years. Leading the charge is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which was formed shortly after the February 2021 coup. Some of its fighters had previously been affiliated with the Burmese military as border guards but switched sides after the military take-over. As The Irrawaddy notes, the “KNDF supports federalism, or power-sharing between the Union and state governments with self-determination and self-administration for ethnic states.” According to one recent report, the Burmese government currently controls only some ten percent of Kayah state (including its capital, Loikaw), with the rest of it either contested (20 percent) or under the control of insurgents (65 percent). If this report and others like it are true, the Wikipedia map posted below is highly inaccurate, or at least out of date, as it significantly exaggerates the extent of governmental control.

Despite the success of their military resistance, the people of Kayah (Karenni) State have experienced intense suffering over the past two and a half years. (For those interested, the assaults on their state are regularly tabulated and mapped in detail by the Karenni Civil Society Network; see the map below). According to one recent report from a different agency:

At least 180,000 Karenni people have been forcibly displaced, which is more than 40 percent of the estimated total Karenni population. …. Some families have been displaced multiple times, as IDP sites come under attack by junta forces. Based on legal analysis of the data collected, the report finds that members of the Burmese military have committed the war crimes of attacking civilians, attacking protected objects, pillaging, murder, torture, cruel treatment, and displacing civilians in Karenni State.

As is often tragically the case in Burma, extremist Buddhist monks have been encouraging military assaults and worse. According to a recent United States Institute of Peace report:

Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died.” … These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred.

Surprisingly, the “ethnic hierarchy” and “Buddhist nationalism” evident in this monk’s speech do not come in their usual form, which is associated with the majority Burman (Burmese-speaking) population and directed against Muslims and members of the so-called hill tribes. In this case, both the Karenni and their Po-O antagonists are historically regarded as “tribal peoples,” both belonging to the larger Karen ethno-linguistic group, at least as it is sometimes reckoned. But the Pa-O people are almost entirely Buddhist and have aligned closely with the Burmese military, which has pursued a “divide and rule” strategy among the country’s minority populations. The strategy had been largely successful before 2021 but is currently failing. The Karenni, in contrast, are religiously divided, with some following Buddhism, others Christianity (of several sects), and others traditional animism/shamanism. They are also, needless to say, firm opponent of the Burmese military.

The success of little Kayah State in resisting the Burmese military probably has roots in colonial history. Kayah was never integrated in British Burma and largely escaped British rule. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of Burma, having been reduced to a rump state after losing two wars against the British, was trying to expand into upland regions. Threatened by this policy, the tiny principalities of the Karenni people sought help from Britain, leading to an 1875 treaty between the United Kingdom and Burma that recognized their independence. In 1892, however, Karenni leaders agreed to accept a stipend from the British government in return for allowing it some local oversight. But domestic policies remained under the control of local leaders. As a result, the Karenni lands were usually mapped as not falling under direct British rule, the only part of Burma generally given that distinction (see the map below). A fascinating 1931 map, however, classified Karenni State as one of four regions in Burma that were “loosely” administered by the British Raj, with two others depicted as “unadministered” (see below). (Intriguingly, Karenni state was reportedly the world’s largest producer of tungsten in the 1930s; geologists affiliated with the Oxford Burma Project currently hope that political stabilization will eventually allow the reestablishment of extensive commercial mining there and elsewhere in mineral-rich Burma.)

As Burma was preparing for independence after World-War II, it sought to incorporate the Karenni states into its coming union. Its 1947 constitution insisted on the amalgamation of these small indigenous realms into one Burmese state, but also allowed the possibility of secession after a ten-year period. But with independence the following year, as tersely noted by the Wikipedia article on the state, “the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to the inclusion of the Karenni in the Union of Burma. An armed uprising swept the state that has continued to the present day.”

Despite its formidable power, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) does not seem to be doing well in the current conflict. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations claims that it has lost half or more of its troops since the 2021 coup, due to death, desertion, or defection, and that it has retreated on several fronts. The Tatmadaw is also evidently having difficulty filling the classes at its military academy. According to one report, the government now has stable control over only around twenty percent of the country’s townships. Due to recent military reversals, the Tatmadaw is now engaging in extensive air attacks, often directed against civilian targets. Such a strategy is of little military significance and greatly intensifies animosity against the regime.

The Council on Foreign Relations report mentioned above also contends that the Burmese government is facing growing international problems:

Even China, which has backed the junta and sees Myanmar as a strategically critical investment destination, is playing both sides of the fence. Beijing has continued to plow money into the country and supplied the military with weapons, despite its pariah status, and it has provided the junta with diplomatic cover at international forums. Yet it has also maintained links with the ethnic militias and their political wings, and its backing of Naypyidaw has grown more tepid as the army continues to lose ground. As for Russia, though it too has supplied the junta with arms, Moscow is facing its own obvious problems right now and may not be able to ship weapons abroad for long.

Due to these reversals, Burma’s military government may be reconsidering its strategy. Or perhaps not. Another article from the United States Institute of Peace nicely summarizes the current situation:

Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.

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Oman and Yemen: So Similar, So Different…

Arabia Satellite ImageAt first glance, Oman and Yemen almost appear to be sibling states. They fairly evenly divide the southeastern slice of the Arabian Peninsula. Both countries have extensive highlands on their opposing extremities, which receive much more rainfall than the rest of region and thus allow intensive agriculture both within the uplands themselves and in the adjacent lowlands. They share the seasonally wet central coastal area of Dhofar/Al Mahrah. Both countries sit at the entrance of a vitally important strait that leads to a major sea (the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian [Arabian] Gulf in the case of Oman; the Bab-el-Mandeb leading to the Red Sea in the case of Yemen).

The histories of the two countries are also closely linked. Some sources date the formation of Oman to the migration of a large portion of the Azd tribe from Yemen in the first century CE, following the collapse of the Great Dam of Ma’rib, one of the engineering wonders of the ancient world. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Oman, “The present-day name of the country, Oman, is believed to originate from the Arab tribes who migrated to its territory from the Uman region of Yemen; many such tribes settled in Oman, making a living by fishing, herding or stock breeding…” Both countries also share a similar historical dynamic in the tension between theocratically Imamate of Oman and Muscat Maporiented, inward-looking inland areas and more secular, cosmopolitan coastal regions. Key to understanding Omani history was the periodic tension between Oman Proper, generally ruled by the elected Ibadi Imams, and the coastal Sultanate of Muscat (before 1970, the official name of the country was “Muscat and Oman”). Similarly, the history of Yemen must be understood in the context of the long-lasting rivalry between the Zaidi Imamate of the northwestern highlands and the more secular rulers of the coastal and southern highland regions. Equally significant is the fact that Oman and Yemen were two of the world’s least internationally oriented and socio-economically developed countries in the mid-20th century.


Such similarities should not be exaggerated, however. Yemen’s highlands are much more extensive than those of Oman, and they receive significantly more rainfall. As a result, the population of Oman Yemen Population Density MapYemen is, and has long been, much larger than that of Oman. Oman, moreover, has nothing like Yemen’s Hadhramaut, a sizable desert area with abundant water in its deeply incised wadis (seasonal waterways), which allow intensive cultivation and settlement. But despite Yemen’s much larger population, Oman played a much more important world historical role in the early modern period, when its Muscat-based empire controlled large parts of the western Indian Ocean basin. “Yemen proper” (the more densely populated western third of the country), on the other hand, was never much of a power center in this period. The Hadhramis of the Hadhramaut, on the other hand, did play a major economic and cultural role across most of the Indian Ocean realm, with their diaspora taking them all the way to Indonesia.

Yemen Oman ComparedDespite their similarities, Yemen and Oman are today remarkably different places. Yemen is war-torn country at the edge of being a completely failed state. Even before its recent descent into chaos, it was noted for its poverty and general lack of development. Oman, on the other hand, is a stable and prosperous state, with a per capita GDP almost 20 times that of Yemen.

It is tempting to attribute Oman’s better fortunes solely to oil, as oil wealth has allowed its extraordinarily rapid progress in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As the table posted here shows, Oman’s oil production is much higher than that of Yemen. The fact that Oman’s population is much lower, Yemen Oman Fertility Ratemoreover, means that its oil revenues go much further. Here the discrepancy between the two countries will only grow more pronounced, as Yemen’s birthrate in much higher than Oman’s, although it is dropping rapidly. Due to a combination of Yemen fast-growing population, chaotic politics, rampant insecurity, poverty, and general aridity, the country is experiencing a water crisis that could prove devastating within the next few decades. Oman faces problems of its own, most notably an impending oil production decline, but it will probably be able to adjust, given its more general developmental success and its small population. Much depends, however, on the sultanate’s uncertain political succession, as mentioned in a previous post.

