Failed States

Mogadishu Was a Blast

Our trip to the world’s most failed state -- by way of Kandahar.

"We can't let you leave."

The African Union soldiers with whom we'd thrown in our lot a few hours earlier were shocked to learn we actually planned to head back into the city of Mogadishu, abandoning the relative safety of their base on the outskirts of the Somali capital.

Their commander was adamant we not be allowed to go. Finally, after much protestation from our side, the soldiers came up with a compromise. We were told to write a letter saying that if we left the base and were killed in Mogadishu, it would be entirely our own responsibility. "You will be dead," the African Union mission spokesman told us when we finally left. "You will die today."

Mogadishu, as we quickly learned, is not an easy place to visit.

We had arrived there on our way back to Kandahar, another war-torn city unwelcoming to outsiders, where kidnappings, disappearances, and gunfire have sadly become regular features of life. But Mogadishu feels different. As we've seen while living for the last two years in the stronghold of Afghanistan's Taliban revival, Kandahar at war is still a functioning city, with traffic, construction noise, and large markets. Mogadishu is an empty moonscape of anarchy and destruction. There are precious few remnants of everyday life.

"Anything can happen," Nuruddin, our driver, host, and security advisor, warned us as we headed from the African Union base to the ironically named Peace Hotel. We would be the hotel's only two guests. Nuruddin gave us a short lecture when we arrived; several other foreigners had been killed or kidnapped before our visit. "There are weird people around. They would sell you -- you are a lot of money for them."

Mostly, we were struck by the empty menace of the place. No one stays on the street after 3 p.m. Hundreds of thousands have abandoned Mogadishu altogether for camps outside the city. "I don't think there can be anybody left in the city anymore," is how the besieged administrator of one camp put it when we spoke.

The only crowded place in Mogadishu is the main hospital. In the first 10 minutes of our visit, three patients were brought into the emergency room, each with bullet or shrapnel wounds. In the intensive care ward, beds are filled with the war-wounded -- and these are only the ones whose injuries are so severe that sending them home would result in certain death; the rest are discharged due to overcrowding.

Abdul Aziz, 4, suffered a severe skull injury when the area of northern Mogadishu where his family lives was shelled. The hospital did not have the necessary expertise to repair his skull. So instead of surgery, Abdul's father was given an official-looking letter. It read: "This injury needs the attention of a neurosurgeon not available at this time in Mogadishu." He had been waiting 28 days for outside help to arrive. It hadn't.

When we asked to visit the front lines, Somalia's state defense minister was skeptical: "Did you bring enough men for that?" He agreed to accompany us, though, and we traveled in two jeeps, the second car packed with a half-dozen guards.

The front was marked by a row of green sandbags. The ground was covered with empty shell and AK-47 casings. On the other side, not visible but clearly not far away either, were fighters of the insurgent group al-Shabab. Somali insurgents are cloaked in as much mystique as the Taliban are in Afghanistan. Both groups fight with guerrilla-style tactics: raids on government areas and checkpoints, targeted operations involving small numbers of fighters, and suicide bombings. We saw much evidence of this -- and little presence of Somalia's nominal government, the country's 14th since 1991.

Officially, the fighting in Somalia is about Islam and ideology, but in reality it is also about money and power -- and in this way at least it reminded us of Afghanistan. Back at the Peace Hotel, a Somali friend visited us for dinner. Our conversation turned toward U.S. intervention and what the arrival of American troops in Somalia could mean. "Of course they should come," he told us. "We need the money. We need the contracts."

The wars being fought in Somalia and Afghanistan are both difficult and tragic. Mogadishu is a stark reminder of how much worse the situation in Kandahar could get. Indeed, the paranoia that has settled into Kandahar these days feels uncomfortably similar to what we felt during the few days we spent wrapped up in flak jackets in Somalia's capital.

Of course, few people have been to both cities to study the comparison. One night we invited a new friend in Mogadishu to visit us in Kandahar. His response: "Visit you in Afghanistan? You're crazy! It's too dangerous."

NEXT: Why Bad Guys Matter

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Failed States

In the Beginning, There Was Somalia

Two decades later, the U.S. still has no plan.

