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“Competitive Control”: How to Evaluate the Threats Posed by “Ungoverned Spaces”
Daniel Fisher and Christopher Mercado
So-called “ungoverned spaces” present the United States with significant security challenges in an era characterized by “softened sovereignty.”[i] Advances in technology and finance, coupled with globalization and stoked by the often bright flame of political instability have created areas where governments face substantial difficulty consolidating control over both physical and virtual spaces. Inherently, such spaces threaten state sovereignty, insofar as they allow all permutations of non-state actors—whether nefarious or benign—to establish alternative regimes, by coopting governance functions unfilled or poorly filled by the state.
Ungoverned areas are an emerging global phenomenon. They exist in regions, territories, and countries at all levels of development. In Mexico, Latin America’s second largest economy and a relatively functional state, autodefensas—“self-defense militias”—have taken up arms against Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) in such areas as Michoacán and Guerrero. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, local tribes, often in collusion with the Taliban, scoff at national governments ill-equipped to fully secure large swathes of their sovereign territories. In Nigeria and Iraq, governments are fighting existential wars with extremist organizations capable of both waging highly effective insurgency and massing into devastatingly lethal conventional units. Arguably, many urban neighborhoods in the United States, such as areas in Chicago where violent street gangs exert de facto control,[ii] are also ungoverned.
Global urbanization trends exacerbate the problem. A 2014 Strategic Multilayer Assessment illustrates the potential for instability in densely packed urban areas called megacities, including those cities and states generally regarded as developed. This report demonstrates that current global population growth and the trend towards urbanization far outstrips the ability of cities and states to effectively absorb the surging populations and meet the demand for resources and security, thereby creating the conditions that inevitably lead to conflict.[iii] This report suggests that,
“[T]he most vulnerable segments of the population concentrate in the peri‐urban slums surrounding megacities. In these pockets of destitution, often devoid of the institutional frameworks necessary for effective governance and rule of law, they are ripe for recruitment and radicalization by internal dissidents and violent non‐state actors.”[iv]
Chaired by William J. Perry and John P. Abizaid, the National Defense Panel reviewed the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and made note of five major trends and challenges facing the United States. In a consensus agreement with the QDR, the National Defense Panel review offered that the competition for secure access to natural resources, urbanization, the diffusion of power, and the proliferation of advanced lethal and disruptive technologies are the key operational challenges to the United States.[v] The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review itself highlighted the acute risk posed by ungoverned and under-governed spaces, noting the potential for “rapidly developing threats, particularly in fragile states.”[vi]
The primary risk associated with ungoverned spaces—a risk that is quickly maturing—is that they present nefarious non-state actors (such as terrorist organizations, criminal and political insurgent groups, Drug Trafficking Organizations, and violent street gangs, among others) with an opportunity to perpetuate violence, fear, and crime by establishing parallel governance structures that destabilize the existing order. The proliferation of advanced and disruptive weapons and technologies exacerbates this risk by enabling these non-state actors to practice anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD), further limiting the authority, reach, and legitimacy of the government. The presence and influence of such groups necessitates government response. However, a taxonomy that adequately elucidates the nature of ungoverned spaces remains relatively elusive.
In fact, there is widespread disagreement among policymakers, researchers, and practitioners about exactly what an “ungoverned space” is. In many cases, the term is employed so broadly that it quickly loses any practical utility. A 2007 RAND report, for example, defines an “ungoverned territory” as:
“An area in which a state faces significant challenges in establishing control. Ungoverned territories can be failed or failing states, poorly controlled land or maritime borders, or areas within otherwise viable states where the central government’s authority does not extend. Ungoverned territories can also extend to airspace….”[vii]
A 2008 Department of Defense report defines an “ungoverned area” in similarly all-inclusive fashion as:
“A place where the state or the central government is unable or unwilling to extend control, effectively govern, or influence the local population, and where a provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous government does not fully or effectively govern, due to inadequate governance capacity, insufficient political will, gaps in legitimacy, the presence of conflict, or restrictive norms of behavior… the term ‘ungoverned areas’ encompasses under-governed, misgoverned, contested, and exploitable areas as well as ungoverned areas.”[viii]
In addition to being too encompassing, many of the current definitions are naturally state-centric.[ix] That is, they rely heavily on anachronistic international relations theories that consider sovereign states as the primary organized entities driving geopolitics. Implied by this reliance is the assumption that stability is maximized when the state, rather than any alternative non-state group, is the most legitimate (and well-equipped) entity positioned to carry out effective governance. For any practitioner who has (or is currently) engaged in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or counternarcotics operations, however, this notion seems inherently flawed—if not altogether naive. As author Phil Williams underscores, “The notion of ungoverned spaces…fails to capture the possibility of alternative forms of governance to that provided by the state.”[x]
Further, the term “ungoverned space” is used to refer to areas in which states may actually exercise some extent of governance. Legitimate economies, for instance, exist in areas of Mexico and Brazil controlled by drug cartels, and basic utilities such as electricity are provided by the Afghan government even to areas that are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Taliban.