The gargantuan difference between the two countries, however, also rests on institutions and even personalities. The tolerant, deliberative nature of Oman’s Ibadi religious establishment may be a foundation of the country’s success. A clear difference between the two counties is found in the characteristics of their recent governments. In Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, in power since 1970s, has been an autocratic but competent ruler who has been devoted to the welfare of his country. In Yemen, president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power from 1978 to 2012, has been rather different figure. As argued by Thomas Juneau in 2010:

The president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, rules by maintaining a precarious balance among a variety of competing forces, including the military and the security apparatus, the main tribes, political parties and factions, and key clerics. By buying loyalty through patronage and ruling through a combination of cooptation, inclusion and coercion, Saleh has painstakingly built an “administrative feudal system”2 that has evolved into a mix of “kleptocracy and plutocracy.


Finally, some observers link Yemen’s failure to its notorious qat habit. Development is constrained, they argue, when virtually the entire urban male population of the country devotes almost every afternoon to the convivial chewing of the leaves of this mildly narcotic, water-demanding plant. Many Yemenis agree with this perspective. As was reported locally in 2012:

“Qat, the cursed plant in Yemen,” was the headline in a five-part series published by the Yemen Times in 2010, documenting extensively the social problems associated with qat chewing in the country. …

On January 12 [2-12], through social media, Yemenis are organizing an event called “I want Yemen to change – I will not store qat”. This event, organized by Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni activist based in Beirut and who made headlines with the “Shame Reuters” campaign, is a call for all Yemenis, wherever they are, to say no to qat, to not store any qat and to protest the cultivation and consumption of qat. International organizations should watch for this event and support the people of Yemen in making a transition that is much more difficult than any political process: That of building a new country in which the widespread cultivation and consumption of qat can be eventually replaced.

H=Greater Yemen MapDespite Yemen’s myriad problems, a “Greater Yemen” movement evidently still seeks the enlargement of the country, hoping to acquire the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia as well as Oman’s Dhofar Governorate. Right now, there seems to be a larger chance that a “Lesser Yemen” will emerge from the wreckage of the shattered state.



Oman and Yemen: So Similar, So Different… Read More »

Is There an Arc of Instability?

Larger African Arc of InstabilityIn grappling with the geography of geopolitical conflict, many journalists, politicians, and military strategists use the term “arc of instability,” implying that the world’s troubled countries are arrayed along a curve. But different sources have very different ideas about how such an “arc” is configured. A recent The Wall Street Journal article (“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”) expansively describes the zone of unstable countries as “playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea…” NATO’s Secretary General, on the other hand, looks at a somewhat offset region, contending that, “An arc of instability threatens states from the African Arc of InstabilityMiddle East to North Africa and the Sahel…” A statement from the U.N. Security Council puts only “Africa’s Sahara and Sahel region” under this rubric. Yet according to political commentator Juan Cole, the term was used by the second Bush administration to refer to a region that pushes “deep into Central Asia.” Other writers, moreover, describe completely different “arcs of instability,” including one that is confined to Eastern Europe. The Wikipedia article on “Arc of Pacific Arc of InstabilityInstability,” however, tells us that the term “has traditionally been accepted to include South-East Asian and Oceanic nations such as Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, East Timor, Indonesia and Fiji.” Evidently, the “arc of instability” is an extremely vague concept.

Large Arc of InstabilitySeveral sources attribute the genesis of the term to the National Intelligence Council. This organization’s 2008 report, Global Trends 2025, states (p. 61) that it had previously used the term “great arc of instability” to refer to an area “stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia.” This area is large indeed, but some maps show an even larger “arc,” such as the one posted to the left. This “mega-arc” stems from the idea of a “non-Non-Integrating Gap mapintegrating gap,” proposed by Thomas Barnett in his 2004 book, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century.

Does the concept of an “arc of instability” have any merit? Certainly the most enlarged versions of such a zone are of little use, as they include such relatively stable countries as Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, Romania, Costa Rica, and Panama. (By the same token, these and other supposedly “non-integrating countries” are actually highly integrated into the global economy.) Classifying half of the world as “unstable” is simply too crude to be helpful. But that said, political instability is geographically clustered, and has become increasing clustered in recent years.

But before outlining the configuration of any such a zone, it would be useful to specify what exactly is meant by “instability.” In particular, we should differentiate a more superficial form of governmental instability from deeper geopolitical instability. Thailand, for example, certainly has an unstable government, but its existence as a state is not thereby threatened (notwithstanding the intractable insurgency in Thailand’s far south). Similarly, Venezuela is both governmentally and economically unstable, but no groups are demanding its dissolution or threatening to annex large chunks of its territory. The threats faced by such truly geopolitically unstable countries as Yemen and Libya, on the other hand, are much more extreme, as they are existential in nature. It is far from certain that Libya, let alone Somalia, will be reconstituted as a coherent state.

Geopolitically Unstable States mapWith this distinction in mind, I have tentatively mapped a zone of genuine geopolitical instability. The countries in dark blue are deeply threatened and in some cases hardly exist as real geopolitical units. Lighter blue countries are geopolitically challenged in one way or another, generally by serious separatist movements or from territorially encroachments by neighboring states. Making such a map entails tricky judgment calls; as a result, suggestions for revisions are welcome. Should Pakistan be included? Does Sudan really belong? Such questions are not easy to answer.

The basic patterns of the map are clear, however. Geopolitical instability is concentrated in a zone stretching from Central Africa through North Africa and the Middle East and extending into the former Soviet region. The Americas and Southeast Asia are much more geopolitically stable, despite their depiction to the contrary on many maps. Geopolitical stability, moreover, has increased in recent years in such countries as Colombia, Peru, Burma, and Indonesia, while decreasing in much of North Africa and the Middle East.


Is There an Arc of Instability? Read More »

Can We Map State Instability?

The previous post showed that the Fragile States Index did not capture the fragility of Syria and Libya on the eve of the so-called Arab Spring. The question is then raised about the performance of other indices of state weakness in this this regard. As it turns out, they did little better.

World Bank 2010 Political Stability MapConsider, for example, the World Bank’s 2010 map of political instability (which, unfortunately, simultaneously assesses “absence of violence/terrorism,” a somewhat different issue). On purely cartographic grounds, the map is a disaster: employing an inappropriate Mercator projection, it makes Greenland appear to be the global core of political stability, while its incomplete labeling system is misleading at best. But our concern here is with its categorization scheme, which is also problematic. Note that it placed Libya in the same category of stability as Spain and Brazil, while slotting Syria in the same group as Turkey, China, Russia, and India. What really seems odd, however, is the placement of South Korea, Germany, the UK, and the US in the same category as Mozambique, Benin, and Turkmenistan.

Economist Political Instablity MapThe Economist Intelligence Unit’s Political Instability Index for 2009-2010 was little better. It put Libya in the same “moderate risk” category as France, the Netherlands, and South Korea. It also depicted Syria as more stable than Cambodia, Ecuador, or the Dominican Republic.

In comparing the various political instability indices from 2010, some intriguing discrepancies stand out. Note that the Economist Intelligence Unit depicted Ethiopia as relatively stable, whereas the World Bank placed it in the most unstable category, as did the Fragile States Index (see the previous post). Different criteria are obviously being used to assess instability.

World Bank 2012 Political Instablity MapIn regard to more recent maps, the World Bank’s 2012 assessment (its latest) does a somewhat better job, capturing the extreme instability of Syria and Libya. This map does, however, seem to stumble in other parts of the world; note that it depicts South Sudan as more stable that Iran or Colombia. A related 2012 World World Bank Government Effectiveness MapBank Map, this one purporting to measure “government effectiveness,” is less explicable. It classifies Syria as having a more “effective government” than North Korea. Brutal as the North Korean government is, it does at least govern the entire country, unlike the collapsing Syrian government of 2012.

