As we hovered over the poppy field in the volatile Helmand province of southern Afghanistan — a square patch of earth unremarkable for its rows of small cabbage-green plants in the furrowed soil — the pilot of the low-flying U.S. gunship told me, "We can land here if you'd like to take some notes and a few photos. You've got two minutes."
"Why two minutes?" I asked.
"Because," he replied evenly, " al-Qaida's guarding these fields."
"Two minutes will be fine, sir."
Whether the unseen enemies were actually al-Qaida or merely Taliban on that March day in 2006, I knew that no information I might gain from an extended stay was worth the risk of being captured by them.
I'd had no such compunctions some two decades earlier, as I was whisked away and grilled by East German security forces for covering developments, absent a valid journalist's visa, in increasingly restive East Berlin a few months before the Wall fell. In fact, I half hoped they'd arrest me. This would only add to my reports, and I knew I'd be treated properly before being released. The East Germans and their Soviet masters might have been our bitter enemies over 40 years of the Cold War, but they had return addresses, a population to protect and no suicidal wishes.
Even the danger of being captured by Serb forces bent on ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo — just two years before Sept. 11 changed everything — evoked fear but not dread. They wore uniforms, and their leaders were visible.
Reporters who've covered conflicts and wars measure in personal ways how much the battles have evolved. We've seen front lines (and safety zones) vanish and everyone — civilians, aid workers, journalists, schoolchildren — become targets of opportunity and even of design. We've seen standing armies become merely one type of participant in today's warfare, often not the most fearsome. We've seen cities become as perilous as battlefields.
We've depicted these changes in our reports. But what we haven't done very well is explain the bigger picture: why wars and, more generally, security threats are so rapidly changing and how democracies can best keep themselves safe.
And so the public sees a kaleidoscope of violent occurrences around the world — whether attacks on hotels in Jakarta and Mumbai, assaults by drug cartels on Mexican police, genocide in Darfur, pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, terrorist plots hatched in Yemen or kidnappings of civilians in dozens of countries — and regards them as isolated and disconnected.
In fact, they are anything but, and this is essential to understanding (and managing) the changing threat environment. What links the seemingly disparate episodes is that they typically emanate from virtually ungoverned territories that provide little security and few services to their populations. The resulting vacuum of authority makes these states vulnerable to terrorists, criminals, insurgents and militias that are incubated there or move to this fertile ground.
The risk posed by the proliferation of armed groups, incompetent states and territorial chaos is suggested by the striking fact that half of the world's 200 countries now are weak, failing or failed states, as explored in a new report from the National Strategy Information Center, authored by professors Roy Godson and Richard Shultz. Compounding matters is the existence of rogue nations willing to ally with these armed groups as they engage in irregular warfare, terrorism, violent criminal activities or insurgencies.
Defense Secretary Robert F. Gates recently alluded to this shifting situation at the National Defense University when he spoke of "... a new security environment in which threats are more likely to emanate from failed, failing or fractured states than from aggressor states."
This environment, likely to pose the major threat in the early 21st century, requires the United States and other democracies to adapt. Enhancing local governing capacity in these areas could boost U.S. security. Yet, we continue to invest resources heavily in multibillion-dollar weapons systems geared to fighting the likes of the former Soviet Union. While a strong conventional military must be maintained to deter or even deploy, we should balance that with the need to counter the emerging norm for modern conflict.
The good news is that developing tools and skills suited to the evolving world is not particularly expensive. In fact, many already exist, if in limited fashion and insufficiently integrated. What's needed is not more manpower or firepower but better use of the forces we possess.