Can Foreign Nations Help Rebuild Conflict Affected Countries In Times Of Political Emergencies?

Posted on April 22, 2014 in GlobeScope

By Joy Mitra:

Before we can delve into whether state building in complex political emergencies can be externally led it is important to state what entails state building. The rise in the number of intra-state conflicts in the post-cold war era has allowed states to justify intervention in the name of ‘humanitarian cause’ when the actual motivation for the intervention has been political. Constitutional crises in countries like Nepal and Maldives could have also been defined as complex political emergency but it ordained an intervention which was very different in its nature and which was to make sure it does not precipitate into a crisis for democracy. State building on the other hand could mean economic aid, a political alliance to strengthen the hand of the state or even military action to defeat forces which might be the cause of the political instability, or exporting democracy by aiding the formation of a state from the grass root level which may include cultivating basic institutions for governance, political parties, a vibrant civil society and setting up of an economic structure.

humanitarian aid

Investigating who should intervene in a case of complex political emergency is also a very pertinent question. Should it be extra regional actor(s) or regional actor(s) or a multilateral coalition? Logically, the answer must be the regional actor(s) as those in the immediate periphery are the first ones to not only bear the ramifications of any political event but also are best placed to act as they have better understanding of the political complexity compared to extra regional actor(s) or a multilateral coalition. However, regional geopolitics has often towed a very different line, with entrenched and often conflicting interest, regional actors can often fuel instability, aggravate tension and be the impediments in the peace process. Afghanistan is a classic example where neighbours looking for strategic depth and resource capture have added to the geopolitical tension rather than take away from it. Another factor that might deter the regional actors from acting is that they might simply lack the resources to take up an exercise as humongous as state-building.

When one looks through the history, one comes across the colonial era where a certain kind of state structure was imposed upon the colonies ruled by their colonial masters. Despite the stability of power in such colonies, the subjugation and the consequent nationalism borne out of a thirst for political rights, self-rule and a backlash against the cultural and economic exploitation led to series of freedom movements culminating into independent nations. Many of these newly independent nations were inherently unstable and saw military dictatorships take over. The colonial era reminds us that state-building cannot be a top-down process and instead has to be driven from bottom upwards. Blatant disregard for the native population hinders the prospects for state-building and democracy because it undermines the natural development of statehood. Specifically, it tries to undermine the role that nationalism can play within the process.

A key concept in state building is that security must be provided before social and political progress can be achieved (Booty 2011). Security is an essential condition as unless it is achieved, reforms or restructuring in other areas is difficult to usher. The US, along with coalition forces, invaded Iraq in 2003 and managed to claim a swift victory attributed to its technological superiority. But this victory did not mean an end of challenges for the coalition forces. In the aftermath of the submission of Iraq’s conventional army, what followed were a wave of bombings and guerrilla style warfare. This insurgency coincided with a rise in the sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni insurgents. A lot more casualties mounted on the coalition forces in the post-war phase. Eventually, post withdrawal of the coalition forces, the insurgency has continued unabated and shows the US post-conflict peace building efforts in poor light.

Somalia, which has been ravaged by the civil war, witnessed a huge death toll due to famine because the civil war disrupted agriculture and food distribution in large parts of the country. The United Nations Security Council authorised a peacekeeping force and unrolled a massive food aid program to give relief to the people affected by the famine. The operation, though initially successful, was later on withdrawn in light of significant casualties suffered by the peacekeeping forces and the rule of the government still not restored. The corollary drawn is that cost borne by the external actor which is both economic and human could be a dissuading one and that might jeopardize the state building efforts.

In most cases of political emergencies, the social fabric is torn because of ethnic rivalries or because of the feeling of deprivation that exists within a certain strata of society, that is often the deep rooted reason behind the many fault lines that these societies have and the genesis of many militant movements. Conducting military operations in such a volatile region to sanitize an area has some inherent risks, especially collateral damage in the form of loss of civilian lives because of persons who get caught in the crossfire or are confused for armed combatants. This has pernicious ramifications as it not only alienates the civilian population but fuels more violence and insurgency. In this context, the drone warfare conducted by US in the Af-Pak region has had mixed results and its efficacy has at best been debatable. Securitization therefore depends on how the intervener is able to force a political consensus among the various warring factions or the ones fighting against the intervener themselves. But this consensus is either often elusive or takes an appreciable time span to evolve. A classic example of this is Afghanistan, where despite a decade of conflict, the US and its allies have been unable to broker a deal between the Taliban, the Afghan state and other actors. As it takes time, it becomes a drain on the resources of the external actor eventually testing not just his financial muscle but his political will to persist. The domestic political opinion in case of the intervener often sways in favour of a withdrawal rather than engagement as domestic issues take precedence over what may be happening far away.

The economic aspect of state-building cannot be neglected, for a state to be able to provide food and employment for its people along with provision of many other necessities of life requires an economy of some standing which is self-sustaining and not just dependent on external aid. Building an economy from the scratch inevitably involves massive infusion of capital and this capacity not only may not be present with the donor but the recipient may also have absorption issues. A multilateral effort is therefore required and which in times of the financial crises or a downturn as we have seen in the case of Afghanistan may not fructify.

The US post war reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the world war two, the Marshall plan and the reconstruction efforts in Japan, both of which bolstered Western Europe and Japan respectively and raised their level of productivity and in just decade or two were seen registering very high growth rates of development might look like as being contrarian evidence to the above hypothesis but are actually not, as a surface level view might suggest. Macroeconomics would attribute this achievement to the human capital which is not lost best viewed in the context of the Israeli state and its achievements in the economic and the scientific realm but the greatest prerequisite for state building is the existence of a political community which was true both in the case of Western Europe and Japan. Both had been imperial powers in their own might and during the modern times had been using war as an instrument to feed expansionary nationalism which had made them an extremely organised society as the conduct of war requires a society to co-operate in performing complex tasks on a large scale. Despite the destruction caused in the world war two, this sense of a political community was not lost.

State building entails monumental effort and unless a political community exists, the evolution of a polity aided by an external agent is quite tedious to achieve. Building up governance institutions, health care systems, physical infrastructure, standing military under civilian control need pooling in of resources, collaboration and co-operation with the local populace, constant monitoring of the developments and engagement to tweak the system to suit the local needs and address local problems head on. However, such co-operation often hits political impediments, issues related to sovereignty being subverted have cropped up in the past. For example, if foreign troops are accused of crimes should they be tried in local courts is an issue that became a major hurdle in negotiations between America and Afghanistan. A similar security deal between the U.S. and Iraq collapsed in 2011 over the issue of whether American troops would be answerable to local courts, leading Washington to pull its forces out. While a government has been constituted in Afghanistan, it does not have writ over large parts of the country, Taliban continues to be a threat, while US is preparing for a drawdown of forces in 2014 thanks to the financial quagmire it has gotten itself into. An uncertain Afghanistan pretty much sums up what has been repeatedly and amply demonstrated in the article that it is virtually inconceivable to think that an external agent will be able to catalyse the process of state formation or carry it on its own shoulders.


1. Harry Booty, 2011, “Can the West build State in countries like Afghanistan?”
2. Chris Bates, 2011, “The Role of Foreign Actors in the Development of Democracy in the Middle East-North Africa”
3. Richard J. Vale, 2012, “The Role of State building in COIN”