Maplecroft Political Risk MapMaplecroft’s 2014 Dynamic Political Risk map makes more intuitive sense than most of its competitors. Still, it seems as if a number of countries are rated as more stable then they actually are, including Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Burma (Myanmar), on the other hand, is probably more stable than the map indicates. Maplecroft, a private British “global risk analytics firm,” takes a step beyond most of its competitors by making concrete predictions. As its webpage states:

Maplecroft predicts that the situation in Syria (2nd), Libya (8th) and Egypt (15th) is now so bad that these countries will be mired in exceptionally high levels of dynamic political risk for years to come. This ‘vicious circle’ reflects the self-reinforcing impact of extremely poor governance, conflict, high levels of corruption, persistent regime instability and societal dissent and protest. Illustrating this point, seven of the worst countries for political risk – Somalia (1st), Afghanistan (3rd), Sudan (4th), DR Congo (5th), Central African Republic (6th), South Sudan (9th) and Iraq (10th) – have stayed among the bottom 10 in the Political Risk Atlas for the last six years.

Such predictions seem reasonable. Still, I do wonder if one needs to conduct the detailed and expensive analyses that Maplecroft carries out in order to reach such conclusions.

Wikipedia Dispute Index MapA completely different method of assessing political instability is found in the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map, which, as it name implies, simply measures disputes in regard to Wikipedia articles pertaining to each country. This map derives from a 2011 PLOS article entitled “Content Disputes in Wikipedia Reflect Geopolitical Instability,” by Gordana Apic, Matthew Betts, and Robert B. Russell. The authors contend that the patterns that they uncovered correlate well with other measurement of geopolitical instability. As they contend:

It is remarkable that so simple a metric can agree so well with more complex measures of political and economic stability. We do not mean to suggest that this indicator could replace existing metrics since the issues mentioned above related to sparse data and language currently preclude this possibility. However, this work does demonstrate that information contained within resources like Wikipedia can be used in interesting and useful new ways that can ultimately complement more arduous metrics.

Although the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map is intriguing, as are the methods used to generate it, I have my doubts about its usefulness. Do the many disputes about Wikipedia articles on Saudi Arabia actually indicate that the country is severely unstable? That seems unlikely. On the other hand, I suspect that Saudi Arabia is more fragile in the long run than its depictions on the other maps of global instability would indicate.

Can We Map State Instability? Read More »

The Fragility of the State Fragility Index

Fragile States Index 2010 MapI recently came across a “State Fragility Index Map” from 2010 that made me doubt the usefulness of the index. As a predictive measurement, its failures are obvious. Note that Syria was depicted at the time as a relatively stable state, while Libya was portrayed as quite secure. In the 2010 Index, Syria ranked 48th from the bottom (out of 177 countries), placing it in a much more stable position than Iran (32nd). Libya, on the other hand, was put in the 111th position from the bottom, indicating that it was less fragile than Malaysia (110th), Mexico (96th), India (79th), or China (62nd).

The Fragile States Index, which was until recently called the Failed States Index, is produced by the Fund for Peace and the periodical Foreign Policy. According to the Wikipedia, the indicators used in the index “are not designed to forecast when states may experience violence or collapse. Instead, they are meant to measure a state’s vulnerability to collapse or conflict.” But do they actually measure such vulnerability accurately? If they did, would not the 2010 index have indicated rather more vulnerability on the parts of Syria and Libya? According to the Fund for Peace, the index is supposed to “spur conversations, encourage debate, and most of all help guide strategies for sustainable security.” In that spirit, I would argue that makers of the index might want to rethink their methodology in order to more accurately gauge the fragility of states.

Fragile States Index 2014 MapMy most serious doubts about the index do not actually stem from its failure to note the fragility of Syria in 2010. I certainly did not suspect in 2010 that Syria would soon implode, nor did many others. (As Yogi Berra supposedly said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”) My problem is rather with the failure of the index to capture current conditions. The 2014 iteration places only five countries in the “very high alert category”: South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, DR Congo, and Sudan. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in contrast, only rank in the less-fragile “high alert category,” alongside Pakistan, Haiti, and several other countries. But can one seriously argue that Sudan is currently more fragile, as a state, than Syria or Iraq? Libya is even more problematic, as it is currently categorized as more stable than any of these countries, ranked at virtually the same level as Iran and as less fragile than Uganda or Rwanda.

In actuality, Libya is not merely an extraordinarily fragile state, but rather it has virtually ceased to be a state at all in any real sense of the term. A recent Los Angeles Times article describes Libya as “teetering on the brink of disintegration,” and as “a security vacuum that was quickly filled by armed men belonging to a dizzying array of militant factions.” But that may be something of an understatement. As a Guardian story from September 9th explains:

A Greek car ferry has been hired as last-minute accommodation for Libya’s embattled parliament, which has fled the country’s civil war to the small eastern town of Tobruk. The 17,000-ton Elyros liner has been deployed, complete with its Greek crew, as a floating hotel for a legislature clinging to power in the Libyan city that is last stop before the Egyptian border. …

Islamists and their allies have captured the capital, Tripoli, and most of Benghazi, the country’s second city. Derna, the next town up the coast, has been declared an Islamic caliphate and the front line begins at Tobruk airport, where pickup trucks mounting anti-aircraft guns face out into the shimmering empty desert.

The small port is home to what remains of Libya’s sovereign power.

It is possible, of course, that Libya could remerge as a coherent state, whether under the power of its nominal, internationally recognized government or under that of one of its many militias. I very much doubt, however, that this will happen any time soon, and I would not count on it ever happening. Somalia, after all has been essentially a non-state for a quarter century, yet our basic political maps and other sources of official geographical information continue to regard it as at sovereign state in good standing in the “international community.” In reality, it is little more than a figment of the geopolitical imagination.

How does the Fragile State Index miss the fact that Libya is so fragile that it has essentially ceased to exist? It does so by relying on proxy measurements. In particular, it takes into account: demographic pressures; massive movements of refugees; legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance; chronic and sustained human flight; uneven economic development along group lines; sharp and/or severe economic decline; criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state: progressive deterioration of public services; widespread violation of human rights; security apparatus as “state within a state”; rise of factionalized elites; and intervention of other states or external factors. Such indicators, to the extent that they are accurate, tell us significant things about social, political, and economic conditions, but as a whole they evidently do not accurately reflect the fragility of the states that they purport to assess.

One problem with the index is the fact that it downplays the more subtle ideational aspects of state fragility and stability. Of signal importance here is the issue of legitimacy. Although “delegitimization of the state” is incorporated into the index, it is placed in the same category as “criminalization of the state,” which is a very distinct matter. Yet if most people (and especially, most elites) in a country deny the legitimacy of its government regardless of any “criminal” aspects, fragility is enhanced. If large numbers of them deny the very legitimacy of the country itself, fragility will necessarily be pronounced. Many experts argue that such a loss of support contributed powerfully to the downfall of the Soviet Union. By the same token, it is of crucial importance that large numbers of local people—ranging from Kurdish nationalists to Islamist supporters of a renewed caliphate—do not accept the legitimacy of the states of Iraq and Syria.

I like to use such composite indexes in my teaching, as they tend to generate interesting and provocative world maps. But whenever I examine any particular index in detail, it tends to fall apart. It is evidently not so easy to shoehorn the vast complexity of the world into neat statistical categories.

The Fragility of the State Fragility Index Read More »

ISIS Advances and the Kurds Retreat In Northern Syria

Kobane Military SituationThe struggle involving the Islamic State (alternatively, ISIS or ISIL) in northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq is finally receiving abundant coverage in the global media. Today’s (Sept. 21) New York Times, for example, features several articles on the issue, focused mostly on the international complications generated by the conflict. Many publications in the U.S., however—including the Times—have either downplayed or ignored altogether the major offensive that the Islamic State is currently conducting against Kurdish forces in the Kobanê region of northern Syria. A major Kurdish enclave is currently gravely imperiled, threatening another human rights catastrophe. As reported today in Reuters:

“ISIL (Islamic State) are continuing to advance. Every place they pass through they kill, wound and kidnap people. Many people are missing and we believe they were kidnapped,” Welat Avar, a doctor, told Reuters by telephone from Kobani. “We now urgently need medicines and equipment for operations. We have many casualties … ISIL killed many people in the villages. They cut off the heads of two people, I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

A Kurdish politician from Turkey who visited Kobani on Saturday gave a similar account of the Sunni militants’ tactics. “Rather than a war this is a genocide operation …”

Kobane Googler EarthAs a result of the ISIS advance and the corresponding atrocities committed, tens of thousands of Kurds are streaming into Turkey, which has recently opened a stretch of its border to Kurdish refugees. The situation on the Turkish side of the boundary, however, is evidently chaotic, resulting in clashes between the fleeing Kurds and Turkish police forces. Most Kurds do not trust Turkish authorities, who they believe are tolerating, if not actively collaborating with, the Islamic State. The recent release of Turkish hostages by the Islamic State feeds into such speculations. Some outside experts concur. As was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“I think it’s self-evident that there was some sort of quid pro quo,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York, speaking of the release. “I think what’s likely is Turkey gave some sort of guarantee that its actions against ISIS would be limited in nature and it wouldn’t play a primary role in any military coalition.”

