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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Monday, August 26, 2013


A lot of people have asked my thoughts on fragile and failed states. I believe the following with regard to fragile and failed states:

The distinction between a fragile and failed state is often blurred - depending on what definition is being used to describe the state - and who uses it and for what purpose.

It is generally perceived that a fragile state is a state that lacks the ability and/or the capacity to secure its Pillars, govern its environs and as a result, risks dissolution or rampant lawlessness along with extreme poverty, hunger and starvation coupled to a very high rate of unemployment and a negative economic growth curve.

A fragile state is, however, not necessarily on its way to becoming a failed state as a state can evolve from a fragile state to a more stable and secure state. A fragile state is, however, often a precursor to a failed state and is indeed often a state that has reached that tipping point.

Africa has numerous examples of states that are regarded as either fragile or failed. This classification does, however, depend on who stands to gain what from their fragility or failure.

It is generally accepted that fragile or failed states occur when governance fails, law and order cease to function effectively and the armed forces are unable to fulfil their mandates. But, generally speaking, governance as perceived by the populace is only one element that results in fragility or failure.

There are both internal and external threat drivers that can result in fragility or failure of a state.

When the Pillars of the State have been sufficiently eroded, it results in instability of the state. Once sufficient erosion has occurred, one or more of the pillars can collapse resulting in a domino effect across the spectrum of the state and thereby result in collapse or failure.

Regardless of how we view the state, there are certain general characteristics common to those we have worked in. These include inter alia the following:

1.     Lack of Grand Strategy or an unrealistic Grand Strategy
2.     Lack of National Security Strategy
3.     Fragmented, antagonistic political powerbases
4.     Weak central government and lack of or deficiency in governance
5.     Inability to implement policy
6.     Rampant corruption
7.     Poor to non-existent service delivery
8.     Weak economic strategy coupled to poverty
9.     Questionable loyalty of forces
10.  Breakdown of Law and Order
11.  Rampant transnational crime
12.  Regional and international isolation
13.  Increase in uncontrolled, heavily-armed and opposing militia groups
14.  Local, regional and international media pressure (mainstream and social)
15.  Weak intelligence structures/failing to listen to intelligence
16.  No professional Civil Service 

From a military point of view, we note the following characteristics usually abound:

1.     Lack of military strategy
2.     Mismatch between military strategy and national strategy
3.     Lack of military leadership and C3I
4.     Poor discipline
5.     Poor training
6.     Lack of salaries hence involvement in crime
7.     Poorly maintained, unserviceable and often inadequate equipment
8.     Inability to develop realistic, executable operational plans
9.     Poor TTPs
10.  Lack of trust or even fear from populace
11.  Units are incorrectly structured to counter threats
12.  Lack of coherent, workable doctrine
13.  Unrealistic expectations of their abilities
14.  Don’t understand the threat
15.  Not political astute and are partisan
16.  Largest ethnic group often dominates armed forces
17.  Disunity between forces/units and other security elements ie police, etc

It is critically important that a government recognises the downward slide towards fragility or failure and takes immediate and drastic intervention. Such intervention may result in government having to reassess its situation, realise that it has made mistakes and take immediate corrective action. These mistakes can be identified and rectified by monitoring the Pillars of State and their impact on the situation.

A fragile area or region within the borders of a country can result in the fragility extending into other areas within the same state. This can erode a stable state and result in a fragile or failed state and impact negatively on neighbouring states. However, these fragile or failed “pockets” within the state do not necessarily constitute a failed state.

I will attempt to discuss how fragility and/or failure of a state can be rectified in my next posting.


Unknown said...

Hi Eeben. Self explanatory piece about South Africa except for Point 13. We have not reached at that milestone yet. You have an uncanny way of tapping RSA right on the button. (( Massive sarcasm intended)) I realise you were not writing the piece about Mzansi, but hells teeth it`s close to the bare bones ugly truth.

Within all the parameters you mention in not only this article but others too, we (RSA)fill the booties of failed Intel, cohesion, corruption and mal administration that ultimately leads the country down the path to conflict. Inevitability is in our futures with the corrupt becoming more corrupt and seemingly blinded by the shimmer of insane wealth which corruption is in collusion with.

It amazes me that our illustrious leaders are so blinded that they do not see, or care about the road ahead? We are in a fragile state, I just hope we don`t fail.

