Why should academics and policymakers prioritize a state’s acquistion of  “… the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”? Obviously, this monopoly is fundamental to masking the violence of the state in daily domestic affairs, but what about in areas where that violence cannot be masked under the guise of a neutral, rational-legal state that speaks for the “nation” in the first place? Is a Eurocentric model of the state still an appropriate priority for all territories, particularly in regions which have a long history of embattled states as well as fractured societies, and which are experiencing multi-pronged challenges to state authority?

Historically, of course, “pre-modern” states did not always feel the need or desire to acquire a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. For example, one of the greatest imperial states in history, the Mughal Empire which eventually covered much of modern South Asia (including Afghanistan), never sought or obtained a monopoly on violence and this “failure” did not hinder its progress. At the height of its power in the 17th century, the Mughal empire was more opulent than all of Europe combined. The cultural and particularly the architectural achievements of this imperial state are still considered among the finest in the world. Technologically, in 1526 it was the first to introduce the combined use of handguns and cannons with its military in the sub-continent. While its military superiority would eventually decline, it was never more than a decade behind its rivals in terms of military technology. In any case, in the early and middle period of the empire, the Mughal army could defeat any single opponent on the open battlefield, including European upstarts (see Child’s War 1686-1690). Economically, the empire produced goods for the world market. The arrival of European merchants only further extended direct trade links to northern and western Europe, although prior to industrialization there was little to nothing that the Europeans could offer in exchange for goods produced in South Asia except silver bullion.

The Mughal state had some of the trappings of a modern state, including a large bureaucracy and an extensive police and intelligence apparatus. However, it did not seek to disarm the peasantry or dispossess local and regional rivals who acknowledged its superiority. In fact, as Peter Lorge argues in The Asian Military Revolution (Cambridge, 2008, pp. 130-131), Mughal emperors sat atop a vast “military labor market” of over 4 million infantrymen. The Mughal state’s confidence rested on the fact that it had the best concentration of infantry and equipment as well as a massive treasury and spy network. The goal of the emperor was not to disarm its local and regional rivals, but to manage violence. In other words, the objective was “… to maintain the internal balance of center and periphery, not to annihilate external threats to the throne,” (Lorge 2008, p. 138). This balance was maintained in part by keeping the state literally on the move  en masse from one hot spot to the next. The treasury could also be used to purchase a sufficient additional supply of soldier in order to deny those resources to regional rivals. In any case, military resistance to this peripatetic imperial state by regional rivals was often part of an elaborate bargaining procedure for improving one’s rank within the finely graded official status hierarchy. Of course, once it was weakened by fighting against the guerrilla tactics of the Maratha Confederacy in the mid-17th century, the empire began a steady decline, eventually succumbing to domination by their British vassals and the creation of a “modern state” which did vigorously pursue a strategy to disarm the countryside and to monopolize legitimate violence. Notably, however, the emperor remained remarkably legitimate to large numbers of Hindus and Muslims even up to the dying days of the empire as the Great Rebellion of 1857 demonstrated.

I ask the question about the need for a monopoly not because I want to bring Babur & Co. back from the dead (although… well… that would be fun… after all, nobody parties quite like a Timurid…) but because it is clear that there are several territories in contemporary international affairs where the claim to a monopoly on legitimate use of violence is clearly unlikely to be established in the near future. Labeling such states as “failed” or “failing” in lazy and counter productive.

In places like Afghanistan, for example, the state does not have the monopoly of the legitimate use of force and won’t for the foreseeable future; Afghans know they will have to pay homage indefinitely to a range of actors who have the ability to threaten the use of violence against them: warlords, insurgents, foreign troops, the police, etc. As Noah Coburn argues in Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town (Stanford 2011, pp. 182-207), the Afghan state cannot serve as a vertical container of societal conflicts because many of the major actors in society are rivals of the state. Coburn adds that even the notion of a discrete border between the state and society is an artificial construct maintained in large part by society to prop up the state. In other words, the Afghan state is so weak and porous that it is up to society to sustain the illusion of the state as rational and professional. Maintaining the illusion allows aid to flow and keeps the peace, such as it is. Nonetheless, the population is not motivated solely by fear of violence, Afghans value the idea of a sovereign state and the integrity of their state’s territory. The people of Afghanistan do not want their country partitioned or to have their state’s sovereignty further diminished or humiliated by regional or global actors. At the same time, people are realistic enough to know that the state will not vanquish the insurgents and warlords — even with massive international military and financial assistance.

But the choice is not between a monopoly on violence or total anarchy. For embattled states the issue is whether the effort to prioritize acquiring a monopoly by defeating the insurgency and all other challengers to the state is realistic. Building up massive armies in weak states through foreign funding is unsustainable if the state is ever to regain full sovereignty. Moreover, the prolonged presence of foreign troops and unaccountable international non-governmental organizations often undermines the state’s authority and autonomy as much as warlords and insurgents. Perhaps the aim should be to develop sufficient violence capability and financial patronage to keep rival coercive threats in check. To paraphrase Coburn’s depiction of the Afghan state a few years ago: it is too weak to be despotic but strong enough to keep warlords from the temptation of increasing their despotism. Perhaps that should be considered both sufficient and realistic as a marker of success, no? If so, then the question becomes how many elite forces, how much hi-tech weaponry, and how much direct budgetary support would be necessary to maintain that balance while gradually strengthening the state’s ability to increase revenue extraction. This advice will be lost on the US and its partners who are moving toward the exit doors, but India, Russia, and Iran may see its wisdom after 2014…