Syrian Political Situation MapThe threatened Kurdish enclave in question forms one of three sections of the de facto Kurdish autonomous region of northern and Eastern Syria, known internationally as Syrian Kurdistan, but referred to in Kurdish as Rojava (“West”), or more formally Rojavayê Kurdistanê. This divided region declared its autonomy in 2012, and since then has been under the control of the People’s Protection Units, commonly called the YPG (after the Kurdish term Yekîneyên Parastina Gel). Turkish authorities tend to be highly suspicious of the YPG, which they view as the military branch of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which in turn is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization based in southeastern Turkey that was until last year engaged in an armed struggle against the Turkish state. Although YPG units have proved themselves militarily capable, in the Kobanê area they have not been able to withstand the onslaught of the much more effectively armed ISIS fighters.

Syrian Kurdistan Aspirational MapKurdish partisans claim all of northern Syria for their autonomous region of Rojava, as is indicated in maps that they have produced. Over the past two years, however they have controlled only three widely separated areas. According to most ethnographic maps of the area, the Kurdish-speaking region of Syria covers less territory than the envisaged Kurdish autonomous area, but more territory than the three disjointed areas currently under Kurdish control. These three zones Syrian Kurdistan Maphave each been organized as “cantons” by the Syrian Kurdish authorities. Of these, Cizîrê Canton in the east is the most secure, as it borders the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq. Efrîn and Kobanê cantons, however, are relatively isolated, making them highly vulnerable. (Kobanê, it is important to note, is officially known in Syria under its Arabic name, Ayn al-Arab; both the Wikipedia and Google Earth use this term.)

Kurdish Language and Kurdish Control MapThe military forces of the Kurds in Syria have an interesting gender dynamic. Women warriors are well represented among the Kurdish Peshmerga of northern Iraq, but they are more common yet in the YPG. A recent BBC report claims that female fighters account for roughly a third of the organization, making it the most gender balanced combat force in recoded history. The BBC article goes on to claim that:

“Women are the bravest fighters,” says Diren, taking refuge from the scorching heat in the cool of an underground bunker. .. “We’re not scared of anything,” she says. “We’ll fight to the last. We’d rather blow ourselves up than be captured by IS.”

Like the followers of the Islamic State, most Kurds are Sunni Muslims. But that is where the similarities end. Diren says that, to the fanatics of IS, a female fighter is “haram”, anathema: a disturbing and scary sight.

Religious beliefs may play into fears generated by Kurdish female fighters among the ISIS militants, at least according to Ed Royce, chair of the US House International Relations Committee. As reported in The Telegraph:

“These Isil soldiers apparently believed that if they were killed in battle, they went to paradise as long as they were killed by a man,” he told The New York Post, citing reports of Kurdish female fighters laughing as they repelled attacks by the extremist group.

I find it intriguing and disturbing that the ISIS advance and the Kurdish retreat in northern Syria are receiving little attention from the U.S. media. I suspect that this lack of concern stems from the uncomfortable situation presented by the Kurdish militias in the region. The policy of the United States and its allies is based on the sacrosanct nature of official boundaries and geopolitical units in the region; Iraq and Syria must, according to this doctrine, be reconstituted as coherent nation-states. Kurdish aspirations, however, run counter to this idea. Whether the American policy in question is based on realistic assessments is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the idea that these two countries can remerge as coherent, self-governing, non-autocratic states may be nothing more than a delusion. Will the Kurds be sacrificed to such a geopolitical fantasy? I hope not, but the events of this past week do not leave me feeling very optimistic.


ISIS Advances and the Kurds Retreat In Northern Syria Read More »

GeoCurrents Editorial: The Genocide of the Yezidis Begins, and the United States is Complicit

(Note: GeoCurrents is still technically on summer vacation, allowing me time to catch up with other obligations that I have neglected. My recent essays on eco-modernism, written for the Breakthrough Institute, can be found here and here. I am interrupting this GeoCurrents hiatus, however, to address a highly disturbing and significant development. This post also violates the GeoCurrents policy on political editorializing. In general, this website strives to be as politically neutral as possible, but exceptions are made. One reason for my reluctance to express opinion is the fact that many of my views are somewhat extreme, although they come from the unusual position of radical centrism, one based on an equal distaste for the right and the left.)

SinjarIt is increasingly clear that the situation faced by the Yezidis of the Sinjar region in northern Iraq can only be described as genocidal. Thousands have been slaughtered and tens of thousands are facing death from starvation and thirst, if not from the bullets of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS, as it conventionally designated), as they hide in remote reaches of Sinjar Mountain. Christians and members of other religious minorities are also at a heightened risk of extermination in the expanding ISIS-controlled territory. Thus far, the government of the United States has conducted a few humanitarian air-drops for the Yezidis, although reports are now circulating that that has begun or is at least considering military strikes against ISIS, actions that the Pentagon currently denies. But more to the point, by having previously thwarted the ability of the Kurdish Peshmerga to defend its territory and fight the militants, the government of the United States bears some responsibility for these horrific developments. Such U.S. actions and inactions stem largely from its vain insistence on trying to revive the moribund Iraqi state, which in turn is rooted in the discredited ideal of intrinsic nation-state integrity.

Melek TausMost reports on the Yezidis mention the unusual nature of their religion, but often do so in a misleading manner. The Yezidi faith is typically described as a blend of beliefs and practices stemming from ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and other distant sources. Such an assessment may be reasonable, but one could just as easily depict Christianity as mere mélange of Jewish, Zoroastrian, and neo-Platonic ideas. In actuality, Yezidism is very much its own faith, although it does have close affinities with other belief systems, such as that of the Shabak people. The specific nature of the Yezidi religion, more importantly, makes its practitioners especially vulnerable to extremist interpretations of Islamic law. The Yezidis follow what is sometimes called a “cult of angels.” To them, God is a remote entity who has entrusted creation to seven spiritual being, the most important of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Melek Taus, however, is often identified with the fallen angel of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Satan (or Shaytan), leading to pejorative descriptions of Yezidis as “devil worshipers.” In actuality, Yezidism has nothing to do with Satanism in any form; to followers of the faith, Melek Taus is a benevolent being who repented his refusal to submit to Adam and was hence restored to his rightful place. Yezidism is in actuality a profoundly non-dualistic and generally peaceful faith. Yezidis do not proselytize or accept converts, and they largely keep to themselves. One of the more intriguing aspects of the faith is its spiritual abhorrence of lettuce.

Yezidis mapI showcase the Yezidis when I lecture on religion in the Middle East for two reasons. First, the existence of this faith, like that of many others, demonstrates the historically deep level of religious diversity found in the area that is often called the Fertile Crescent and is sometimes deemed the Heterodox Zone. Second, it shows that the realm of Islam was in general historical terms more religiously tolerant than Christendom. I cannot imagine a group like the Yezidis having survived in late medieval or early modern Europe: crusaders and inquisitors, such as the grotesquely misnamed Pope Innocent III, would not have allowed it. But as the rampages of ISIS and related groups thoroughly demonstrate, the situation has changed drastically. Today, this same region is marked by the world’s most extreme level of religious intolerance and persecution.

ISIS MapSome reports claim that ISIS leaders have given the Yezidis the same three-fold ultimatum thrown at the Christians of Mosul: either immediate conversion to Islam, or acceptance of subordinate dhimmi status and payment of the jizya tax, or face death. The middle option, however, is hardly assured: hyper-fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law demand dhimmi status for the “peoples of the book” (Jews, Christians, and few others), but those regarded as full-fledged idolaters, much less “devil worshippers,” are not necessarily accorded the same “respect.” But even when it comes to Christians, ISIS demands for the acceptance of dhimmi status appear to be largely pro forma, as the goal is apparently the complete cleansing from their would-be state of everyone who is not a Sunni fundamentalist.

After suffering for years, the Yezidis are at long last getting some attention. But mainstream media outlets still tend to downplay their plight, devoting vastly more attention to other far more familiar and less newsworthy matters. Other deeply persecuted Iraqi religious minorities, such as the Mandaeans who have suffered at the hands of Shia militias, receive even less attention. The destruction of Assyrian and other Christian communities gets a little more press, but it too has failed to spark widespread public outrage.

