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 Middle East.
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 more than 170 people in Mumbai. Or other attacks that kill 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. A passenger liner with more than 1,000 people aboard barely avoided being the pirates' latest prize. Vessels that were not so lucky include a Saudi oil tanker carrying two million barrels of crude oil and a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks and other weapons.
The predations of pirates and terrorists--two species of international outlaws--have caused much handwringing and a so-far unsuccessful search for solutions. The United Nations has authorized warships to enter Somalia's territorial waters and use "all necessary force" against the pirates. A number of states, including the U.S., have sent their own naval vessels to help, but their numbers are grossly inadequate to safeguard thousands of miles of water. The increasingly bold desperados are venturing farther and farther from shore in search of ever more lucrative prizes.
The response in Pakistan has been just as limited and just as ineffective. India, the U.S., Afghanistan and other concerned states have spent years begging Islamabad to crack down on terrorists. These pleas have been backed up by offers of aid and threats if inaction continues. Neither has done much good. The Pakistani army appears either unwilling or unable--maybe both--to take effective action against powerful jihadist groups that have longstanding links with its own Inter-Services Intelligence agency. In desperation, the U.S. has resorted to picking off individual terrorists with unmanned aerial vehicles. This tactic works and should be continued, but it is no more than a band-aid on a gaping wound.
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 U.N. peacekeepers dealing with genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Even the world's mightiest military alliance is not immune from these problems. Witness the problems NATO has encountered in trying to get member states to live up to their commitments in Afghanistan.
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 U.S. and its allies would summon the wherewithal to act. But not until then.
Given that dismal reality, it makes sense to think of second-best alternatives. In the case of the Somali pirates, creative solutions can include using air and naval power to hit the bases from which they operate, and employing Blackwater and other mercenaries to add their protective efforts to those of the world's navies. In Pakistan that means continuing air strikes and providing assistance to tribal militias which have their own grievances against jihadist interlopers. In both places, the U.S. should be doing what it can, in cooperation with allies and multilateral organizations, to bolster central authority.
But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that any of these measures has much chance of success. Until we are willing to place more ungoverned spaces under international administration, evils such as piracy and terrorism will continue to flourish.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.