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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Comparative perspective: Somalia and Afghanistan

It was long ago now when I first read David Axe's dispatches from somewhere. At the time he was in Uruzgan, and I was interested in reading anything coming from there in those days. He created a bit of a storm when he once claimed that Dutch soldiers were successfully attacked by a VBIED in Tarin Kowt last June because a vehicle's crew from their convoy stopped beside a tree to pick some berries (in actuality the vehicle's antenna was stuck in the branches of the tree). So even though I found his dispatches interesting, I didn't develop much of a liking for his analysis.
Nowadays he's covering the piracy in Somali seas. You HAVE TO read Axe's article at the World Politics Review to understand more of the phenomenon. He isn't shy to talk about the real roots of piracy, which go back to the times when Somali fish stocks were plundered by all sorts of countries' ships that thought they had a free ride in Somali seas. But, as you would expect from a war reporter, his narrative is of course not a naive, popular-history version. He portrays the ongoing piracy in detail, its increasing sophistication, seen, for instance, in the use of "motherships," that make it possible for pirates to get closer to even protected shipping lanes and within striking range of desirable targets. This is banditry by political actors with social roots, with social needs in the background. Interpretations shouldn't vary between viewing pirates as "Somali heroes" or "maritime terrorists." Reality is too complex, such a simple, moralising perspective cannot grab anything from the essence of what is going on.
Meanwhile, Axe makes it clear how much one could expect from the few warships that try to patrol a maritime exclusion zone for safe shipping. Even NATO is officially involved. Even Russia is getting in on the action with some ships that will then move on to Venezuela for a little Cold War nostalgia. And even so there are only a few ships for a huge area. It's not that there are gaps in the coverage. It's that there are gaps in pirates' room for maneouvre.
So why am I writing of that issue here, drawing attention to Axe's writing? Well, the reason is the potential parallel between Somalia and Afghanistan, after all mine is a blog "mostly about Afghanistan nowadays."
Axe writes in one of his blogposts:
"This week the port town of Merka fell to a resurgent Islamic rebellion, two years after Somalia’s ruling Islamic Courts regime was deposed by an alliance of northern clans aided by the U.S. and Ethiopia. It’s possible that wider Islamic control will mean fewer pirates: the Courts during their tenure in Mogadishu had enforced harsh Islamic law that had reduced piracy to its lowest level in years."
Elsewhere he writes:
"If there’s one thing Islamists are good at, it’s law and order."
Those keeping an eye out for the discourse on Afghanistan will know by now what I'm getting at. But let's look at the parallel mentioned first. The Islamic Courts Union scored points with those having a preference for "law and order" in fact not only by reducing piracy but also by banning the consumption of khat, the favoured local light drug mostly imported to the country from other countries around. Of course they haven't achieved complete success with regards to either of those goals, but they did better than any TFG would do. Most likely.
Does this mean they are preferrable? The rise of Islamists in Somalia certainly resembled the way the Taliban emerged in Afghanistan. In-fighting. Atrocities. A bottom-up organising movement for stabilisation, with external support coming to it in a timely fashion. So on. Well, I have to say I'm less aware of Somalia's complexities than I am of Afghanistan's complexities. But based on my raw knowledge of the history of the place, there are potential rifts within any Islamist regime all the time. Such as in this case there are, too. So their rule may not in the end be so stable. And the world outside Somalia's boundaries also has interests and concerns regarding its security. If, say, al-Qaida would start running an extensive training operation there, that certainly wouldn't please us so much.
That's what I would say about Somalia. I won't touch on Afghanistan extensively here (that's what the blog is for, otherwise). Suffice to say that I hope the relevant people try to think in terms other than "controlled warlordism" vs. "negotiate with the Taliban, they are just fighting occupation and are quite good on law and order."
This is to take nothing away from the value of Axe's writing. He is just raising issues, and me I'm just taking care of the debate that should follow regarding doubts there may be.

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