I have some difficulty understanding why such horrors are so widely disregarded. Ignorance is surely at play, but so too is partisan politics. I suspect that in the United States, many Republicans prefer to look away because the situation reflects poorly on the Bush administration’s Iraq policies, just as many Democrats do the same because it reflects equally poorly on the Obama administration. Other observers wrongly and spinelessly conclude that genocide in this region is simply none of our business. In regard to the Assyrians, several pundits have argued that they are “too Christian” for the left to care about and “too foreign” to concern the right. When it comes to the Yezidis, several sources have stressed the “tiny” size of the group, as if scant numbers somehow make persecution less objectionable. Yet in actuality the Yezidis are a substantial group, with roughly the same number of adherents as the population of Boston, Massachusetts (some 600,000-700,000). Can one imagine the dismissal of Boston on the grounds that its population is “tiny,” not even amounting to a million souls?

Unfortunately, American actions have hindered the ability of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to protect the beleaguered minorities of northern Iraq, and the KRG is the only organization that can offer any effective protection. In the tussle between the impotent “national” Iraqi government and the Kurds, Washington has sided firmly with Baghdad, unwilling to do anything that could potentially undermine the fictional integrity of Iraq. The American government has even tried to prevent the Kurds from selling their oil on the open market, as this goes against the wishes of Nouri al-Maliki and company. Deeply strapped for money, the KRG has been unable to provision its troops defending such places as Sinjar, thus forcing it to pull back, placing hundreds of thousands of people at the risk of mass murder. The more recent rapprochement between the KRG and the Iraqi state is indeed a hopeful development, but for tens of thousands of Yezidis it is too late and too little.

In defending the territorial integrity of Iraq, the United States is trying to prop up a corpse, as the country so depicted on our maps no longer exists. As a nation, it never did. As is well known, Iraq was imposed by British colonial authorities, and the state that they created never enjoyed genuine emotional resonance with the majority of its inhabitants. Iraqi national identity has always been superficial at best, thus requiring brutal dictatorial force to ensure state coherence. When that force was removed with the ouster of Saddam Hussein and free elections were eventually held, the disintegration of the country accelerated. The notion that diplomacy, patient nation-building, another regime change, or any other imaginable political process could somehow heal the wounds and allow the reconstitution of Iraq as a functioning nation-state is little more than fantasy. Basing American policy on such wishful thinking indicates an appalling abnegation of both intellectual and moral responsibility.

American policy in Iraq does not merely threaten major populations with genocide, but also works directly against the national interest of the United States. It is no secret that the current leaders of the Baghdad government are more closely aligned with Iran than they are with the United States, or that most people of Iraq are deeply suspicious of—if not actively hostile toward—American power. But both the Kurdish Regional Government and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan remain relatively pro-American, despite the shabby treatment that they have received from Washington. It almost seems as if the U.S. administration has decided that this situation is intolerable and that a few acts of betrayal are necessary to prevent the solidification of a regime that is genuinely friendly toward the United States. It sometimes appears as if the U.S. foreign policy establishment is more comfortable with “frenemies,” such as those in power in Baghdad and Riyadh, than it is with actual friends. Meanwhile, ISIS steadily gains power, innocents are slaughtered wholesale, and the rest of the world sits by. (France, however, has called for an emergency U.N. meeting to address the crisis and has pledged aid for those fighting against ISIS.)

Such self-destructive behavior on the part of the U.S. government has all the indications of lunacy. But such madness is seldom recognized, as it is far too deeply entrenched to attract attention. The same policies, after all, have been followed by all recent Republican and Democratic administrations, just as they are relentlessly pursued by virtually every national government the world over. The world’s sovereign states form a club and hence act in a stereotypically clubbish manner. Carcass states such as Iraq and Somalia remain members in good standing despite their abject failure, while highly functional non-members, such as Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland, do not belong and are therefore shunned, treated as if they do not exist. In a brilliant book, Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner refers to the resulting international system of mutually recognized sovereignty as “organized hypocrisy.” To the extent that it propels such events as the genocide of the Yezidis, it might be better described as organized psychosis.

The international diplomatic system shows symptoms of insanity because it is based on a figment of the imagination: the nation-state. A few sovereign countries do indeed approach the nation-state ideal, in which a self-conscious political community strongly identifies with a particular state across its entire territorial extent, but—as GeoCurrents has noted on numerous occasions—most fall far short of this model. Yet the fundamental premise of the international system is the permanent reality of this mere ideal across the world. To be sure, it is widely recognized that many countries have been artificially created and thus had no preexisting national integrity, but they are all supposed to have seamlessly “constructed” national solidarity through education, economic development, and political inclusion. In actuality, many never have, and quite a few never will.

The fallacy of the nation-state provides a powerful explanation for the debacle of the U.S.-led campaigns to reformulate and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. It was widely assumed by many leading experts that Afghanistan and especially Iraq would present easy wars followed by undemanding and self-financing processes of democratic reconstruction. Both countries were assumed to be coherent nation-states that merely needed a change of regime and a little nation-building assistance to emerge as stable, self-determining U.S. allies. Although the initial battles were far less challenging than the anti-war movement had anticipated, the subsequent occupations proved vastly more difficult than what the neo-conservative war-supporters had imagined. Nation-building was doomed to fail in these cases because neither country has ever approached nation-state status.

The obsession with preserving the existing international order of ostensible nation-states derives from a concern for geopolitical stability. Abandoning the idea of the intrinsic unity of a country such as Iraq or Somalia by acknowledging instead the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan or Somaliland, such reasoning has it, would potentially destabilize the global world order. It would do so by encouraging other disgruntled ethnic, religious, or regional groups to seek their own independence, thus fostering secession, rebellion, and warfare. This argument, however, fails from the onset by assuming a degree of international stability that simply does not exist. In actuality, Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland are islands of relative order in seas of chaos. More fundamentally, the unwillingness to deal with such unrecognized states in deference to the established (dis)order invokes a “slippery slope” argument that can be used to justify any aspect of the status quo, regardless of how non-functional or maladaptive it has become. Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland deserve to be dealt with as actual states not merely because of their leaders’ desires, but rather because they have created relatively stable and reasonably representative governments with acceptable levels of human freedom out of the fractured territories of internationally recognized states that are in reality hyper-unstable and deeply repressive. As the same cannot be said for the vast majority of the world’s myriad separatist movements, no dangerous precedent would thereby be set.

Yet in actuality, just such a dangerous precedent has indeed been set by the same international community in regard to South Sudan. South Sudan was allowed to emerge as a recognized sovereign state not because its leaders had built effective institutions and demonstrated a sustained capacity for self-rule, but rather because they had waged a interminable war of independence against the Khartoum government that finally exhausted the patience of many world leaders. At the time, I fully supported the independence of South Sudan, owing largely to the atrocities that had been committed against its people by the government of Sudan. But the hideous civil war that has subsequently undermined “the world’s youngest country” calls into question the wisdom of this maneuver. Successfully fighting against a common enemy by no means ensures the ability to construct a viable state once that war dies down.

Significantly, Iraqi Kurdistan could have gone the way of South Sudan. Tensions between its Kurmanji- and Sorani-speaking areas (by linguistic criteria, Kurdish is a not a language but a group of languages) have been pronounced, contributing to a brief armed struggle between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the 1990s. But although friction remains, the Kurdish people have been able to surmount their problems and construct an effective state. Yet now the United States insists that they scale back their ambitions and instead accept subordination within the decaying geobody of Iraq. No amount of successful nation- and state-building will ever do, they are effectively told by the U.S. government, and as such they will never be granted a state of their own on such a basis. If, on the other hand, they were to reject such efforts and instead focus their attention on actively making war against the Baghdad regime, then perhaps they may follow South Sudan and eventually be awarded their own recognized state. I do not see how such a policy can be regarded as anything but delusional.

The Clinton Administration was widely accused of complicity in genocide for its lack of action as the Tutsis of Rwanda were massacred in the 1990s. Preventing this instance of genocide, however, would have been very difficult. Preventing the slaughter of the Yezidis, however, would have been very easy, as all that would have been necessary was the provisioning of a little military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga, a force that, quite unlike Iraq’s “national” army, is willing and eager to defend the people of the region. The Obama administration’s refusal to do so in obeisance to the illusion of Iraqi national unity is a disgrace, indicating both moral cowardice and abject unwillingness to see the world as it actually is. What really leads me to despair, however, are my doubts that any other American administration would have acted any differently, as the paralyzing delusion of the nation-state is too deeply embedded to be dislodged by mere reality, no matter how blood-drenched that reality turns out to be.


