Why are frontiers and borderlands more conflict prone—and what have institutions got to do with this?

According to a recent OECD Report, borderlands experience a greater intensity of violence, especially violence targeted against the state. While there is an expanding literature on the causes of civil conflict, we do not yet fully know why state peripheries are more prone to violence. 

Our research proposes a novel explanation that revolves around the role of exceptional institutional arrangements that frontier territories are historically subjected to. In these regions, the state has been largely absent because of this ‘rule of difference’, an arrangement established under colonial rule and perpetuated in post-colonial periods by successor states. Furthermore, formal institutions of conflict management are typically absent and local elites have been disproportionately empowered, acting as the primary linchpin between residents and the central state. 

The nature and implications of such exceptional imperial rule in frontier territories has long been studied by historians, anthropologists, and political scientists. In his book, Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State, the historian Benjamin D. Hopkins describes this distinct form of rule as ‘frontier governmentality’, and expounds on its relevance for the ‘long history of violence’. Building on this rich literature, we propose a new explanation which links frontier rule with conflict. We argue that while frontier rule can ensure social order for extended periods, it can also be more prone to violence in the face of shocks. Our research provides empirical weight to this idea. 

The post-9/11 violence in Pakistan’s northwest

Our empirical analysis covers an archetypal setting for frontier rule in the northwestern areas of British India now part of Pakistan. Under British rule, the tribal agencies of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) were institutionally separated from its settled regions, with the former being subjected to a radically different form of institutional rule. We compare data on conflict incidents against the state on both sides of this historical border in Pakistan and investigate whether regions historically exposed to frontier rule experienced more conflict compared to unexposed areas.  
To do so, we utilize geo-coded data on conflict against the state, measured at a highly granular level (10 x 10 km grid-cells) during the period 1970–2018. We found that, on average, areas under frontier rule witnessed a significantly higher incidence of conflict against the state. The effects are substantial: residents just inside the border demarcating frontier rule experienced a 57% increase in conflict incidence relative to those just outside the border.

What explains this rise in violence?

This systematically higher incidence of conflict in the NWFP emerged only after the US-led attack on Afghanistan in 2001, which prompted the Pakistani state to lend its support to the US ‘war on terror’. On US insistence, Pakistan then increased its military presence on its border with Afghanistan. Both decisions were extremely unpopular in Pakistan and led to a rise in anti-state sentiment, which the pre-existing institutional arrangements of frontier rule were unable to handle.

To explain the disruption of frontier rule in the wake of 9/11, we offer several complementary pieces of evidence. Using survey data, we show that residents of areas that historically fell under frontier rule had a significantly lower trust in formal institutions of conflict management, including the parliament and courts. They were systematically more likely to rely on local tribal leaders for adjudication of disputes. 

Our analysis puts low trust in state institutions and a lack of formal institutions of conflict management at the center of the explanation for increased insurgency. These two factors meant that post-9/11 grievances remained unchanneled, triggering acts of insurgency. A key casualty of the insurgency was tribal elites, who were systematically targeted in frontier areas. Elimination of local elites who had traditionally served as the principal interlocutors between frontier residents and the state left a huge institutional void and further intensified conflict. 

There might, however, be other reasons behind the post-9/11 rise in violence. For example, the Pakistani military conducted several targeted operations against insurgents and the United States carried out unmanned drone strikes. These resulted in civilian casualties and, in some cases, displaced populations and disrupted local economies, which could have further stoked grievances.

However, the empirical evidence documents an uptick in violence after 2001 that preceded the endogenous state response—in the guise of military operations and drone attacks—which only intensified the cycle of conflict. We also engage with other possible explanations behind our results, such as the potential spill-over of conflict from neighbouring Afghanistan and lower provision of public infrastructure. None of these explain away our results.

Implications for policy

Our findings should have broader relevance beyond Pakistan’s NWFP, as frontier rule existed in many other contexts, ranging from Kenya’s Northern Frontier with Somaliland to Northern Nigeria and Iraq’s Basra Vilayet. In these—and many other contexts across the Global South—modern states inherited from the colonial period similarly exceptional institutional arrangements that recognized local customs and practices, built a system of ‘native administration’, and shared sovereignty with local elites. 

The way imperial powers ‘defined’ and ‘governed’ their frontier territories in the 19th and early 20th centuries carries profound consequences for understanding contemporary conflict. It is precisely in these hybrid spaces where state authority is imperfectly penetrated and state–society relations are often fraught that local insurgency-based violence is more likely to take root.

However, colonial institutional legacies do not passively determine contemporary conflict. In fact, they maintained social order for long periods of time. However, the effect of such historically embedded institutional arrangements on insurgent violence is likely activated by shocks when the vulnerability of these institutional orders comes to the fore. In this regard, our analysis underscores the importance of understanding the interplay between such exceptional forms of indirect rule and external factors. Such interactions, we believe, are of growing consequence. Our work also suggests that conflict in frontier areas cannot be resolved through military means alone, and requires addressing long-standing institutional deficits. 


Adeel Malik is Globe Fellow in the Economies of Muslim Societies at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and Associate Professor in Development Economics at the University of Oxford.

Rinchan Ali Mirza is  Assistant Professor (Lecturer) at the School of Economics, University of Kent, and member of Development Economics Research Centre at Kent (DeReCK).

Faiz Ur Rehman is Associate Professor of Economics at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, Pakistan.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.