Beware state failure in Somalia, Yemen, and Tajikistan
By Ian Bremmer Most of us don’t think much about Somalia, Yemen, or Tajikistan — not with more colorful problems like Iran, North Korea, and a global recession to worry about. But growing threats to civil order in these less familiar countries could have serious implications for international politics and the global economy. On the ...
By Ian Bremmer
Most of us don’t think much about Somalia, Yemen, or Tajikistan — not with more colorful problems like Iran, North Korea, and a global recession to worry about. But growing threats to civil order in these less familiar countries could have serious implications for international politics and the global economy.
On the one hand, the term “failed state” is used way too freely these days. Pakistan’s civilian government might well implode, but the country’s military is the final guarantor of the country’s stability. Ukraine’s governing institutions have survived years of political disputes among its president, prime minister, and main opposition leader — and they’re likely to withstand a bitterly contested upcoming election. Mexico has endured swine flu, an earthquake, and an intensified drug war this year, but anyone who believes the country is at serious risk of state failure wasn’t paying attention this weekend as legislative elections went off without a hitch.
But other states are at genuine risk of total meltdown — with potentially serious international consequences.
Africa has no shortage of political and social turmoil, but Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government in nearly two decades, is in a league of its own. Criminal networks control key ports, stoking the surge of piracy off Somali waters and in the neighboring Gulf of Aden, where more than 10 percent of global oil traffic passes. More than 60 ships, including a Saudi supertanker, have been hijacked in the last 18 months.
Onshore, well-armed Islamic militants, with local roots and al Qaeda connections, have filled a political vacuum across the south and center of the country, attracting foreign fighters to join them. A western-backed transitional government and African Union peacekeepers are virtually powerless to stop their advance.
Somalis who want the militants out lack the weapons and the friends to evict them. We can expect more lawlessness, radicalization, suicide bombings (previously unheard of in Somalia), attacks on western targets inside and outside the country, and more piracy. If the government loses control of Mogadishu’s port and airport, the country will slip beneath the waves, with serious consequences for the entire region.
Across the Gulf of Aden lies Yemen, where 20 million people live atop very little land and almost no natural resources. They also live next door to Saudi Arabia, which has plenty of both. Yemen isn’t yet a failed state, but in recent months, Islamic militants have pushed it much closer to the edge.
Years ago, al Qaeda made a major tactical mistake: It targeted a Saudi government that has more than enough muscle to fight back. Learning from its mistake, the group now appears to be thriving across the southern border in Yemen, which is fast becoming an ideological incubator and a logistical center of operations for Islamic militancy. This plays into a dangerous domestic dynamic. For the past four years, the Yemeni Islamist movement has split between older generation militants who oppose operations inside Yemen (which they consider a needed sanctuary) and a new generation operating via a looser, less formal network of cells in pursuit of domestic jihad. Killing Americans in Iraq remains as attractive as ever, but it’s a lot easier to carry out attacks inside Yemen.
The Yemeni government can maintain security in the capital city of Sanaa, but it can’t control rural and tribal areas, where an Afghanistan-style dynamic has unfolded: Local tribes are cutting separate security deals with local extremists. Any yet, the Yemeni government’s real vulnerability comes from its deep dependence on energy production for revenue, creating a growing risk of militant attack on oil and gas infrastructure. Yemen’s natural resource outlook was already bleak. At current levels of exploitation, flows of oil (and water) will slow to a trickle in the next 10-15 years.
Why should the world care about Yemen’s stability? Because state collapse would quickly become Saudi Arabia’s security problem — and Saudi security problems matter for every country in the world that imports crude oil. Beyond cross-border terrorist activities, Saudi authorities face a surge in militancy in northern Yemen, which is pushing Yemeni migrants across the border. And if extremist groups can use Yemen as a base for maritime terrorism the way pirates use Somalia, the global shipping industry would suffer serious consequences.
The situation in Tajikistan doesn’t look much better. About half its labor force works outside the country, supporting families via remittances and exposing the country to economic volatility elsewhere. In fact, remittances and foreign aid account for about half the country’s GDP. More than 60 percent of the population lives in poverty. Nearly 80 percent lack reliable supplies of electricity. Health care and education infrastructure are abysmal.
President Emomali Rakhmon has centralized power by buying off some rivals and throwing others in jail. His government runs largely on political patronage, ensuring that an economic slowdown risks political, as well as economic, consequences. The country’s small elite benefits from control of the hard currency produced from aluminum and cotton exports, but the global recession ensures that regular customers are spending less on these products. Tajikistan’s aluminum output fell by nearly 17% in the first quarter of 2009. The government tends to ignore economic sectors and geographic areas that have few to exploit. Memories of civil war (1992-1997) have reduced the public’s appetite for political protest, but things are getting bad enough that this might change.
Tajikistan matters because it serves as a transit point (and in some cases a source) of flows of drugs and weapons into several more internationally influential countries. It shares a porous 1200 km-long border with Afghanistan that cannot be secured, which could help reinforce militants fighting against US and NATO troops. Drugs and weapons already cross the border into Russia and China and flow across South Asia. State collapse in Tajikistan would destabilize the broader Fergana Valley, with impact on neighboring Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic.
Finally, there might well be spillover effects inside China’s Xinjiang province, where about 45 percent of the population is Muslim and where unrest over the weekend reportedly killed at least 140 people. According to the Chinese government, Xinjiang produces 30 percent of China’s oil reserves, 34 percent of its natural gas reserves, and 40 percent of its coal reserves- in a country that still draws 70 percent of its energy from coal.
Countries like Somalia, Yemen, and Tajikistan don’t often make international headlines. But they have an increasingly dangerous impact on plenty of states that do.
MUSTAFA ABDI/AFP/Getty Images
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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