GeoCurrents Editorial: The Genocide of the Yezidis Begins, and the United States is Complicit Read More »

Hazara Exodus from Quetta

A recent UN report indicates that the Hazara people of Quetta Pakistan are living in such terror that the entire community may abandon the country. The Hazaras, Persian-speaking, Shiite group reputed to have Mongolian ancestry, are concentrated in central Afghanistan, but 6,000 to 7,000 live in Pakistan. As more than 600 have been killed since 2000, Hazara leaders in Pakistan claim that the community is facing a genocidal situation. Sunni extremists target Hazaras largely because of their faith, although their ethnic identity also is also said to play a role.

In recent years, many Pakistani Hazaras have attempted to flee to Australia.  Fifty-five perished last December, however, when the boat carrying them capsized in Indonesian waters.

Hazara Exodus from Quetta Read More »

Conflict in the Comoros

Map of the Comoros Including MayotteAlthough Mayotte is a troubled island, its difficulties are minor compared to those of the other islands in the Comoro Archipelago, which collectively form an independent state. By some accounts, the Comoros is the most coup-wracked country in the world, having suffered twenty military assaults on its government since independence in 1975. Its instability is almost matched by its poverty; as listed by the IMF, the Comoros ranks 166th out of 183 countries in per capita GDP (in PPP). Food insecurity is widespread, and according to a recent report, the Comoros has experienced an increase in hunger since 1990. Private enterprise is weak and discouraged; according the World Bank’s most recent “ease of doing business report,” the Comoros is one of a handful of countries that would tax a hypothetical small ceramics firm at a rate “exceeding 100% of its profit.” It is thus hardly surprising that many residents of this densely populated state have fled to French-controlled Mayotte in recent years.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Comorian island of Mayotte voted to remain under French sovereignty in a 1974 plebiscite. Supposedly, in the same election the residents of the other islands in the archipelago—Anjouan (Ndzuwani), Grande Comore (Ngazidja), and Mohéli (Mwali)—voted by more than 99.9 percent for independence. Many evidently came to regret that decision. In 1997, both Anjouan, and Mohéli first declared their independence and then sought the reinstitution of French rule. France declined the offer, and federal Comorian troops brought the recalcitrant islands back under central control. Resistance to centralization persisted, however, leading to mediation by the African Union. As a result, in 1999 each island was granted substantial autonomy, and the country itself was rechristened the Union of the Comoros.

Wikipedia Map of the Invasion of Anjouan in the ComorosDespite decentralization, inter-island tensions and general political instability persisted. Problems came to a head in 2007 and 2008 on the island of Anjouan. Anjouan’s president, Colonel Mohammad Bacar, refused to step down after federal authorities accused him of rigging the most recent election, which he had ostensible won with over ninety percent of the vote. The central government appealed to the African Union, which responded with a 2000-troop invasion force. Soldiers from Sudan, Tanzania, and Senegal—with logistical backing from France and Libya (!)—soon restored the island to federal authority. Bacar fled to French-controlled Mayotte, prompting a sizable anti-French demonstration in the capital city, Moroni. Eventually he found sanctuary in Benin.

Tension between the Comoros and France has not kept the island country from joining French-led international associations, such as the International Organization of the Francophonie and the Indian Ocean Commission. But then again, the Comoros has joined a wide array of international groups, including the Arab League. Membership in the Arab League is somewhat unusual, as the Comoros is not an Arabic-speaking country.* Evidently, its leaders are hoping to address that situation, at least as far as the government itself is concerned. On October 4, 2011, a press release from Kuwait noted that the “Foundation of Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain’s Prize for Poetic Creativity announced on Tuesday that Prime Minister of the Republic of Comoros issued a decree stipulating that all his ministers would be attending the Arab language courses held by the Foundation.”

The indigenous inhabitants of the various islands of the Comoro Archipelago are culturally similar. Uninhabited before the sixth century CE, the islands were settled, like Madagascar, by peoples from both Indonesia and East Africa. The Comoro islands, unlike Madagascar, were subsequently tightly entwined in East African and Arabian trade networks, eventually forming an insular extension of the Swahili Coast. Arab merchants settled, and the common version of Swahili gained a particularly heavy Arabic influence. The resulting Comorian (or Shikomor) language is the common tongue of the archipelago, although each island has its own local dialect.

The religious demography of the Comoros not entirely clear. Wikipedia and the CIA Factbook state that 98 percent of the islanders are Sunni Muslims, with the rest following Roman Catholicism.** Other sources cite a Shia presence, varying from slightly less than one percent to as much as five percent of the population. Freedom House, moreover, claims that “Tensions have sometimes arisen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” which would indicate a non-trivial Shia*** presence. Intriguingly, the former president of the Comoros (until May 2011), Ahmad Abdullah Sambi, was so fond of Iran that he was dubbed “The Ayatollah of Comoros.” Ostensibly a Sunni Muslim, Sambi was lauded in the Iranian media as a convert to Shia Islam and for proselytizing on its behalf (2008).  At the same time, the Comoros Sunni religious establishment angrily accused the entire government of “favouring the spread of Shiism.”

Regardless of Shia numbers, I have not found any evidence suggesting that religious practices differentiate one island in the Comoros from another. Linguistic differences are minor, and history is shared. Why then are relations among the islands so fraught? Global comparison suggests that insularity itself may play a role; the individual islands in small, politically bound archipelagos sometimes develop deep rivalries. A prime example would be the ABC islands of the former Dutch Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Their cultural differences may be minor, but their political relations have generally been tense.

* The other non-Arab members of the Arab League are Somalia and Djibouti.

** The Christian proselytizing Joshua Project pegs the Christian population of the Comoros at 0.01 percent. It also claims that among the Muslim community, “mosque attendance is very low. Mixed with their Islamic practices is a strong involvement in occultism and spirit possession.”

** Presumably most Shiites in the Comoros are Twelvers (Ithnā‘ashariyyah), followers of the largest branch of the faith, dominant in Iran and southern Iraq. Evidence gleaned from on-line matrimonial advertisements, however, suggests a Dawoodi Bohra (an offshoot of Ismaili Shiism) presence, linked to the Gujarati diaspora. The Bohras are noted for their high rates of educational and professional achievement, for women as well as men. I have not provided a link, however, as it seems rude to link to such personal sources of information.

Conflict in the Comoros Read More »

The Failure of the Failed State Index

The use of the term “failed state” has surged over the past fifteen years, as can be seen in the Google N-Gram posted above showing the frequency of the term’s occurrence in scanned books. A January 8, 2011 Google news search for “failed state” yielded—in the first twelve articles alone—stories on Sudan, Mexico, Egypt, Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan, Belgium, and Nigeria. The first pick, from the Huffington Post, claims that South Sudan is a “failed sate in waiting,” a charge later echoed in The Telegraph. Remarkable: here we find a state that does not yet exist, yet has already been declared dead. Other assertions of state failure seem equally rash; while Mexico and Egypt have problems aplenty, neither is close to systematic state breakdown. But a determined enough critic can apparently find evidence of state failure almost anywhere. A recent AlterNet posting, leaning on the work of Noam Chomsky, declares that the United States is a “semi-failed state,” and goes on to assert that Victorian Britain “meets many of the formal criteria of failed statehood.” If Victorian Britain, which dominated almost half the world, was a “failed state,” we might as well toss the term out.

Needless to say, more precise definitions have been proposed. The Fund for Peace, which along with Foreign Policy magazine has established the influential Failed States Index, has put forward the following criteria of state failure:

  • loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein,
  • erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions,
  • an inability to provide reasonable public services, and
  • an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

The checklist seems reasonable at first glance, but is difficult to use in practice. The last criterion is seemingly impossible to reach; the state of Somalia controls virtually nothing, yet remains a full-fledged member of the international community.* Other problems further undercut the proposed criteria. An “inability to provide reasonable public services” reflects a broader failure of government rather than that of the state per se, as regional authorities can in some instances deliver. “Erosion of legitimate authority” is a trickier concept, as one first has to assess where legitimacy lies. At the popular level, according to the Fund for Peace, delegitimation occurs through the loss of “confidence in state institutions and processes, [as demonstrated by] widely boycotted or contested elections, mass public demonstrations, sustained civil disobedience…” Yet North Korea, which has experienced none of these things, is deemed an almost completely “deligitimated” state. For all we know, most North Koreans view their government as legitimate; propaganda, after all, often proves effective. North Korea apparently earns its non-legitimate status in the index on the basis of its “massive and endemic corruption” and “the lack of transparency, accountability and political representation,” features that do indeed pertain. But both endemic corruption and lack of representation mark some of the world’s most solid states, including China. The Fund for Peace also views the “violation of human rights” as an indicator of state failure, but massive repression, unfortunately, can solidify the standing of a precarious state, as was recently witnessed in Iran.

