Small Wars Journal

Ungoverned Areas and Safe Havens

Fri, 06/20/2008 - 1:39pm
Ungoverned Areas and Safe Havens

By Robert Lamb

I was the lead author of the DoD report Ungoverned Areas and Threats From Safe Havens that William McCallister cites in his SWJ Blog piece, "Operations in Pakistan's Tribal Areas". With full respect for the author, I would like to clarify what seems to me a serious misreading of the report's central argument.

Mr. McCallister begins his article by criticizing the UGA/SH report's definition of "governance" as implying "a social service centric function for government emphasizing 'delivery' and distribution of social services. It further implies that only democratic institutions are a safeguard against militancy, extremism and terrorism."

In fact, the definition implies nothing of the sort; it is a fairly standard academic definition of governance: "delivery of public goods," with "public goods" spelled out for non-academic audiences.

More importantly, the report itself says explicitly that U.S. efforts to build what we consider to be "democratic" or "good" governance usually fail to counter militancy, extremism, and terrorism precisely because we fail to account for how local populations view what counts as legitimate ways of governing -- the same point Mr. McCallister makes in his next sentence: "Not all cultures view the role and function of government in quite the same way. Tribal society, particularly along the North-West frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan judges the role and function of effective government quite differently."

As the report's lead author, I couldn't agree more!

As the report's second main finding states: "In many cases, provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous governments ... are simply better positioned than the central government to address the local conditions that enable illicit actors to operate there." It goes on to suggest that "capacity-building" as a foreign-assistance model for countering safe havens is generally not effective unless it facilitates "legitimacy-building": That is, if we want local populations (e.g. tribal leaders) to be inhospitable to terrorists, imposing outside control or foreign models of governance on them will probably backfire spectacularly. Instead, we need to do something more difficult: help build relationships with them, taking their own views of what counts as "legitimate" as given.

The report defines "legitimacy" as "the political support or loyalty that a local population provides to a central, provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous government because the population believes the government has a right to govern or is worthy of their support or loyalty" -- it purposely mentions nothing about social services or democracy. (For the record, I am a strong supporter of democracy -- but there are many forms that "rule by the people" can take, and democracy is more enduring when its form is defined locally.)

In short, Mr. McCallister gets it exactly right, and his article is important for the precisely the reasons the UGA/SH report gives for why our efforts to counter illicit "safe havens" are often less than successful in places such as Pakistan.