Transnational Security Threats and State Survival: A Role for the Military?

By Smith, Paul J. | Parameters, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Transnational Security Threats and State Survival: A Role for the Military?


Smith, Paul J., Parameters


On 20 August 1998, an undisclosed number of US Navy ships and submarines located in the Arabian and Red seas launched more than 79 cruise missiles in a simultaneous attack on alleged terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. Afghanistan-bound missiles targeted the Zhawar Kili Al-Badr Camp, an alleged terrorist training facility located about 160 kilometers southeast of the country's capital, Kabul. The Sudanese target was a manufacturing facility suspected to be producing precursor chemicals for the nerve agent VX. The attacks were carried out as part of a US response to terrorist attacks against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. According to press and government reports, the missiles hit their targets as planned and the US government subsequently deemed the attacks a success.

Because the two operations were essentially attacks by a state against non-state actors, American officials betrayed some uneasiness when confronted with questions about official terrorist involvement by the governments of Sudan and Afghanistan. Moreover, US military officials broke with previous practice by refusing to disclose damage assessments out of fear that it would give vital information to interested terrorist organizations. In defense of the government's policy of operational secrecy, General Hugh Shelton noted that such an antiterrorist operation required "different techniques" because "we are in a different ball game today." [1]

Although the US attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan were widely viewed as unequivocal responses to global terrorism, they were, in many respects, symbolic of a much larger trend: the emerging tendency of nation-states to turn to military forces to deal with post-Cold War era security threats that are transnational and not state-centered. Increasingly, governments are characterizing problems that were once considered law enforcement or public health problems as security challenges. Some examples of these emerging threats include international organized crime, terrorism, arms trafficking, pandemics, and international illegal migration flows. Unlike traditional state-centered security threats, these transnational threats often emerge slowly and their causes and effects are often not easily ascertained.

As transnational security challenges continue to grow in severity around the world, military leaders and planners are facing the almost inevitable reality that armed forces will be deployed against them in the decades ahead. This trend is not occurring without controversy, however. Some military leaders strongly oppose the use of military forces in non-warfare operations for a variety of reasons, including fears that such missions detract from military training and readiness. Nevertheless, governments around the world are increasingly discovering that civilian agencies which would normally manage these problems--such as police, health, environment, or immigration ministries--simply cannot cope with the magnitude of the problems they are confronting. This trend implies a major change in how countries will likely deploy their armed forces in the decades ahead. More important, however, it suggests a fundamental new role for military forces in the 21st century.

Transnational Security Issues: Defining the Threat

Transnational security issues, as the name implies, are nonmilitary threats that cross borders and either threaten the political and social integrity of a nation or the health of that nation's inhabitants. Moreover, such issues might be deemed as threats that tend "to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state." [2] Typically transnational threats or challenges arrive in the host state because of their intrinsic nature (e.g., air pollution that crosses an international border due to prevailing winds) or because of porous borders resulting from government policies that reflect either an unwillingness or inability to restrict or regulate cross-border flows. …

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Transnational Security Threats and State Survival: A Role for the Military?
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