The Failed State Index uses twelve indicators, which in turn are divided into a variety of sub-indicators. Some of the metrics are classified as social (demographic pressures, human flight), others as economic (GDP decline, uneven development), and still others political (violation of human rights, intervention by other states, and so forth). Taken together, these various markers can indeed highlight a general level of overall disfunctionality in any given country. But failure in this sense is not the same as state failure. State-run structures of control can remain strong in the face of precipitous economic decline or of human rights outrages. By viewing the “state” as a kind of political-social-economic totality, the Failed State Index loses sight of the state itself, which strictly speaking refers to the institutions of central governmental power, especially in their coercive function. It thus classifies moribund states, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium, as much less threatened with collapse than cohesive and repressive states prevailing over dismal economies, such as North Korea and Eritrea. While North Korea might justifiably be called a failed country, there is little evidence that its state apparatus it tottering. Regarding it as such seems like a case of perversely wishful thinking.

If the Failed State Index is a promising but problematic analytical tool, the map that accompanies it on the Foreign Policy website is something else altogether. At first glance, it appears the cartographers have mapped sovereign states from red to green, while using white as an unmarked category to include both dependent territories, such as Greenland and Puerto Rico, and key disputed lands, such Western Sahara and the Hala’ib Triangle (claimed by Sudan, administered by Egypt). Closer inspection, however, reveals a stunning lack of consistency. The regions depicted in white turn out to have nothing in common. Some are dependencies and a few are disputed territories, but others range from autonomous areas, to insular portions of sovereign states, to fully independent countries. Meanwhile, the world’s hottest territorial dispute, Kashmir, is essentially invisible: the area controlled by India is mapped as part of India, the area controlled by Pakistan is mapped as part of Pakistan, and the area controlled by China (Aksai Chin) is mapped as if it were a lake (or perhaps desiccated lake, given that it is portrayed exactly like the Aral Sea!).

A few of the oddities on the map deserve special mention. The cartographer’s most glaring gaffe is the excision of the island of Newfoundland from Canada. France too is shorn of most of its islands; the map implicitly refutes French sovereignty over all of its overseas departments (Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion), even though they are as much parts of France as Hawaii and Alaska are parts of the United States. In the Caribbean, several independent island countries (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica, and more) are denied sovereignty, mapped instead as white splotches. Further south, Chile has been divested of its half of Tierra del Fuego. Some autonomous island groups, such as Portugal’s Azores and Finland’s Åland Archipelago, are mapped in white, but not Denmark’s autonomous Faroe Islands. Taiwan, a de facto sovereign state not recognized by most other independent countries, is shown in white, but Kosovo, which fits the same category, is colored. A too-large West Bank is mapped in white, but in the accompanying tables it is aggregated with Israel. Elsewhere the mapmaker takes islands belonging to one country and assigns them to another. The coloration scheme shows Socotra as part of Somalia rather than Yemen, Rhodes as part of Turkey rather than Greece, and the Florida Keys as part of the Bahamas rather than the United States. Similar errors abound. Have the editors of Foreign Policy and the creators of the Failed State Index never checked their own map?

*On May 19, 2010, Somalia asserted its own unchallenged diplomatic standing by recognizing Kosovo, and thereby giving that partially recognized state a tad more international legitimacy.

The Failure of the Failed State Index Read More »

Is Belgium a Failed State? Does It Matter?

News stories have been coming out for months on the continuing failure of Belgium to form a government after the June 2010 election. On January 6, 2011, the BBC announced that two Flemish parties were yet again demanding “adjustments” to a compromise plan crafted by the mediator of the Belgian king. On the face of it, the controversies—focusing on tax policies, regional subsidies, and proposed readjustments of administrative and electoral divisions in the suburban fringe of Brussels—don’t seem insurmountable. But Belgium’s underlying troubles go much deeper.

The main problem stems from the country’s stark cultural and economic divide between the generally well-off Flemish- (Dutch) speaking north and the somewhat poorer Walloon- (French) speaking south. Almost all institutions are divided along these lines. Most significantly, no political party is pan-Belgian; even the Greens split between the Flemish Groen! and its Walloon counterpart, Ecolo. Local governments on either side harshly restrict the public use of the other region’s language. Flemish voters, moreover, continue to push for higher level of autonomy, many calling for outright independence. Exasperation over subsidies flowing to the socialist-ruled south helped the separatist New Flemish Alliance to gain first place in the June elections (although with twelve parties gaining seats in the Chamber of Representatives, it received a modest 17 percent of the total vote). As the New Flemish Alliance seeks the end of Belgium, it is hardly surprising that its parliamentarians would stymie the formation of a new government.

The prolonged inability to constitute a government is nothing new to Belgian politics. After the June 2007 election, 196 days passed before an interim government emerged. Belgium itself is thus coming to be seen as a political failure. Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, recently proclaimed in a contentious Der Spiegel interview that his country “has no future” and will “eventually evaporate of its own accord.” He also flatly opined that “Belgium is a failed nation.” That last assessment is difficult to dispute, inasmuch as a “nation” is formally defined as a group of people united in their belief that they form a political community. Such national identity is sorely lacking among a large percentage of the Belgian population. Whether Belgium is a failed state is a different question. “Comatose” may be a better description.

State failure is generally seen as political catastrophe of the first order, bringing economic collapse, political chaos, and overwhelming insecurity. Yet the foundering of the Belgian state is associated with none of these things. To be sure, the financial consequences could be unwelcome, as credit-rating agencies are threatening to downgrade Belgium’s ranking, undermining governmental bonds. But overall, the abeyance of the national government has been rather inconsequential. The Flemish region and Wallonia, along with multi-lingual Brussels, have gained increasing autonomy over the past several decades. Before the latest crisis hit, the central state was already sharply limited, its powers and prerogatives having been pushed both down to the country’s three regions and up to the European Union.

De Wever’s image of an “evaporating” Belgium seems apt. A violent dissolution of the state is certainly not in the offing. The New Flemish Alliance is a staid, center-right party, not interested in intensive struggle. As most Walloons and more than a few Flemings retain vestigial allegiance to the country, complete dissolution seems unlikely. Any attempt to formally dismantle the state, moreover, would stumble on Brussels, the bi-cultural city-region that both groups claim for their own. Belgium will thus likely remain an officially sovereign country, but could still steadily diminish in its scope, perhaps eventually becoming a mere shadow of a state.

The gradual diminution of the Belgian state points to a major flaw in the standard geopolitical model. In most analyses of world politics, the sovereign state is held to be the essential, all-important unit. In both international law and popular perception, the independent country is regarded as an individual, distinct from all others, possessing an integrated geographical body, and acting with purpose and volition. Together, the 200-odd sovereign states form the international community, in which they interact as fully autonomous, juridically equal individuals. Compared with the level of the sovereign state, all other rungs of the spatial hierarchy are relatively insignificant. Independent countries are what ultimately matter, more than provinces, regions, or even autonomous areas, and certainly more than multi-state blocs such as NAFTA, ASEAN, or the Arab League.

Yet in the case of Belgium, the sovereign, internationally recognized state is simply not the most important government in the land. Wallonia and the Flemish Region are much more significant—as is the European Union. In this instance, as in many others across the globe, the standard model misses a much more complex reality. Regardless of how we conceptualize them, mutually recognizing official states are not necessarily what count. Some states, like Belgium, are fading; others, such as Somalia, are little more than fictions. Power is exercised at all levels of the spatial hierarchy, from the village to the United Nations. In some cases the “state” level is of less significance than others. In the state-based model, the pretense of power is often confused for its actual existence.

The failure of the Belgian state goes curiously unnoticed in the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy’s influential “failed state index.” Strikingly, Belgium is classified here as one of the world’s most stable states, with a lower possibility of collapse than France, Germany, or the United States. This seeming paradox is explained by the fact that the index does not actually measure “state failure” at all, but rather the likelihood of systematic societal breakdown. Such collapse is not an issue in Belgium; as Der Spiegel put it in 2008, “Belgium is the world’s most successful failed state.”

