Thoughts on “Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens”

It feels strange that my name (to the degree anyone knows who I am) is still associated with the term “ungoverned” — I hate the term and use it only in scare quotes today, as should be clear to anyone who’s read the final report of the Ungoverned Areas Project (which I led as a Defense Department strategist for two years beginning almost exactly ten years ago) or anything else I’ve written about governance (including my dissertation). The final report for the project  makes explicit that the term is problematic, used often as a leading indicator for foreign occupation. And it argues explicitly that building the capacity of groups (state or nonstate) who systematically use violence against other groups is not an effective strategy for building stability and therefore goes against U.S. interests.

So it’s funny to see publications pop up from time to time accusing my work of two contradictory things: either promoting democracy at the expense of stability, or promoting stability at the expense of human rights. I argue neither, but I think some people see that the article was produced during the Rumsfeld period and make lots of assumptions about the motivation of the author, or see that I say nice things about self-determination and human rights and assume that I’m part of the democracy-promotion industry (which I’m not). (Longer post someday: many democracy promoters have really weird and frankly inappropriate ideas about self-determination, which I why I don’t identify with them, even though I’m a very strong proponent of self-governance.)

In my subsequent work (my dissertation published in 2010 and a monograph on governance that I’m researching now), I make it clear that, whatever the motivations of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz in initiating the project, they had nothing to do with what I actually produced at the end of the project. They assigned the project thinking they were asking for better ways the United States can build the capacity and political will of national governments to control and govern the full territories of the countries over which they supposedly had authority, but the final product DoD received from me was a strong argument that a capacity-building approach was highly likely to make the problem worse, as the regimes in control of capital cities very frequently have no desire to fairly govern their populations. I promoted a stronger role for legitimacy and human rights in the analysis and policies.

Here’s the abstract — and I encourage anyone interested in what the report actually says to read what it actually says without assuming you know what my motivations for writing it were.

Ungoverned Areas and Threats from Safe Havens

By Robert D. Lamb


Individuals and groups who use violence in ways that threaten the United States, its allies, or its partners habitually find or create ways to operate with impunity or without detection. Whether for private financial gain (e.g., by narcotics and arms traffickers) or for harmful political aims (e.g., by insurgents, terrorists, and other violent extremists), these illicit operations are most successful — and most dangerous — when their perpetrators have a place or situation that can provide refuge from efforts to combat or counter them. Such places and situations are often called safe havens, and potential safe havens are sometimes called ungoverned areas. A key component of counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, stabilization, peacekeeping, and other such efforts is to reduce the size and effectiveness of the safe havens that protect illicit actors. Agencies in defense, diplomacy, development, law enforcement, and other areas all have capabilities that can be applied to countering such threats and building the capacity and legitimacy of U.S. partners to prevent ungoverned, under-governed, misgoverned, contested, and exploitable areas from becoming safe havens. To do this effectively requires careful consideration of all the geographical, political, civil, and resource factors that make safe havens possible; a sober appreciation of the complex ways those factors interact; and deeper collaboration among U.S. government offices and units that address such problems — whether operating openly, discreetly, or covertly — to ensure unity of effort. This report offers a framework that can be used to systematically account for these considerations in relevant strategies, capabilities, and doctrines/best practices.