The Failed State Label

Do states described as “failed” care about being handed the label? Afghan President Hamid Karzai certainly did.

As a college professor, I know that assigning a student a grade of “F” for Failed is very likely to bring down a hail of argument, pleading and rancor. States that are labeled “failed” or “failing,” on the other hand, are usually silent about the epithet – and may even welcome it if aid arrives in its wake.

Failed states have been held responsible for almost all of the world’s security problems: from the diffusion of nuclear weapons technology to the flows of undocumented immigrants. The term became popular after the familiar Cold War binaries were rendered useless. Failed states entered the mainstream vocabulary in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. The problem with Afghanistan, many said, was not so much that it was an enemy state, and more that it wasn’t much of a state at all.

Governments, think tanks and NGOs began deploying the term “failed state” to justify their invasions, counsels and budget requests, until it lost its meaning. We do have some systematic attempts at measurement: the State Fragility Index (constructed by the Center for Systemic Peace), the Peace and Instability Conflict Ledger (out of the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management) and the Failed States Index (put together by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy). This last is probably the most widely-read, and denizens of some troubled spots – like Kenya, which moved out of the top (sic) 15 failed states in 2011 – might be paying attention to the rankings. It’s fair to assume, though, that citizens or policymakers in Somalia (1st for four years running) or Haiti (six places higher in 2011) aren’t much moved.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was justified in part with the argument that state failure had allowed terrorist groups, most importantly, al-Qaeda to find sanctuary and flourish in that country. Significantly, it’s the state that is said to have failed – not just a particular government or regime. Thus, the only solution would involve externally-induced state-building. To their credit, both the Bush and Obama administrations have attempted to reconstruct Afghan institutions – including an elected government – while simultaneously waging bloody war against the resurgent militants with their own ideas about nation- or state-building.

Now that the United States has begun to withdraw its troops, the question arises of how to determine whether Afghanistan is still failing. Clearly, it falls short on many of the standards of organized political life. Top U.S. leaders have reiterated that their goal can’t be to make Afghanistan into Switzerland, or even a Jeffersonian democracy. Interestingly, Afghanistan’s mercurial President Hamid Karzai rejected the label of “failed state.” Perhaps it’s a heartening sign that there now exists an Afghan governing class (however authoritarian, corrupt, or ineffective) that is willing to reject the label of failure?

Volker Boege and his co-authors have suggested that the real failure is that of researchers and political analysts who have adopted the lazy shorthand of state failure to cover a vast range of shortcomings in governance. Others have written about the failure of imagination in seeing borderlands only as wastelands or ungoverned spaces, rather than sites of interaction and innovation. Perhaps the time is ripe for us to grade the concept of “failed state” itself, and assess whether it’s conceptually sound and a good guide to policy. 

Karthika Sasikumar is an assistant professor of Political Science at San Jose State University in California. Her research and teaching focus on international security issues and South Asia.