Global Policy Forum

Iraq: An Example of a Collapsed State


By Robert Olson *

February 21, 2008

The US faces an acute dilemma with regard to the policies it has pursued in Iraq from the very beginning of its occupation. The major reason is that as a result of misdirected policies Iraq has become a collapsed state. A collapsed state is different from a failed state in that a failed state devolves from policies pursued by the state to provide a sustainable economy, some political enfranchisement of most of the population, amelioration of poverty and some hope for physical survival. In a failed state the leadership, no matter how tyrannical, usually stays in power due to their control of the coercive powers -- the armed forces, police, security and intelligence -- necessary for the state to survive and its borders to remain intact. There are a number of such states in Africa and Asia.

A collapsed state suffers from all of the above ills of a failed state with the important difference that it has lost all state coercive powers. This is what happened in Iraq due to US occupational policies.

The US' dismissal of Iraq's armed forces, police and bureaucrats resulted in the state losing all coercive powers necessary for the institutions of government and society to be reconstituted. Coercive powers, largely concentrated in the capital city of Baghdad, devolved to groups in the provinces and the periphery. In the case of Iraq, this meant that powers gravitated to the different ethnic, religious, local and class groups. These newly enfranchised groups, in addition to their internecine power struggles, also had to grapple with enormous criminal elements, which some estimates place as high as 200,000, armed with an unprecedented array of weapons.

In the Jan. 30, 2005 elections, the US imposed a nationwide electoral list system in which provinces and locals did not participate. This was in order that the US could emplace a diasporic group of pro-American Iraqi politicians into power. Since these politicians represented different ethnic and religious groups, and they struggled for power on this basis, it resulted in civil war. As a result of such policies, Iraq became and is an atomized, collapsed state. Most reputable scholars and specialists estimate that it would take 20 to 30 years, 300,000 troops and mercenaries and some $2 trillion, not including funds provide by Iraq or other states, to reconstitute a viable state even in the Arab sector of Iraq.

Given the obstacles and challenges mentioned above, it is logical that the US would want to substantially reduce its presence in Iraq. This may explain why the Bush administration opted for a surge strategy: to buy sufficient time so that it could claim once more, not that the "mission is accomplished," but that Baghdad and maybe Sunni Anbar province are "stable" and leave the residue to a new administration.

But the new administration will face the same challenges, expenses and formidable obstacles of a collapsed state. A failed state is not necessarily a collapsed state. A failed state can still be a state based on an ideology used by the ruling elite to legitimize their rule and to keep the borders of the state intact. A collapsed state is one that is fragmented and socially atomized in which not only indigenously devolved periphery groups fight for power. Such developments lead to a personalization of power which inhibits the requisites of state building. Neighboring states, as recent developments in Iraq indicate, have also begun to play more important roles, further complicating efforts to reconstitute the state. A collapsed state also offers opportunities for an external -- especially an imperialist state -- to occupy it and exploit its natural resources.

The above analysis is based on the premise that the US will not launch attacks against Iran which, given the huge challenges but also great opportunities Iraq presents to the US ruling political and economic classes, cannot be ruled out.

About the Author: Professor Robert Olson is an instructor in Middle East politics at the University of Kentucky.

More Information on Nations & States
More Information on Failed States


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.