Regards Mike; (another 5 cent opinion)

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

As you correctly point out Mike, it was not written with SA as the reference point. However, these similarities are found in most if not all fragile/failed states we have been asked to engage with.

I believe that we in SA are already engaged in a low-intensity insurgency that has not yet been identified by our leaders. This is putting us on a downward trend and if we look at our economy, high crime rate and so forth, it merely adds to the erosion of the integrity of the state as a whole.

With an already fragile economy and many other dysfunctional entities, we are a fragile state. I too hope we never enter the failed state phase as it will be devastating to our country and to Africa.



Paul van der Schyff said...

Good evening Col. Barlow,

Thank you for the very articulate and accurate assessment and explanation as written.

I believe, as you maybe (and Mike as well), that South Africa is hindering on the edge of some form of fragile state, possibly heading towards a realistic implosion of the current, what I would describe as a manageable or change-ready state.

If I may, allow me to add the following comments which I believe could be factors in the current regime, which amplify the need for intervention or total restructuring.
(In no order of importance as such...)

1. Accountability of any financial action done to further the regime's hidden agenda, as well as misappropriation of pretty much all military/security funding. No political entity, media group or individual are actually scratching the surface concerning accountability on behalf of this corrupt government. As much as the reporting of crimes against the nation in the form of spending is taking place vigorously, we as the people of this country see fractional legal response at best. In the meantime, the coffers are being sucked dry.

2. Recourse of any South African citizen, for any crime against his or her person, under the auspices of law and order, i.e. corruptive or illegal actions committed by any member of the security fraternity of the current government. This includes but is by NO MEANS limited to reverse-racism after 1994.

3. Unrealistic expectation from a sub-standard education system on ALL levels. The very fibre of a nation lies in its capacity to produce optimal results in the form of educated individuals and groups, invariably becoming a nationally united cluster, producing solution-based objectivity when facing problems. South Africa is proportionately failing to secure its future currently, seemingly hoping “it would all work out” eventually, without a realistic strategy based on the emphatic urgency to rectify the current wrongful approach towards general education.

4. Tradition (cultural or otherwise) of the masses is hindering the western approach needed to secure competitive outcomes on international level. It seems to fit the post-1994 mould when national decisions are influenced by cultural bullshit, as to not forget some ancestral “frame of reference”. From the current president (multi-wife angle for instance), all the way to general representation in foreign countries (embassy’s and the like), national exposure regarding governance in the outside world become has somewhat of a chuckle rather than an accepted norm.

5. The removal of bad apples from the batch in the new South Africa is prevented by every bullshit human right law - domestic or international. Individuals forming (recognised) counter-policy and publicly hostile groups are protected by the current regime – as long as they fall within the prescribed range of categories, directly or indirectly related to black liberation, utilising anti-apartheid slander to further the “struggle”, as constantly promoted by even the most sincere of religious or political figures in this country. These bad apples stick to the masses like glue, creating a platform of rebellion at best. Yet, their permissions are not revoked, until they cross the upper echelon of the ruling party. Even then, they are not entirely alienated.

Although I have wandered into a direction not perhaps as directly relevant to a Fragile or Failed State on a military level, I believe that once these concerns I have mentioned are actually dealt with in an intelligent, structurally sound as well as forceful manner, some parts of the pillars we have holding up this nation, could crumble indeed. I also believe that we are closer to a fragile state than Joe-public (or jacob zuma) cares to admit, simply because there is absolutely no national synergy to be found. This nation is now splintered into 50 million individual agendas, very few of these being to unify the new South Africa. The hoo-ha surrounding the euphoria that nelson and FW created - lasted in real terms as long as a good cigar…


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for your comments, Paul. Bear in mind that this brief piece was not written with SA as the focus but rather in response to questions I have been asked on fragile and/or failed states. Of course, each point I listed could be elaborated on extensively.

Whereas financial accountability is sorely lacking, you are correct that the citizens are being sucked dry. At some stage, they will no longer be able to pay the excessive add-on costs we are subject to and eventually, anger and numbers will tell. In fact, the protests and riots we are currently experiencing are testimony to that.

Our law enforcement structures have deteriorated to such an extent that a very large sector of the public has absolutely no trust in the police. This has, despite its many disadvantages to the people of the country, given rise to an explosion on so-called security companies – with very few being worthy of that title. I recall an article somewhere that there are hundreds of convicted criminals serving in our police force – something that explains the break-down of law and order. However, managing recourse as you suggested may in theory be a good thing, to implement it will be a different problem as many police officers in the charge offices are unable to write a statement.