That non-state groups are increasingly able to meet the demands of a governance starved populace should be alarming. In Afghanistan, the Taliban routinely engage in “shadow governance,” developing effective and sophisticated governance structures that truncate the reach of the central Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Demonstrating capacity and an exceedingly capable political program, the Taliban are providing a viable, if illegitimate, alternative to what is often perceived as a corrupt and out-of-touch government that is incapable of providing essential human services, civil justice, and security requirements at the local and village level.[xi]
Ungoverned spaces are not limited to the physical world. Complete virtual economies, and in fact entire virtual ecosystems, have developed online in the form of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. Terrorist organizations, Drug Trafficking Organizations, and criminal subversives are all increasingly availing themselves of the internet as a viable medium for recruitment, operational planning, money laundering and financial exchange, as well as the spread of ideologies and tactics.[xii]
Thus, it may be more accurate to describe “ungoverned” spaces as areas of “hybrid” or “contested” governance, or to simply refer to them as “under-governed.” Further, it may be the case that certain pockets of governance in areas that the current taxonomy would call “ungoverned” are contested, whereas others are not—implying a spectrum that should fully distinguish ungoverned spaces from those that are merely under-governed, mis-governed, or perhaps simply under-secured. Provision of essential services, such as energy and running water, need not necessarily occur alongside commensurate state provision of civil security or law enforcement.
Confusion about the taxonomy in either direction of the “ungoverned spectrum,” whether we consider no area actually ungoverned because there is always an alternative governance structure in place, or whether we use “ungoverned” to broadly encapsulate areas that are in fact only under-governed, poses significant barriers to systematic problem-solving. That is, it prevents policy makers, civic leaders, NGO workers, law enforcement officers, and military leaders from properly framing the problems posed by ungoverned spaces of all permutations—from densely packed, rapidly growing urban slums that stretch a state’s ability to provide basic services, to poorly controlled areas of cyberspace that allow criminals and terrorists to launder money and share effective tactics. Those tasked with addressing urbanization, sub-state violence, insecurity and instability require a more precise conceptual framework that allows them to properly and intelligently define the many problems posed by absent or ineffective governance. In short, they need (and deserve) more than the current taxonomy is able to adequately provide.
These circumstances suggest the necessity of creating more agile terminology to describe the dynamics in “ungoverned areas.” Drawing from David Kilcullen, we suggest the term “competitive control,” recommending it as a starting point to developing an interactive practitioner tool that dissects the problems associated with such areas. Building on the work of French counterinsurgent writer (and former La Résistance française insurgent) Bernard B. Fall,[xiii] Kilcullen describes the theory of competitive control in his recent book Out of the Mountains:
“In irregular conflicts (that is, in conflicts where at least one combatant is a nonstate armed group), the local armed actor that a given population perceives as best able to establish a predictable, consistent, and wide-spectrum normative system of control is most likely to dominate that population and its residential areas. Simply put, the idea is that populations respond to a predictable, ordered, normative system that tells them exactly what they need to do, and not do, in order to be safe.”[xiv]
Both Fall and Kilcullen describe a normative “competitive control” system in which the actor (state or non-state) that establishes a “wider range of capabilities, covering more of the spectrum from persuasion to coercion, will be stronger and more resilient.”[xv] Competitive control theory, as conceived by Fall and Kilcullen, is a useful way of describing the competition that occurs between state and non-state actors in “ungoverned spaces.”
However, competitive control theory requires some tweaking in order to effectively translate it into a practitioner tool. Whereas, under the theory, “each actor tries to create a normative system of competitive control,”[xvi] the tool that we suggest recognizes the “full coercion-persuasion spectrum”[xvii] as governance itself. That is, the set of tangible activities associated with the normative competitive spectrum of incentives and disincentives—of proverbial “sticks and carrots”—corresponds to the full range of activities controlled or contested by either the state or a non-state actor in an “ungoverned space.” In this conception of “competitive control,” competing actors do not “create normative systems.” Rather, they contest, and attempt to exert full control of some set of activities already described by a fixed “full coercion-persuasion spectrum” that is itself defined by identified avenues, lines, or functions of governance.
When used as a practitioner tool, the concept of “competitive control” acknowledges that significant problems can arise even when the competition between the legitimate authority and a rival non-state actor or actors occurs along only a few avenues of governance. It transcends current definitions of “ungoverned spaces,” and builds on the current theory of competitive control described by Fall and Kilcullen, by parsing out those avenues of governance that are actually contested—or which the government aspires to contest—from those that are not.
