Skip to main content

Stabilising Fragile States

Back to All Publications

High-profile international stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq in recent years have accentuated the growing centrality of fragile states to global security. Indeed, one of the most central lessons from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States is that in an age of globalisation, no country, regardless of how poor and seemingly remote it is, can be ignored without incurring security risks. Afghanistan, where plans for the attacks were undertaken, has long ranked at the very bottom of world poverty indices. The July 2010 soccer World Cup bombings in Kampala were organised in Somalia. The attempted May 2010 car-bombing in Times Square in New York and the failed Christmas Day 2009 airline bombing were planned in Yemen. These episodes, and the potentially more lethal capacity that modern technology provides terrorists, underscore that fragile states present grim dangers to the international community.

In addition to providing havens for terrorists, fragile states are destabilising to their regions. When left to fester, fragile states don’t simply implode and fizzle out. Rather, they tend to metastasise and engulf neighbouring countries—and beyond. Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas, which have been an Achilles’ heel for the Afghanistan stabilisation effort as well as an insulated shelter for Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, are a case in point. Similarly, West Africa is still recovering from the chaos of Liberia under Charles Taylor. The fragility of the former Yugoslavia resulted in a domino succession of wars that menaced south-eastern Europe for a decade. Colombia’s decades-long insurgency has incubated international cocaine traffickers who now threaten to undermine numerous Caribbean and West African states. And radical extremism in Algeria, which morphed into “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM), now imperils large expanses of the Sahel.

Adding to the concern is that there are more than just a handful of fragile states ticking away. According to the State Fragility Index of the US think tank, the Center for Systemic Peace, there are twenty-eight states at an extreme or high level of fragility. Notably, twenty-three of the twenty-eight are in Africa.

Sobered by the enormous cost in lives, budgets, effort, time, and popular support that stabilisation operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have incurred, international enthusiasm for engaging in other fragile states is limited. This, coupled with the complex political, economic, and social undercurrents of fragile states, has led some to question whether stabilisation is genuinely needed or even feasible. They argue it would be more realistic to narrow the focus to targeting the key troublemakers in these contexts, leaving it up to local actors to deal with stabilisation.

In fact, this approach was tried for much of the past twenty years in Somalia—and the last several decades in Afghanistan—and elsewhere. Not only did these parochial efforts fail (not least because targeting destabilising actors requires excellent intelligence that can be gained only from being on the ground), but these countries have since grown more unstable—and dangerous.

Often lost in this discussion is that the track record of stabilising fragile states over the past two decades has yielded a number of relative successes, including Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Croatia, Kosovo, East Timor, El Salvador, and Colombia. While all are still works in progress, each of these countries is immeasurably better off—and poses less of a threat to its neighbours and the global community—because of international stabilisation efforts.

Better to accept that stabilising fragile states is a collective challenge of the contemporary international security era and to learn from the wealth of experience gained in recent decades so as to make these undertakings as effective and efficient as possible. Indeed, there are currently peacekeeping operations in fourteen of the twenty-eight most fragile states—and other forms of stabilisation under way in most of the others—that would benefit from these insights.

View All Publications