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State Fragmentation and Sub-State Actors in Comparative Perspective: Somalia and Afghanistan

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - FRAGMENTATION (State Fragmentation and Sub-State Actors in Comparative Perspective: Somalia and Afghanistan)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

This project offers to address topical and policy-relevant questions with regards to state consolidation and state fragmentation: How do states consolidate? Why do some states remain fragmented? What is the role of sub-state actors in state consolidation and state fragmentation?

This project aims to generate knowledge on state formation and external state building through five main objectives:

1) Test the two main existing paradigms of the historical-sociological literature on state formation: state formation as a state/society struggle that ends with the subordination of sub-state actors; and state formation as a bargaining process.
2) Develop a more encompassing and comprehensive theoretical framework to go beyond these two paradigms.
3) Address a gap in the state-building literature.
4) Develop new empirical knowledge on alternative governance networks, state failure, and state formation.
5) Unfold a sound outreach strategy, which could in turn benefit the reconstruction of a viable political order in Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere.
With regards to the first two objectives, the project aimed to confirm two main hypotheses: first, that the nature of political order depends on the type and extent of international support received by sub-state authorities as well as on the heterogeneity of the international system; and second, that non-state armed actors are able to provide stability at the sub-state level when they receive the right kind of external support. These hypotheses have been covered through two book chapters (one published and one under review), three articles (one published and two in progress), one monograph (under review), and three blog posts.

Altogether, these publications participated towards addressing a gap in the state-building literature and go beyond the literature on “friction,” “hybridity,” and existing socio-historical scholarship on state formation (objective 3). As expected, these findings bridge the internalism of state analyses, scholarship on the international system, and the sociological literature on insurgency and counterinsurgency, while also challenging the “new war” paradigm. These findings address a gap in the state-building literature by focusing on undertheorized interactions between sub-state, state, and international actors and analyzing counterinsurgency strategies as part of the state-building process. These findings go beyond the state of the art in posing that some elements of conflict promote creative processes and produce more “indigenous” kinds of political authority, hence recasting important questions around state formation, state failure, and political order. In addition to this theoretical work, the PI further developed new empirical knowledge on alternative governance networks, state failure, and state formation (objective 4) by using data he had collected during previous fieldwork. This data was used to develop two new publications on rebel governance in Afghanistan: one book chapter in Dutch (which contributed to further establishing his position in the Dutch academic community) and one article published in Small Wars & Insurgencies as part of a special issue on rebel legitimacy. The PI developed further comparative knowledge by co-authoring three articles with experts on Somalia (article in progress), South Sudan and Mozambique (article in progress), and Mali (article in progress). The PI also developed a parallel research agenda on the ethics of fieldwork to reflect the challenges of gathering data in and on extremely violent conflicts, with one co-authored article published in Perspectives on Politics, and one co-authored blog post in The Monkey Cage (The Washington Post).

Since the beginning of this project, six publications have been produced or finalized (three articles and three book chapters), with another seven currently under review (one monograph and one book chapter) or in progress (four articles and one edited volume). This has been accompanied by four blog posts as well as many paper presentations, workshop participations, invited talks, and guest lectures.
This project, in line with the need for a better understanding of state failure identified in the 2004 Barcelona report and the European expertise on “new wars,” provided the perfect platform for maximizing the academic and social impact of a highly topical and ambitious research agenda that is particularly relevant with regards to the European Union (EU)’s commitment to develop comprehensive approaches to the issue of state failure.

The development of knowledge on sub-state actors in failed and failing states directly echoes the EU’s concern and need for expertise on international criminal networks and transnational terrorist groups. As a global actor that aims to operate beyond its borders, the EU requires a deep understanding of and sound strategic thinking on state formation and state-building able to counter-balance the American model that has shown its limits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This research agenda, of high priority to European institutions, coincides with the current development of a rationale on external interventions at the Community level. It is particularly topical considering the post 9/11 shift in international engagement with sub-state actors in conflict environments, of which Syria and Iraq are the latest cases.

This project served to develop and refine a theoretical framework to explain state fragmentation and state consolidation and identify the conditions under which sub-state actors (in particular state-aligned militias) integrate into state institutions. It furthered our knowledge on the delegation of violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere by examining the way counterinsurgency strategies modify local practices and political equilibriums and in turn impact the construction of the central state.

In terms of policy implications, these findings show that Western interveners should question their conceptions of state and governance and revise their state-building strategies, rather than develop highly ambitious and intrusive social engineering projects. States need to develop more inclusionary forms of governance to give sub-state actors enough incentives to participate in the state-building project, while not building them up unnecessarily. Interveners and state elites should encourage sub-state actors to provide goods and services to their communities while developing new forms of accountability. In practice, however, this balancing act is extremely difficult to perform. Identifying, training, and supporting local non-state armed actors that exercise capacities to control populations and collect information almost always has unanticipated long-term consequences. Policymakers should thus carefully weigh the pros and cons before they adopt strategies of indirect irregular warfare aimed at building up local militias to defeat the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups in Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, and elsewhere.