Applying “competitive control” to the dynamics surrounding ungoverned spaces requires policymakers and practitioners to identify and precisely elucidate areas of governance that the state seeks to control. Although detailing the anatomy of governance would require a separate (and likely very long) essay, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides leaders with a useful starting point. The UNDP Governance Assessment Portal (GAP) identifies 16 areas—including land governance, civil society, and public administration—by which governments can be assessed. Using this model or others, perhaps in conjunction with the “lines of effort” detailed in FM 3-24, and incorporating their knowledge of government functions unique to a given state, region or municipality, civil and military leaders can frame the problems posed by “ungoverned spaces” as either “lines of conflict,” or, as the case may be, “lines of control.” This process parses the so-called “ungoverned space” into governance avenues that are either contested or controlled by the government, and allows leaders to more precisely classify the extent to which a state is (or is not) in conflict with a non-state actor.
For example, a state might effectively provide running water and electricity to an “ungoverned space” otherwise characterized by low levels of economic development and high homicide rates linked to the presence of a Drug Trafficking Organization. Under the “competitive control” framework, this area would not be classified as “ungoverned” wholesale, because the government effectively provides essential services to the population. Thus, “essential services” would be classified as a “line of control,” and “economic development” and “civil security” classified as “lines of conflict.” Whatever areas of governance are contested, the “competitive control” framework replaces the broader and more unwieldy concept of an “ungoverned space” with specific “lines of conflict” on which the state should focus in order to render the space fully governed.
For savvy practitioners accustomed to identifying sources of instability, the concept of “competitive control” codifies the unique position of the counterinsurgent relative to a population suffering from gaps in governance. For policymakers and civil leaders, the concept provides a potentially very useful framework for distinguishing between those areas that the government controls, from those controlled or contested by non-state actors. Regardless of who might employ the model, “competitive control” fills gaps in the current “ungoverned space” taxonomy, and suggests that researchers, policymakers, and military and law enforcement practitioners need not view the problems posed by “ungoverned areas” with so much anxiety, trepidation, and confusion. Dissecting those problems into their constituent components—into “lines of conflict” and “lines of control”—provides leaders the ability to view them with more nuance and precision, allowing them to effectively address problems of governance, rather than merely admire them.
[i] In Ungoverned Spaces – Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty (Stanford University Press, 2010), editors and authors Anne Clunan and Harold Trinkunas argue that this term, along with the concept of “alternative governance,” better captures the fundamental problems posed by areas in which governments have limited authority. They argue that these terms are more useful than the concept of “ungoverned spaces” to describe and characterize such areas.
[ii] See Chicago Police Officer John Bertetto’s Foreign Intrigue article “Undergoverned Spaces: Strong States, Poor Control.” Bertetto argues that such areas are in fact “undergoverned,” rather than “ungoverned.” Like us, Bertetto argues that the current distinction between “ungoverned” and “governed” areas is far too broad. He fills this gap in the taxonomy by defining an “undergoverned space” (unhyphenated) as “an area where government services (such as utilities, streets and sanitation, social, health, and public safety) are underrepresented, and where the criminal element does not desire to exert direct control over the population.”
[iii] Charles Ehlschlaeger, et al (April, 2014). “Understanding Megacities with the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Intelligence Paradigm.” Topical Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) and U.S. Army Engineer Research Development Center (ERDC) Multi-Agency/Multi-Disciplinary White Papers in Support of National Security Challenges, viii.
[iv] Charles Ehlschlaeger, et al (April, 2014). “Understanding Megacities with the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Intelligence Paradigm.” Topical Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) and U.S. Army Engineer Research Development Center (ERDC) Multi-Agency/Multi-Disciplinary White Papers in Support of National Security Challenges, ix.
[v] Perry, William and Abizaid, John, et al (2014). Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future: The National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. United States Institute for Peace (17-18).
[vi] Hagel, Chuck. (2014). Quadrennial Defense Review, (5).
[viii] Lamb, Robert D. (2008) “Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens – Final Report of the Ungoverned Areas Project.” Prepared for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning. Available here.
[ix] Clunan, Anne and Trinkunas, Harold, eds. (2010). Ungoverned Spaces – Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.
[x] Williams, Phil (2010). “Here be Dragons: Dangerous Spaces and International Security,” in: Clunan, Anne and Trinkunas, Harold, eds. (2010). Ungoverned Spaces – Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA (36).
[xi] Green, D. R. (2013). Defeating the Taliban’s Shadow Government: A Foreign Internal Governance Strategy. InterAgency Journal, 4(2), 4. Retrieved from http://thesimonscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/IAJ-4-2Summer-2013.pdf
[xii] Keene, S. (2012). Threat Finance: Disconnecting the Lifeline of Organised Crime and Terrorism. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
[xiii] See Fall, Bernard B. (1965). “The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency.” Naval War College Review, Winter 1998.
[xiv] Kilcullen, David (2013). Out of the Mountains – The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla. New York: Oxford University Press (126).
[xv] Ibid (138).
[xvi] Ibid (133).