I agree on your point of education. Our future lies in an educated youth but our standard of education is slipping to the bottom of the stakes in Africa.

Tradition plays an important role in every culture. I believe however that the traditions of one group should not dominate every other cultural or ethnic group’s traditions in a manner akin to stifling all other traditions.

Sadly, there are many bad apples in government as we witness the cases of corruption that emerge on an almost daily basis. This certainly bodes ill for us. But, as many people are unable to access the media they are unaware of what is truly happening. Additionally, many media outlets try hard not to cover too much about what is truly happening in order to give the impression that “all is well”.

You would be very surprised at how negative Africa’s view has become towards SA on many fronts.

That said, I remain hopeful that at some stage, our leaders will come to their senses and alter the direction they are taking.

All of the points you listed are directly traced back to the Pillars of State. It is these Pillars that ensure stability and integrity of the government. Given the current low-intensity insurgency we find ourselves in as well as the excessively high crime rate, we are certainly heading towards a very fragile state. Failure to intervene decisively and drastically we push us over the edge.

Despite all of these problems, I remain hopeful that we can make a positive difference. I know that where we work, we certainly make a difference to those folk who are around us. To me, one small patch of hope is better than none at all.



Unknown said...

Re what you mentioned about our illustrious popo service. 1445 members have criminal records with 300 of them having crim records before joining.

What is horrific is that the balance were charged whilst in the service of the service. Here is a quick paste from a news service.

More than 300 of the officers managed to get a job despite having criminal records and it seems they did so by cheating the system.

Nkrumah Mazibuko, SAPS HR management, said: "There are instances where the people who submitted themselves for psychometric assessments were not necessarily the same people who submitted themselves for finger printing."

Several of the convict cops are highly ranked in positions like captains, majors and colonels -- shockingly 10 brigadiers and 1 Major General are also on the list.
Then after watching last nights news and seeing the police acting decisively against the "MK VETERANS" I noted quite a few rather young "vets" going ape in the streets. Some look like they were born around 1993 at earliest. The rest I serious doubt ever took active part in the "struggle".

I know that those of us who served in the SADF and other branches up until 1993 here in the republic and Namibia have a special dislike for posers and Walter Mitty types who say they were veterans and were most certainly not! We name and shame these liars, whereas these "veterans" are embraced even though they lie openly and make erroneous statements, like a vast amount of the louts running amok on the news.

That is fragility heading down the road to failure however the government have lost touch with their minions who are revolting.

This type of thing happens in all countries that implode into chaos and civil war. The points you stress in your piece explain this but those in power are to intoxicated with self gratification to see the forest for the trees till the forest has burned down. Look at Syria. Al Assad is desperately clinging to power but he will follow suit with the likes of Saddam, Muammar et al. The writing is not only on the wall but everywhere yet they do not seem to want to believe their fate.

Our president needs to start reading the writing and see that HIS minions are turning on him.

The unfortunate thing is that those of us who just want to get on with life are going to be drawn into the melee,,,, Unwillingly and then get blamed for the event due to our heritage and an assortment of other dilly archaic reasons.

Paul, you make mention of FW. That is a sore topic. I wonder if the certificate and Nobel medal was worth it all?

Mike (my 1 cent view)

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

What you say is correct, Mike.

However, bear in mind that as we (STTEP) do not work in SA my piece was therefore not aimed at SA. But, there are many indications showing the perilous road we are taking as a country.

Insofar as law enforcement is concerned: This pillar has all but collapsed in SA and the few policemen who are there to truly serve are diminishing in numbers. Again, this is an indication of where we are heading as a country. Despite the enormous potential we have in terms of people and resources, the many who simply want to get ahead in life are being seriously hampered by the few.

People who claim they did a certain thing without ever having been close to or involved in that thing are simply conmen – and we have many running around freely here. But, such a lack of integrity on that score does not indicate a fragile or failed state. It merely reflects on fragile or failed people.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Unfortunately, our law enforcement structures have failed the very people they are supposed to protect, SF Medic.

Whereas I cannot comment on the US, I feel that I am sufficiently well informed to see and understand what is happening across Africa. Believe me when I say that the threats extend beyond communism. We also see some Western governments actively destabelising African governments on a fairly large scale. These actions are aimed at securing resources.

Unless African governments start to take control of their destinies, put aside some petty differences and engage all of their people, they will find themselves on the failed state index.