What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Operation Rakhman, state failure theory, and the Talib exception

An Update to the MStFB Uruzgan Series
Before coming up with some reflections on a very interesting military operation by the Dutch-led Task Force Uruzgan (and ISAF) and the ANA (Afghan National Army) back in March, 2007, I'd briefly reflect on something connected in general to the discourse on 'failed states' and 'state failure', just like I did in my previous post. Well, I'm in the mood for this, and what I'm going to say is relevant to the issue of this post, too, anyway.
Just a general observation about how 'practitioners' at times better understand the needs for a theory to be developed in a certain way, rather than in any other way, for practical reasons, as well as how sometimes they see the relevance of a theoretically formulated concept in practice much faster than theorists. I'll give an example not related to Operation Rakhman first. One of the most important things I argued for, once I became acquainted with the failed state discourse years ago, was that we should drop the term 'failed states' altogether. Saying 'failed' suggests finality, irreversability, and so even those who would be ready to conceptualise its meaning in a sharper fashion, will feel inhibited in using this adjective, whatever finding they may encounter, for rich, 'developed' countries. That might in effect be like a taboo. (But typically there's not really an attempt to clearly tell how different levels of a state's being failed could be measured, anyway.) So countries, mostly 'developing' countries, are just deemed failed, or just failing, or just weak. Or they are deemed collapsed. And so on. A lot of labeling that tends to be ideological. So you can get countries like Zimbabwe or North Korea into one category with others like Somalia, the DRC etc. The problems with this vagueness I sometimes illustrate by pointing to how senseless a discussion on whether Iraq or Afghanistan is currently a failed state could be. (Imagine the following dialogue: "Hey, those countries are being reconstructed, so they are about to succeed, not fail, you ignorant bastard!", "What? Me, I'm ignorant? And what about the mess in those countries with the insurgencies and all the human suffering there, think especially of Iraq! Of course they are failed", and so on...)
Now, I remember, one of those people to whom I didn't have to bother explaining why I don't exactly favour the use of the 'failed state' term, and why I was looking, instead of giving states all sorts of bad (and arbitrary) names, rather for a way to conceptualise the essence of a phenomenon, that of 'state failure', so that it could be observed universally, without geographical, or actually West-centric, taboos, was István Náthon. He was a former U.N. Ambassador for Hungary. For him, talking of 'failed states' was a non-starter. The U.N. can't label its members 'failed', he pointed out. That just doesn't work - as it turned out to be obvious to a diplomat who understands his profession.
Now, it is a similar thing I'd point to with Operation Rakhman. Military planners preparing for Operation Achilles in Helmand province, expected that Talib insurgents, as a result of the push of military operations in Helmand, will flee to Uruzgan, thinking they could find refuge there, given the Dutch-led Task Force Uruzgan's more passive strategy there. In effect, planners were expecting to see an NSE, a negative spill-over effect to be seen in the works. The NSE concept is the essence of my concept of state failure, as I pointed out many times before. But one doesn't necessarily have to use states as units of analysis to observe NSEs. And so I've been analysing in the past months on this blog the potential NSEs in the works between Afghan provinces very differently handled by different ISAF and OEF forces. The basic assumption behind this is that insurgents use calmer places, with more passive countries leading operations there, as a refuge. So if there's a difference in aggressivity of operations (starting with different rules of engagement) between international forces in two neighbouring provinces, that may constitue a push and a pull factor for an NSE at the same time, with insurgents moving to calmer areas to project their activities against the more active country's forces from there. Hence ISAF planners got Task Force Uruzgan units based in Deh Rawod, near Uruzgan province's border with Helmand province, to provide effectively border defence between Uruzgan and Helmand. A blocking operation to stop insurgents trying to make it to Uruzgan.
What happened, amazingly, was apparently the opposite of what was expected. Insurgents rushed to fight in Helmand, out of Uruzgan. So the Afghan National Police reported, and Ton van Loon, the incidentally also Dutch commander at-the-time of ISAF Regional Command-South himself referred to that piece of information a number of times. Okay, in essence that is still an NSE... but with the push and the pull factors working the other way around, unlike military planners (and I) would have anticipated. Perhaps we should call that the Talib exception to the theory right there.
You can read about Operation Rakhman for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Some of the cited material is in Dutch, so you may have to help yourself with some on-line translator tool, like I did.)
There were a number of other interesting aspects to this operation. TF Uruzgan units payed a visit for example to a border village to build local contacts there. They didn't name the village in subsequent reports in order not to attract Talib reprisals against the community there in the future. The locals apparently told soldiers that they haven't seen a foreigner in their village for five years, and that is effectively including the Taliban, we could say... Then after this visit the floods came, not floods of insurgents, but river flooding. So TFU units were soon involved in civilian rescue operations, along the river Helmand and its tributaries, that understandably diverted their energies from the blocking operation. They also had some busy days event-wise, given that on March 15 Australian PM John Howard made a surprise visit to the province (since Australian units make up a significant part of TF Uruzgan), followed a couple of days later by the visit of the Dutch '3D ministerial trio' (defence, foreign affairs (diplomacy), and development cooperation). Following Operation Achilles and all these busy times, however, General van Loon contentedly stated: “The Afghan National Police Chief for Southern Uruzgan told me that the positive effects of Operation Achilles are being felt in Uruzgan”.
Since then a part of the insurgents concerned must have returned to Uruzgan of course. And they are somewhat more likely to meet Dutch troops nowadays, given the Dutch switch to the amoeba strategy, with some surprise patrols leading to more contact between TFU and Talib insurgents outside the Dutch development ink blots.

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