Alive and powerful in the new geopolitics


Two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the United States and the West have lost appetite for counterinsurgency, stabilization, and state-building efforts. Beyond the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, many such projects have been mired in poor governance by problematic local partners whose corruption and parochialism have undermined efforts to build capable local forces and ensure effective, locally accepted and accountable governance. Police reform efforts continue to struggle across Latin America, with criminal violence often having debilitating effects similar to those of political activism. Synthetic drugs are reshaping organized crime and further complicating supply control issues.

With a rejection of the Western prescription of democracy, human rights and accountability, Russia and China are engaging in stabilization efforts in different ways, even as geopolitical realities distract from the West. But Russian and Chinese interventions are also unlikely to succeed, and armed non-state actors governing vast territories and populations remain a key feature of the international landscape.

What the Taliban Victory Means for Other Non-State Armed Actors

The fundamental development of 2021 in the space of non-state actors was the dramatic defeat of the Afghan government by the Taliban. Long gathering momentum on the battlefield as Afghan security forces remained embroiled in trouble and Afghan politicians remained embroiled in parochial struggles, the Taliban took Kabul and the rest of the country amid the departure of the American and international forces.

All over the world, jihadists have praised the defeat of the Taliban against the American superpower and its project in Afghanistan. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an anti-Pakistani group operating in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and closely linked to the Haqqani Network (one of the Taliban’s power poles) has touted the Taliban’s success. So has Somalia’s al-Shabab, whose websites have been closely monitoring and hailing the Taliban’s progress and victory on the battlefield for weeks. Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad sent congratulatory notes. Even the Houthis in Yemen have said that the Taliban, with their history of brutality against the Shiites, has shown that foreign “occupations” are doomed to fail.

But the effects of increased morale on the actual battlefield performance of these and other jihadist groups should not be overestimated. The TTP may enjoy a more comfortable haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but it had been there for years before the Taliban took over Kabul and stepped up attacks on targets in Pakistan a year and a half later. early. The Houthis in Yemen have essentially won. But they wiped out the combined forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by the United States, by the start of 2020. And Iran’s support for them was far more fundamental to their success than Taliban victory.

In Somalia, al-Shabab has been gaining momentum on the battlefield since at least 2018, reclaiming territory and developing vast economic and political influence even in areas it does not formally control. The Somali National Army and the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have been cowering on their bases for years, while Somali politicians are consumed by endless political crises. When AMISOM leaves, al-Shabab is well positioned to take control of Mogadishu and much of the country.

In Iraq and Syria, the slow but steady insurgency of the Islamic State group has also quietly accelerated since 2020, dramatically in early January 2022. Its strength, still a small fraction of its past power and nowhere near that of ‘al-Shabab or Houthis is also driven by local dynamics.

In Nigeria, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter group from Boko Haram, has been hammering the Nigerian military since 2018, conquering territories, expanding its influence and penetrating into new areas , mainly the northwest of the country. But once again, its power and its effectiveness are rooted in local dynamics, and not in the external jihadist environment.

Stabilization issues

The key to the persistence and resurgence of insurgents in all of these countries — and others, such as Mali — is the same: dysfunctional governance by local authorities. The counter-insurgent forces manage to clear territories, but they struggle to keep them. Outside assistance to help build effective local forces has repeatedly run into the challenges of corruption, parochialism and poor leadership. The use of militias to fight insurgents triggers a myriad of deleterious dynamics.

The construction phase, that is, getting the state to govern effectively and responsibly, has not succeeded in any of these places, including in Colombia where, despite the 2016 peace agreement with the left-wing guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the absence of the state and complex violent conflicts still characterize the former FARC zones.

Supported governments and politics at large tend to be exclusive, self-interested and corrupt, but also adept at ignoring and subverting external pressures for better governance. Sometimes they lack the motivation to actually defeat the insurgents. They are happy when outside support suppresses rebels, but persisting in their parochial ways is far more comfortable than sharing power, submitting to responsibility, and devoting resources to the marginalized.

Great Power Competition

As the West lacks the energy to build a state – with France poised to abandon its counterinsurgency efforts in Mali this year – new geopolitics plays out in stabilization efforts.

An increasingly divisive China and its aggressive actions to defend its vast sea and land territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific has caught the attention of the United States and prompted three US administrations to exit counterinsurgency wars. Russia’s crisis over Ukraine captures the attention of key US, NATO and European policymakers and narrows their focus to the crises in Afghanistan, Somalia and Ethiopia and the slow-burning quagmires in Mexico and Venezuela, as well as on existential issues such as preventing zoonotic diseases, preserving global biodiversity and stabilizing the planet’s climate.

At the same time, Russia is intensely interfering in some of the very places from which it is diverting US attention. Across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even Latin America, Russia has established a variety of proxy tools and actors – from disinformation campaign trolls to security companies” companies” linked to Moscow – to support problematic regimes in exchange for strategic access. and resources. Often, Russia’s objective is simply to thwart American objectives, however substantial they may be. And in a re-reading of Chechnya, Russia’s model of “stabilization” fundamentally differs from that of the West: supporting the regime without regard to civilian casualties, human rights, accountability and political pluralism. .

With the exception of Myanmar, where China has long supported many ethnic armed organizations while maintaining strong relations with various governments, and Afghanistan where China made peace with the Taliban long before the insurgents seized power. , China also supports national governments without seeking to induce more accountable and inclusive governance. In Ethiopia, China has fully embraced the government of Abiy Ahmed, going against the push from the West and the African Union that tried to induce compromises from both the Tigray rebels and the government. .

But Russia and China’s approach will also run into problems, as indicated by the failure of the Moscow-linked Wagner Group to defeat Mozambican al-Shabab jihadists.

Crime and the evolution of illicit economies

Efforts to fight crime – via law enforcement, negotiations or socio-economic policies – have not fared much better in 2021. In various ways, COVID-19 has empowered criminal groups. The closures allowed them to strengthen control over territories and local populations and increase their political capital through socio-economic subsidies and job creation in illicit economies while legal employment declined.

In Latin America, even the few success stories of effective, albeit varied, crime-fighting and police reform policies – namely Ecuador, Chile and Peru – have seen outbreaks of violence and organized crime. The causes are many, but have been particularly affected by the expansion of the war between Mexico’s two main drug cartels – the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel – across Latin America and beyond. In Mexico itself, amid the disastrous policies of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration, organized crime is more powerful and extends into politics and the legal economy, while being no less violent.

With the exception of Brazil, Latin American countries south of Mexico are yet to experience the synthetic drug revolution that is sweeping global drug markets elsewhere. In North America, fentanyl and synthetic opioids now dominate; in East Asia, it is methamphetamines. The ability of criminals to cook drugs from precursors and pre-precursors with numerous legal uses also means that many long-troubled supply control measures will be challenged much more. But criminal groups often won’t need large territories or violence to succeed.

Do not avoid armed non-State actors

In 2022, armed non-state actors will therefore remain a powerful feature of international relations and formal or informal governmental entities even if, like the Taliban, they will face enormous governance and humanitarian challenges and may struggle to retain the to be able to. Nor will they simply persist in distant places: right-wing armed actors in the West have been less violent in 2021 than in 2020, but are embedded in local politics and even law enforcement, while the Dangerous political polarization remains high.

Instead of defeating all non-state armed actors, the United States and its partners and rivals will have to learn to live with at least some of them. They should do so with smart policies to mitigate the negative impacts of these actors, rather than give in to their harmful influence.


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