In the waning days of his presidency, with very little planning or even forethought, George H.W. Bush sent 28,000 U.S. troops to support a humanitarian mission in a hapless country of no strategic significance to the United States. That noble endeavor ended, of course, with the fiasco known as Black Hawk Down. Somalia was scarcely history's first failed state, but it was the first one whose failure U.S. policy sought consciously to address. Today, three U.S. administrations, two U.N. secretaries-general, and 18 years later, Somalia has a raging Islamist insurgency, a government that controls a few city blocks, and African Union peacekeepers with no peace to keep. And once again this year, Somalia stands atop the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace Failed States Index -- a testament to the persistence of state pathology and the weakness of the powers the world community can bring to bear.

Barack Obama came into office acutely, perhaps uniquely, aware of the problem of failed states, but his administration has yet to develop an explicit policy on the subject, let alone increase the U.S. government's capacity to heal these profoundly sick patients. Obama has an intuitive grasp of the transnational problems of the post-Cold War world -- nuclear proliferation, global warming, pandemic disease. The same is true of failing states. In an August 2007 speech, during the first months of his presidential campaign, Obama asserted that the "nearly 60 countries" that "cannot control their borders or territory, or meet the basic needs of their people" constituted not only a moral dilemma but also a security challenge to the West. Candidate Obama vowed to "roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate" by helping failed states establish good governance and the rule of law, doubling foreign assistance to attack entrenched poverty, establishing a $2 billion education fund "to counter the radical madrasas … that have filled young minds with messages of hate," and opening "America Houses" across the Islamic world.

The premise that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had made weak states not just a moral problem but a matter of national security was scarcely new; it was a central axiom of President George W. Bush's foreign policy after the attacks (and even President Bill Clinton, in the pre-9/11 era, had seen failing states as a threat to the emerging, democratic, free market world order). But Obama's emphasis on economic and social development was very different from the bellicosity of regime change and the grandiose hopes of Bush's Freedom Agenda. As president, Obama has indeed sought more funding for development assistance, though the economic crisis and ballooning budget deficit have made Congress wary of authorizing his aid budgets and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have absorbed much of his attention. Most of his other promises remain on the drawing board -- if they're anywhere.

At the most basic intellectual level, there is an unacknowledged tension in the Obama administration's thinking about this issue. Obama has persistently argued that addressing the poverty and misery of people in remote places is a U.S. national interest. But the case he has made is, like Bush's, limited to the threat of terrorism and does not have much to say about, for example, the threat that collapsing states pose to more stable neighbors. And that's true of others in the administration as well. In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Defense Secretary Robert Gates argues that because terrorist attacks are most likely to emanate from weak states, "Dealing with such fractured or failing states is, in many ways, the main security challenge of our time." Where, however, does that leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo (No. 5 on FP's list), or Ivory Coast (12), or Burma (16), whose doomed and despairing citizens are not likely to take up arms against the West?

If no explicit policy exists, an implicit one has begun to emerge. Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of policy planning at the State Department, told me that Afghanistan is "the petri dish" for the administration's strategy on weak and failing states. And by that she means the Obama team's embrace of a nation-building plan that puts development in a place equal to security. Development must be understood less as providing aid than as building government capacity. "That's the shift," she says. "There's a big emphasis not just on delivering services, which happens through contractors and NGOs, but enabling the government to provide the services."

There is an evident logic to seeing Afghanistan as the new template for U.S. policy toward failing states. Afghanistan is not only the most serious such problem this administration is facing but also the laboratory in which it has done by far the most experimenting. Afghanistan is also, of course, the one failed state into which the United States has poured a torrent of money, with authorized funds since the inception of the war totaling $300 billion. The United States is tripling the civilian head count in Afghanistan and just as importantly, dispersing civilians out of Kabul and into provincial and district capitals. The emphasis, Slaughter says, is very much on persuading ordinary Afghans that their government is worth defending. But Afghanistan makes for a very tough paradigm. Nation-building is almost impossible to do amid a raging insurgency, as the United States learned in Iraq. Doing so at warp speed, with a troop pullout looming, is yet harder.

Afghanistan is invariably one of those places where the tide of hopelessness gives rise to hatred. But Slaughter says that Haiti should also be seen as a model of administration policy. Slaughter says that in the aftermath of the country's Jan. 12 earthquake, the Obama administration recognized that Haiti needed help with security and development -- and that the investment in development had to bolster the country's own capacity. And the United States must work with existing partners, especially the Brazilians, who have formed the core of the U.N. peacekeeping force there. In Haiti, as in Yemen, where the United States must work with neighbors (read: Saudi Arabia), other donors, and regional and multinational bodies, diplomacy is an indispensable element of the response to failed and fragile states. Indeed, Yemen, now seen as an incubator of terrorism, might well become the administration's next petri dish.

