‘Ungoverned Spaces’?

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Manchester, the term ‘ungoverned spaces’ has returned to the forefront of public debate. Is this a valuable, or even an accurate, notion?

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Manchester, the term ‘ungoverned spaces’ has returned to the forefront of public debate about the significance of countries ranging from Syria to Afghanistan for so-called ‘Islamist’ terrorist networks. By instigating regime change in Muslim-majority states without making rigorous plans for their future stabilisation and security, it is argued that Western states have helped to create extensive tracts and also types of social space that are outside the purview of government control. Such ‘ungoverned spaces’ are held to have provided the type of fertile ground within which terrorist organisations—ranging from Al-Qaida to so-called Islamic State—have developed and thrived.

This approach is more nuanced than positions which attribute the origins of terror attacks to either ‘Islamist ideology’—a term now used to refer to such a wide range of political phenomenon affecting Muslim societies and communities that it ceases to hold any analytical value—or Islamic doctrine and teachings more generally. Nonetheless, there is little to suggest that the notion of ‘ungoverned space’ will result in policies that will successfully address the complex dynamics of contexts frequently labelled such, that occupy geographic positions in a vast region that stretches from the Sahara desert to the mountains of the Hindu Kush.

The concept of ungoverned spaces was popularised by Hillary Clinton during her time as US secretary of state after she labelled the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as constituting one such space. In reality, the notion of ungoverned space has a much longer history. As I have explored along with Benjamin D. Hopkins, the Afghanistan-Pakistan ‘borderland’ has for long been depicted—by political entities ranging from the government of British India to various movements of Islamic reform to the US State Department itself—in terms of its peoples’ intransigence to modern forms of political order, law, and control.

A region’s political dynamics might not reflect conventional understandings of sovereignty and the modern nation-state, but such contexts are in fact sites within which hybrid forms of political authority have developed.

These discourses have tended to rest on either a derisive focus on the region’s state of anarchy or a romantic emphasis on its forming an historic ‘land of freedom’ (yaghestan), depending on the political needs of the hour. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the independence and apparent religious fervour of this borderland’s populations was lauded by the US and its allies: Islamic groups fighting the Afghan Army were referred to as ‘freedom fighters’. Today, the same region is depicted as having been central to the emergence of Al-Qaida and potentially to the expansion of the activities of the Islamic State organisation into South and Central Asia.

The term has rarely, however, shed much if any light on understanding the dynamics of such regions. Conrad Schetter (2012) has demonstrated in the context of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland that, far from being an ungoverned territory, this part of the word is actually a context in which multiple forms of government, legal authority and state structures overlap, compete with and sometimes interpenetrate one another. This multiplicity is illustrated in the simultaneous presence of figures of authority ranging from warlords and religious militants to ‘tribal’ chiefs and state-sponsored local militias. Additionally, such ungoverned spaces have been directly targeted by successive waves of ‘humanitarian invasion’ (Nunnan 2016), whether the focus of this has been leftist youth organisations, international humanitarian organisations, or, more recently, democracy movements. While a region’s political dynamics might not reflect conventional understandings of the territorial and political sovereignty of the modern nation-state, such contexts are in fact sites within which hybrid forms of political authority have developed and been sustained by local populations, the organs of the nation-state, and international actors.

The term ‘ungoverned space’ has fed simplistic assumptions about the inhabitants of such regions not merely as being lawless, but also as existing on the very peripheries of humanity.

Recognition of this has implications for the way in which contexts such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier or the Sahara’s borderlands are approached by policy makers. The notion of ungoverned space suggests a territory that is experiencing a vacuum of political order and requires either the insertion of new or the emplacement of prior structures of governance. By contrast, approaches that emphasise the multiple forms of power and authority that jostle for influence in such contexts might be more likely to result in policy makers exercising caution over their attempts to use the world’s borderlands as testing grounds for programmes of political and social engineering.

The term ‘ungoverned territory’ has had direct implications for the people who live in such contexts too. The populations of the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan have witnessed and been directly affected by more incidents of drone warfare than in any other region of the world. The term ‘ungoverned space’ has fed simplistic assumptions about the inhabitants of this and comparable regions not merely as being lawless but also as existing on the very peripheries of civilisation and even humanity. Societies depicted as such are considered a fair target for notoriously unreliable and remotely controlled pieces of military equipment such as the infamous drone missile. As Janos Prinz and Conrad Schetter have noted: ‘the concept of ungoverned spaces … allows external interventions without any basis in law to appear as legitimate means’ (2016: 127).

The notion of ungoverned territory is likely to further mystify rather than illuminate attempts to better understand the relationship of contested political spaces such as the Sahara, the Horn of Africa and the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier to international terrorism. Required instead is an approach that considers each such region in terms of its own particular historical, sociological and political dynamics, while also recognising the role that imperialism and the Cold War have simultaneously played in the marginalisation of such settings, as well as the impoverishment and exclusion of their populations from legitimate political life. Greater recognition is also required of the problematic nature of attempts to localise a phenomenon (the terrorist network) that is simultaneously conceived of as being fundamentally transnational. The current recourse to the notion of ungoverned territory will not result in any major changes to the ways in which these spaces—at once marginal and central to the modern world—are either viewed or treated by regional and international actors.


Nunan, Timothy, 2015. Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schetter, Conrad. 2012. ‘Ungoverned Territories – The Construction of Spaces of Risk in the “War on Terrorism”‘. In: Detlef Müller-Mahn (ed.). Spatial Dimension of Risk. London: Earthscan, pp. 97-108.

Prinz, Janosch, and Conrad Schetter. 2016. ‘Conditioned Sovereignty: The Creation and Legitimation of Spaces of Violence in Counterterrorism Operations of the “War on Terror”‘. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 2016, Vol. 41(3) 119-13.

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Director of the University of Sussex Asia Centre. He has spent fifteen years conducting research in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, with Benjamin Hopkins, is the author of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier and editor of Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan FrontierHis most recent book, Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers, was published by Hurst in March 2016.

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