Is Afghanistan a Failed State? A Brief Overview of Indicators in the context of Afghanistan

By Seema Habib

This analytical piece by Seema Habib, a graduate of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy from Afghanistan, investigates the factors that are often cited as reasons for the failure of the Afghan state, and questions whether or not it really has failed.

States have emerged in different forms throughout history, from the ancient Egyptian time to the city-states of Greece, from the Roman Empire to the nation states of Westphalia. Historically, states were responsible for the security in their territory and were productive in providing basic services to the public, whether on a large or small scale. Ever since the colonial period, the state has always been authoritative over the population living within its territory and have continuously exercised extensive power over territories under their control. Nowadays, since the emergence of the concept of a sovereign state, states enjoy equal opportunity to represent their population, geography and are generally considered immune from third party intervention.

Indeed, states are the main and sole actors in world politics and international relations. They are the ultimate end of power in decision-makings in their territory, but there are some situations where the existence of such a powerful actor is deemed vulnerable or incomplete. There are certain criteria for a state to fulfill in order to legitimize its existence; inability in their operation can lead to its complete collapse or its partial functionality. These states are defined as failing, fragile, or failed. After a prolonged history of war and civil unrest, Afghanistan has been counted among failing or even sometimes failed states.

Notion of a failed state

States are considered to be the main actor in world politics and international relations. Their existence marks the survival of the international relations. In this modern era, there have been concerns over the collapse of this concept. In the course of recent times, some states were marked as “collapsed states”, whereas others were defined as failed, failing, or fragile states. The failed state concept was first promoted by both Tony Blair’s government in the UK and the administration of George W. Bush in the US (Warnock, 2008. These states were often associated with their inability to enforce laws and to use legitimate force over their populations (Risse & Lehmkuhl, 2006). In one of the articles published through Radio Free Europe, Abbas Djavadi defines the term failed state as, “If a government can’t physically control its territory, has no, or only a limited, monopoly on the legitimate use of force, cannot adopt and enforce decision binding for the whole country is unable to provide basic public services and cannot represent the whole country in the international community, that state is a failed state.” (Djavadi, 2009) Also, a definition by World News glossary of terms quoted by Mustafa Qasim defines Fragile, failing, or weak states as states where the national or central government ceases to retain control over much of the country due to a prolonged civil war or political crisis. Moreover, failed states cannot provide basic security or public services to their citizens, and corruption is present on a large scale. It is also concerned with increased criminal violence (Mustafa). By considering these definitions, certain elements come to the forum that define the prospects of a failing or failed state. In the next section, different indicators of a failed or failing state are examined to assess where Afghanistan stands in terms of failing or failed states.

Examination of Indicators in the context of Afghanistan

The first indicator of a failed state is insecurity where a state fails to provide security to its citizens. If a state is unable to establish an atmosphere of security, it is considered to have lost its legitimacy and power to offer security to the population living under it (Rotberg, 2003). Despite the huge support by its international partners, the current Afghan government was unable to provide security to its citizens, with insecurity being on the rise (Afghan-Women- Council, 2007). An increase in insurgency is also considered to be a qualifying sign for failing states, as it is often connected to inability of the government in its taken measures ensuring safety of its citizens.

Corruption is another criterion to assess whether a state is failed or not. It is obvious that corruption exists in many states, but in failed states it is widespread, entrenched, and is found on an unusually large scale. Robert Rotbergconcludes that “widespread petty or lubricating corruption as a matter of course, but escalating levels of venal corruption mark failed states” (Rotberg, 2003). Based on the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, Afghanistan is among the most vulnerable countries to corruption and is listed as one of the most bottom ranking countries in terms of the seriousness of the corruption. It is ranked 175th along North Korea and Somalia countries and is filed as the most corrupt country in the world (Transparency-International, 2013). In 2010, the Integrity Watch Afghanistan conducted a survey that covered the 32 provinces of Afghanistan; it concluded that corruption is perceived as the third biggest problem by the respondents (Integrity-Watch- Afghanistan, 2010). Now, if we look into the indicators, excessive levels of corruption in Afghanistan may bring it in the category of the failed states.

