How do ‘parallel states’ emerge and what is their impact on state functioning? How should the international community respond? This working paper from the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior draws on cases such as Pakistan and Guatemala to explain the parallel state as a form of political-criminal nexus which generates insecurity and stalls efforts to reduce poverty. International actors engaged in state building must recognise its specific features to avoid strengthening informal networks at the expense of formal institutions.
The parallel state is an institutional arrangement within which organised interests with criminal capacities or expertise in the use of violence use their links with the formal state to protect and expand their activities. It perpetuates state weakness while maintaining the appearance of legitimacy. Parallel states originate in bloated military and intelligence sectors operating in weak state environments at a time of increasing democratic openness and economic opportunity or heightened international security concern.
Conditions that contribute to the development of parallel states include: historically weak states marked by the existence of one strong institution (usually the military); increased commercial opportunities through globalisation; dominant public issues that legitimate ‘expert’ institutional intervention over democratic practice; and foreign powers acting according to an overarching geo-strategic logic. The four key factors driving the creation of parallel states are:
- Formal-informal transactions: At the heart of the parallel state lies a transaction between organised interest groups tied to powerful institutions, and political leaders seeking to consolidate their power. State leaders or institutional figures who resist the influence of clandestine groups are assassinated.
- Institutional singularity and stalled democratic transitions: The strength and omnipresence of one institution in a post-colonial context marked by extreme state weakness can lead to the development of informal networks that undermine, corrode or capture the democratic framework for their own benefit.
- Issue-based legitimation: Interest groups tend to aggravate public anxiety over issues that favour the unsupervised intervention of their associated institutions and state agencies.
- International dimensions: Geo-political significance can lead to exceptional powers being granted to military or other state institutions, as seen in US Cold War policy in Guatemala, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In dealing with parallel states, the international community should seek to undermine the continuity and feasibility of transactions between political leaders and leaders of clandestine organisations. International policing of criminal networks, multilateral judicial and legal interventions, regional support mechanisms, and civil society strengthening could help reduce the dependence of political leaders on clandestine organisations. Further implications are that:
- Where geopolitical security considerations are paramount, responses should involve supporting new democratic actors, broadening the political base of leaders and ensuring that international standards are implemented in state corporations.
- The international community must reconsider its prescriptions for fragile states where parallel state structures exist: enhancing the security sector may not improve civilian protection; implementing procedural democracy may not weaken parallel state organisations; and greater trade openness and institutional capacity-building may both be captured by corporate or criminal interests operating within the state.
- While the potential influence of external actors over entrenched interests is questionable, the money, arms, and international blind eye of a narrow security-based policy are sure to deepen the problems posed by parallel states.