So that's the policy, at least in its current inchoate form. On this issue, as on others, Obama administration officials tend to brandish their intellectual bona fides in a bid for forbearance: They've thought hard about these questions. They care deeply about them. They're getting to the right place. It's still early days. All true -- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, for instance, led a Brookings Institution project on failed states, and White House advisor Samantha Power literally wrote the book on genocide -- but faith begins to wear thin. One senior figure at an NGO that deals with fragile states says, "I do think this group comes in with a much different vision of the issues at play, but I don't see that there has been much of a change in policy that reflects the change in mindset."

Fixing failed states requires not just a coherent plan, but very large commitments of money, people, and time. There must be boots on the ground -- but who will fill them? When the White House decided on the civilian "uplift" in Afghanistan, as it is known, there was no pool of available civilian experts from which the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could draw. They just went out and started hiring people willing and able to go for a year and then slotted them into job openings.

There was supposed to be such a pool. In 2004, the Bush administration overcame its ideological disapproval of nation-building and agreed to establish the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), housed at the State Department. The idea, as U.S. Institute of Peace expert Robert Perito recalls, was to create a single "command-and-control group" for the government, so the civilian response to a natural disaster or political crisis could be as rapid and effectively coordinated as the military one. It didn't work out that way. S/CRS became a bureaucratic orphan; its first chief, Carlos Pascual, now the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, quit in disgust. The office got emergency funding from the Pentagon, but had no budget of its own until the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Its current director, John Herbst, operates largely at the whim of the department's powerful regional bureau chiefs.

Despite its lower status on the org chart, S/CRS has now become operational. The office runs the Civilian Response Corps, which consists of an active force, ready to be dispatched abroad within 48 hours, and a standby force, employed elsewhere in the federal government and available to S/CRS for one year out of four. The office now has more than 100 of the former and about 800 of the latter, though its authorized strength is 260 and 2,000, respectively. Todd Calongne, the office's spokesman, describes S/CRS as "the Special Forces of the civilian U.S. government." In a warehouse in Springfield, Virginia, the office has established what Calongne calls "an embassy in a suitcase," with satellite-linked communications equipment, armored vehicles, tents, and so on.

But the response corps is not ready for prime time. Herbst says that Richard Holbrooke asked to meet with him the day Holbrooke was sworn in as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "He wanted to know what we could do," recalls Herbst, who had to explain that "we could not be a major part of staffing the operation." The office just didn't have the manpower. It did, however, draw up the plans that govern ties between civilians and the military in Afghanistan's regional commands and on provincial reconstruction teams; Calongne says that it has sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan more than 75 experts in communications, planning, conflict assessment, and the rule of law. A member of Holbrooke's team told me, "They've played a substantial role, but within the guidance and policy articulated by this office." Officials speak of Sudan, which might split in half after a referendum next January, as the first crisis S/CRS will address from the outset. The office now has five officials in the country and four more working with special envoy Scott Gration in Washington.

Given its modest size and political position, S/CRS can constitute only one part of a potential response. The obvious candidate for properly taking responsibility is USAID. But the agency today, halved to just 8,000 staff members worldwide from its Vietnam War peak, does little beyond administer contracts carried out by private firms. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acknowledging the need for an operational civilian force, have vowed to revitalize the agency. USAID's new administrator, Rajiv Shah, will be authorized to hire 1,000 new employees and might even get an occasional seat at National Security Council meetings. Still, the agency is widely viewed as a cautious and lumbering relic, ill-fitted to the turbulent world of failing states; USAID's culture might take a lot longer to change than its structure. And, as Perito says, "It's very hard to have a policy towards fragile states if you don't have a development entity which functions."

Failed states matter. That is perhaps the most decisive change since the first George Bush sent the Marines to Somalia or Bill Clinton agonized over acting in the Balkans, where, as former Secretary of State James Baker famously said, "We have no dog in that fight." U.S. interests can no longer be extricated from those of faraway countries. But America's stake in the well-being of Somalia does not make Somalia's problems any easier to cure. The remarkable fixity of the Failed States Index stands as a reproach to America's nonchalant faith in progress and its own capacity to solve the world's woes. The Obama administration, which specializes in thinking hard about hard problems, is still a long way from getting its arms around this one.

NEXT: Mogadishu Was a Blast

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