The third indicator for failed states is that it offers unequal economic opportunities only for a few privileged. Those around the ruler or the ruling cluster get the most from it and they become richer, while the less fortunate become poorer. According to Robert Rotbergin failed states, “the nation state’s responsibility to maximize the well being and personal prosperity of all citizens is conspicuously absent, if it ever existed” (Rotberg, 2003). It has been obvious in Afghanistan that the family members of the ruling circle have benefited the most from the economic ventures in the country. Mahmood Karzai, the brother of the president, gained millions of dollars from the financial resources of Kabul Bank, a private bank in Kabul, which was later declared insolvent. Its insolvency was due to irregularities of its financial resources and illegal investments in which the brother of Hamid Karzai was also considered to be involved (Higgins, 2010). All of its stakeholders’ assets were frozen except Mahmood Karzai’s due to his support from the government (Bloomberg, 2010). There are many other cases where family members of Afghan incumbents were privileged by economic gains through government sources.

The fourth indicator of failed states is the loss of control over its territory, fully or partially. Robert Rotbergstates that “in contrast to the strong states, failed states cannot control their borders. They lose authority over sections of territory. Often, the expression of official power is limited to a capital city and one or more ethnically specific zones” (Rotberg, 2003). This is also happening in Afghanistan where central authority has no control over some parts of the rural areas. The Taliban, warlords, and tribal leaders rule several parts of the country. The authority of the central government barely extends outside Kabul and other key parts of country (Djavadi, 2009). The organization of Fund for Peace reports that the Afghan government lacks authority in the areas where drug lords operate. This confirms the fragility of the Afghan state in its lack of a strong presence in the country.

Another indicator of state failure is defined based on the growth of criminal violence. According to Robert Rotberg, “as state authority weakens and fails, and as the state becomes criminal in its oppression of its citizens, so lawlessness becomes more apparent, criminal gangs take over the streets of the cities, arms and drug trafficking become more common” (Rotberg, 2003). According to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes, Afghanistan produces nearly ninety percent of the world’s drug supply and has endangered the efforts of state building in the country (UNODC, 2011).

The final indicator constitutes that, “a failed state is a polity that is no longer able or willing to perform the fundamental jobs of a nation state in the modern world” (Rotberg, 2003). Failed states are unable to provide basic services that a state should provide on a normal basis. High illiteracy rates, infant mortality, health hazards, and low life expectancy are the main characteristics of a failed state. Many parts of Afghanistan are facing food and electricity shortage. The educational and basic health care system is limited, especially in rural areas of Afghanistan (Mustafa). Meanwhile, the narcotics trade makes up the majority of Afghanistan’s criminal economy. The trappings of the narcotics trade have been fully integrated into the Afghan society and are difficult to overcome. The drug traffickers enjoy entrenched financial and physical power in Afghanistan, and the governmental authorities sometimes support it (Ghani, 2008). In addition to all these, Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate; 1600 women out of 100,000 die during the pregnancy, and life expectancy is only 44 years (UNICEF, 2011).


After a long presence of international community and foreign support, Afghanistan still is suffering for high levels of corruption, insecurity, insurgency and low levels of basic infrastructure. Although, efforts have been made and success has been achieved in many areas, but the outcome of these endeavors are limited. All the efforts to build a sustainable and stable state deem unattainable. The international community and the Afghan government adopted different approaches, but they proved to be ineffective. State building initiatives were undertaken by different international actors to support the newly established Afghan Government, but all the efforts were in vain due to the low efficiency of the central government and the other aforementioned factors. Based on these criteria assessed in this small overview, Afghanistan’s status as a fully functioning state is a matter of suspicion. The central government is unable to provide basic services outside Kabul and its control has been restricted in many parts of country by Taliban forces, warlords, drug dealers, and tribal elders. According to the indicators for a failed state, there has been unequal treatment economically in favor of family or clan members of those in power. Also, there are high rates of infant and maternal mortality and life expectancy is one of lowest in the world. Drug trade is controlling many parts of the country and constitutes a major part of the Afghan GDP. Corruption is widespread and has led to distrust between the public and the government. It is a matter of further research to conclude Afghanistan as complete failed state, failing, or otherwise.

Author Biography

Seema Habib studied Masters of Public Policy at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and received the Certificate of Defense Lawyer from Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, Kabul, Afghanistan. She previously studied Law at the University of Kabul, Afghanistan and is now  volunteering with the Research and Public Policy and Income Tax Clinic, WoodGreen Community Services and the Afghan Women Organization in Toronto, Canada.

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*Cover image ‘Children Play at Sosmaqala IDP Camp in Afghanistan’ by the United Nations


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