Between Accident and Intention: Revisiting State Failure

In his article “Think Again: Failed States,” James Traub argues that a distinction should be made between “hapless” and “intentional” failed states. Contending that the former are more benign than the latter, Traub finds that some failed states pose real threats to the U.S. and the West, while others do not. Using this model, Traub classifies states such as Somalia and Afghanistan as merely hapless, meaning that their governments are unable to actually form and carry out policy, and those such as Sudan and Pakistan are much more dangerous due to their abilitity to exercise state power.  Traub states:
“A categorical divide, albeit a sometimes blurry one, separates two classes of failed states. A country like Somalia is incapable of forming and executing state policy; it is a hapless state. States like Sudan, by contrast, are precarious by design. Or take Pakistan, which has followed clear and consistent policies, laid down by the military, since its inception in 1947. Unlike Somalia, or, for that matter, its neighbor Afghanistan, Pakistan is an intentional state. But just as Sudanese policy has provoked decades of violence by pitting the state against the periphery, so the cultivation of jihadi groups by the Pakistani military and intelligence services — as a counterweight to India and a source of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan — has turned Pakistan into a cockpit of terrorist violence…. Intentional states, in short, often pose far greater threats to the world than hapless ones do.”
This particular distinction, however, blurs more than it clarifies, and should be revisited. Nevertheless, Traub’s insight captures an important distinction between Somalia and Pakistan—their diverging degrees of state capacity. In Somalia, due to a lack of coercive capacity and institutional ties across the country, the government does not have the resources nor the authority to carry out policy. In contrast, while Pakistan does contain areas that are largely ungoverned, it nevertheless has solid, functioning institutions and a military that ranks among the top 20 globally in strength.
However, Traub overlooks the fact that the capacity to carry out policy and the destabilizing effects of that policy do not inherently make state failure intentional. In fact, in some cases, what the label “intentional” actually clouds is the lack of control governments in such states often have, despite the fact that policy-making nevertheless takes place. Just as in any state, many divergent holdings of power exist in failed states. Yet, in failed states, the central government either becomes a  competing source of power among many that vie for control over the country, or is itself divided among various actors that render coherent state policy difficult.
Such is the case of Pakistan. State capacity does exist, and destabilizing policy does happen, but the government has found it difficult firstly to consistently monitor the actions of its various institutions (particularly the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)), and secondly, to implement coherent policy due to the constant balancing act it performs between pressures from the U.S. and from internal hardliners. The effects of such incoherence can be seen in the lukewarm counterterrorism efforts under Musharraf after his decision to side with the U.S. following 9/11 and the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto with U.N. evidence of I.S.I. involvement in the cover-up of circumstances surrounding her death. The fact that current President Zardari’s has made signs to boost counterterrorism efforts, despite commanding a Pakistani army containing many sympathetic to jihadists (and many that are drawn from the same villages as terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba), is another sign of this incoherence.
Why does it matter whether we deem failed states as intentional or perhaps actually incoherent? It matters because in the latter case, what is necessary to bring stability to states such as Pakistan is not simply consolidating control over ungoverned areas, but more importantly, consolidating control over state institutions and agencies themselves. Simply put, helping “intentional” failed states succeed will not simply happen by nudging leaders to adopt better policies. As Traub states, not all failed states are equal. However, creating categories such as intentional, without examining the formation processes of the destabilizing policy that determines such classification, overly simplifies what may actually be  necessary to assist such states.

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