Is Belgium a Failed State? Does It Matter? Read More »

Militias, Private Armies, and Failed States

Max Weber famously defined the modern state as an entity claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to enforce order over a specific territory. By this definition, many of the countries that constitute the international geopolitical order fall well short of being genuine states. Consider Lebanon. From 1976 to 2005, a sizable Syrian army was parked on Lebanese soil, making a mockery of any claims that the Lebanese state had a monopoly on force. Although that army subsequently withdrew, Lebanon was not able to establish sovereignty over the full extent of its territory. It is generally agreed today that Hezbollah’s Islamist militia is stronger than the Lebanese national army, exercising power if not monopolizing violence in the country’s Shiite-majority areas, and thereby compromising Lebanon’s territorial integrity if not its very statehood. By strict Weberian criteria, Lebanon must be regarded as a semi-fictive state, one that has the forms but not the full powers of genuine statehood.

One could argue that Hezbollah, for all its strength, is an illegitimate wielder of violence, making Lebanon a legitimate if beleaguered state. Elsewhere in the world, however, plenty of more ambiguous cases can be found. Some states allow the proliferation of private armies, granting paramilitary groups a form of legitimacy—and in so doing undermining their own. If a country takes the further step of relying on such autonomous purveyors of violence to uphold its own order over large stretches of its supposed territory, then it can no longer be classified as a fully modern state, at least by Weber’s definition. Instead, it should be regarded as something more akin to a feudal entity, one in which effective sovereignty is diffuse and parcelized, ceded by a theoretically sovereign power to largely independent, localized forces.

Such quasi-feudal states are more widespread than is commonly realized. Consider the Philippines, the world’s twelfth most populous country. By certain criteria, the Philippines is relatively stable; according to the Failed States Index, more than fifty other countries are at greater risk of systematic collapse. Yet private armies operating with impunity have long been a staple feature of Philippine political life. As MindaNews reported on February 5, 2010, fifty-two private militias operate on the island of Mindanao alone. The power and audacity of Philippine armed retinues came to global attention after the Maguindanao Massacre of November 2009. Fighters associated with the powerful Ampatuan clan attacked a convoy of a rival clan that was heading to register one of its members as a candidate for an up-coming gubernatorial election; fifty-one people were slaughtered, including as many as 32 journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists describes the incident as the largest single attack on news-reporters in world history.

The November massacre was so outrageous that the Philippine government had to react, arresting key members of the Ampatuan clan, conducting raids (one of which netted 330,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition), and declaring martial law in the region – in effect, denying the legitimacy of the private army that had perpetuated the bloodbath. But up to that point, the Ampatuans had been key allies of the government, and had in fact helped engineer the presidential election of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004 by ensuring her virtually all of the vote in their home district. Elsewhere in the Philippines, private armies continue to operate with impunity, periodically serving state ends by battling Islamists insurgents in the south and the forces of the Maoist New Peoples’ Army through the rest of Philippine archipelago.

States are by definition territorial entities that are supposed to exercise control over the all areas within their internationally sanctified borders. In the Philippines, as in many other countries, such a condition remains more a dream than a reality. As the map above shows, most parts of the archipelago remain vulnerable to insurgent forces, which retain effective control over many remote areas. Philippine territoriality in the south is also complicated by the existence of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a topic that will be addressed in next Monday’s posting.

Militias, Private Armies, and Failed States Read More »

DR Congo: A Potemkin State?

The ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is reputed to be the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Most observers estimate the death toll at around 5.4 million deaths; some figures put the toll as high as 6.9 million. One controversial 2009 report—from the Human Security Report Project of Simon Fraser University—claims that the actual death count was less than a million. Such wild discrepancies suggest how difficult it is to collect accurate information in a place as anarchic as DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t much of a democratic republic, but that’s not its major problem. More serious is that it doesn’t really function as a country at all. The government hardly governs even in the portion of its territory that it actually controls. Our reference works mislead us when they classify the DRC is a “developing nation-state,” as they habitually do. It certainly isn’t developing (see the chart above), and its governmental apparatus remains miniscule; the DRC takes in less revenue annually than Haiti ($700 million as opposed to $961 million), a deeply impoverished country a fraction of its size. National identity is weak at best. Those Congolese who went to school learned that they constitute a Congolese nation, a lesson that many have apparently taken to heart, but when push comes to shove regional and ethnic cleavages deeply divide. To put it bluntly, since independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a de-developing, non-national Potemkin state: a façade of a country with scant substance.

The DRC owes its existence to the wild greed of Leopold II, king of the contrived state of Belgium. Desperate to put his mark on the globe, Leopold unleashed his agents, starting with Henry Stanley, to cut a swath of terror across central Africa. Local people were forced to collect vast amounts of wild rubber; if they failed to meet quotas, hands were chopped, and often heads as well. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Bismarck and the other European leaders simply awarded Leopold the bulk of central Africa as his personal domain, calling it the Congo Free State (ironies run deep here). After word of the carnage in the Congo reached global attention, Leopold lost his African estate to his own government, and in 1908 the Belgium Congo was born. When Belgium abruptly withdrew from Africa in 1960, the Congo almost immediately split in four (see map). It convulsed with violence through the first half of the 1960s, as regional leaders turned to either the Soviet Union or the United States for support. Che Guevara came to mentor Laurent Kabila, founder of the DR Congo, in the arts of revolutionary war.

Relative stability, but little else, came to Congo in 1965 with the dictatorship of Western-backed Joseph Mobutu, who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko just as he rechristened his country Zaire. Reportedly the third highest grossing kleptocrat (thief-ruler) in world history, Mobuto made off with an estimated $5 billion in his 32 years of rule; only Indonesia’s Suharto and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos stole more. But when one considers the vastly greater resources of Indonesia and the Philippines, Mobutu must take first place. While Indonesia prospered and the Philippines merely stagnated under kleptocratic rule, Mobutu’s realm steadily declined. When the Cold War ended, its economy collapsed. In the mid-1990s, Zaire collapsed as well. Its demise came in 1997 when Rwanda-backed Joseph Kabila, no longer a Marxist, seized control. A year later, his disappointed Rwandan backers sent another army to replace him. As Rwandan forces were closing in on Kinshasa, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (with a little help from Chad and Libya) stepped in to defend the Kabila regime. By the beginning of the millennium, DR Congo had fractured into a complex welter of militia-run territories – the geography of which no map adequately conveys. Increasingly, these militias came to fight, with extreme brutality, over access to resources, particularly coltan (a rare mineral used in the manufacture of electronics).

It is quite telling that Rwanda – a country a fraction the size of DR Congo that had just endured its own genocidal hell – could treat the vast DR Congo as its pawn. This is not something that would have happened to a genuine nation-state. (To be continued.)

DR Congo: A Potemkin State? Read More »

Yemen: A Failing State?

Concerns that Yemen could become a failed state have recently mounted. The country has a weak central government, faces separate rebellions in the north and south, and contains a considerable al Qaeda contingent. The northern rebellion attracts most international attention, as it has spilled across the border into Saudi Arabia, provoking harsh Saudi reprisals. On December 25, 2009, Yemeni lawmaker Yahya al-Houthi claimed that Saudi Arabian warplanes were employing internationally banned weapons in attacks on villages in northern Yemen, resulting in massive civilian casualties.

This conflict, usually called the Houthi rebellion or the Sa’ada Emergency, is related to the distinctive form of Shia (or Shi’ite) Islam, Zaidi (or Zaidiyya), practiced in the region. Zaidis (sometimes called Fiver Shia Muslims) constitute over 40 percent of the population of Yemen, and until 1962 the Zaidi Imams actually held political power in northern Yemen. Sunni Islam, however, now holds political sway in the country at large – to the extent that Yemen functions as a unified state.

Zaidi Islam, general area outlined in blue

Saudi hostility stems in part from the fact that the border separating it from Yemen does not correspond with cultural divisions. Up to one million Zaidis reside in the mountainous reaches of the ‘Asir province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, where they face discrimination from the resolutely Sunni government. In ‘Asir, Yemeni Arabic dialects are widely spoken, and farming and other day-to-day practices are much more similar to those found in northern Yemen than to those elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government only fully gained control of ‘Asir from the Zaidi Imam in 1934, and some evidence suggests that separatist sentiments remain entrenched.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, which may be true, even though the Zaidi version of Shia Islam is markedly different from the Twelver sect of Shia Islam found in Iran. More problematic for Saudi Arabia in the long run is the fact that most of its people living in its Gulf coastal area – the site of its major oil reserves – are Twelver Shias. But that is a topic for another post.

Yemen: A Failing State? Read More »