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The Notion of Failed States and Institutional Fragility, and the Case of Afghanistan: A Theoretical Debate

The links between so-called failed states and international terrorism have oftentimes been manifested as a self-evident fact. This assertion contends that failed or weak states have facilitated the establishment, proliferation and activities of terrorist outfits due to providing favourable conditions for their operations within and outside their territories. However, this paper would suggest that a country’s failed statehood is insufficient evidence for establishing a causal relationship with terrorist groups’ settlement and logistics. It will first discuss the notion of a ‘failed state’ and explore its various taxonomies and definitions, illustrating the multiple indices used by different agencies. Then, it will highlight three different types of opinion on failed states. The first one would argue that the concept of failed states is a viable and applicable classification, which manifests the security threats related and requires international security policies and intervention methods to contain it. The second one would claim that the notion of failed states is not analytically sound given the lack of consensus on the definition and the fact that data collection in those countries is plagued by considerable challenges, which eventually results in an absence of a strong foundation for the conceptualization and dissemination of effective policy interventions. And finally, the third type of opinion would present a very skeptical angle on the failed states debate, arguing that it is a Western-centric and hegemonic political approach to delegitimize nations which do not adhere to the dominating states’ views. From this perspective, the concept of failed states is part of a larger effort to transform developing nations or even an attempt to vilify them as a pretext of exerting the power to intervene. This paper will examine these viewpoints using as an example the country of Afghanistan to present the case in a coherent, systematic and overarching way. Nevertheless, the example of other states will also be used to highlight the paper’s applicability in other contexts.

Given the numerous definitions in the literature, the expression a ‘failed state’ is largely functioning as an umbrella term (Orman, 2015). Since the term was originally coined by Helman and Ratner in 1993, who described failed states as countries ‘whose governmental structures have been overwhelmed by circumstances’ (1993, p. 5), various types of other taxonomies have been established. For instance, Gros (1996), contesting Helman and Rather’s definition due to its lack of specification on which the abovementioned structures are, puts forward five different categories of failed states: ‘anarchic’, ‘phantom’, ‘anaemic’, ‘captured’, and ‘aborted’. As he explains, anarchic states lack centralized government and are run by armed groups and warlords, such as the cases of Somalia and Liberia. Phantom states exhibit a limited sense of authority in certain areas, which however for the rest is lacking, like in Zaire (ibid). In the third case, countries may be anaemic as a result of counter-insurgency organizations attempting to usurp the authority that is ostensibly in charge, alongside with lacking the driving forces of modernity, which eventually makes the central leadership unable to exhibit control (ibid). As Gros (1996) claims, that is the example of Haiti. When it comes to captured states, there the state’s power is situated in the hands of a small group of insecure elites with the goal of undermining or even eradicating the competing elites, which is the case of Rwanda. Finally, aborted states are countries where even before the process of state creation was completed, they collapsed, such as in Bosnia and Georgia (ibid). Other academics, such as Bilgin and Morton (2002), later defined additional categories such as ‘rogue,’ ‘weak,’ and ‘quasi’ states.

Given the exhaustive myriad of definitions, Orman (2015) argues that the case of failed states have turned into the metaphor of the elephant – ‘when you see it you will recognize it‘ (p.78).  Similarly, Nay (2013) calls the utilisation of the term ´fragile state´ a ‘portmanteau word’ (p. 332). Thus, various supranational, research or non-governmental agencies have attempted to come up with precise indicators for measuring the efficacy of states and thus classify them accordingly (Saeed, 2020). For instance, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) project covers more than 200 countries and territories, using 6 distinct indexes related to different aspects of governance (World Bank, 2021). The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) further identifies effective methods for peaceful change by examining transformation processes toward democracy and a market economy in worldwide comparison (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2021).

However, arguably, the most prominent aggregate tool for evaluating states’ level of fragility is the Fragile States Index (FSI) produced by The Fund for Peace (FSI, 2021). Formerly known as the Failed States Index, the nomenclature changed in 2014 over mounting public criticism of its dichotomous nature, which creates a division between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ countries, instilling a sense of doom and breakdown beyond repair amongst those in the ‘failed’ category (Saeed, 2020; Beehner and Young, 2012). Currently, the FSI includes 179 countries compared against a list of 12 social, political, economic, cohesion and cross-cutting indicators (FSI, 2021). Simple cross-comparison between the various indicators exhibits discrepancies in the rankings of the different countries, which on one hand could of course stand for the difference in methodologies applied, yet poses further questions on the sources of data, the efficacy of those rankings and the intentions of those devising them.

Moving away from the definitional discussion, the debate still remains to what extent (if at all) ‘failed states’ are linked with the proliferation of international terrorist groups. As Pašagić (2020) explains, the connection between the two seems almost intuitively logical, which could lead to acceptance without further questioning. While that is oftentimes the case in the media and political discourse, academic works also tend to build on that foundation (ibid).

According to that perspective, failed states provide a safe haven for terrorist groups – a place where these outfits could operate free from interference from the government (Coggins, 2014). This allows them to establish terrorist camps, where they could perform the logistics of executing an attack (Pašagić, 2020).  In addition, failed states’ territory offers a conduit for the trafficking of weapons, drugs, money and people, which creates issues for even faraway nations, exhibiting how internal turmoil could further spread regionally, exporting violence and conflict (Coggins, 2014). Therefore, the inability of the state to control its borders provides an opportunity for terrorist groups to export the necessary materials and capital for the perpetration of attacks (Pašagić, 2020).

As Pašagić (2020) explains the argument of failed states being a permissive terrain for terrorist groups becomes even more convincing when one examines the aspects that lead to state failure and he discovers how they happen to overlap with those that are largely believed to be the root causes of terrorism. He gives as an example how deteriorated human security circumstances create discord among the population who see the state as failing to provide for their basic needs, which offers a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters to lure young unemployed and disenfranchised individuals. State failure is further convoluted by the collapse of criminal justice institutions and widespread corruption, which allows for the smuggling of arms and resources on behalf of terrorist groups (ibid). In addition, state failure is linked to civil unrest and ethnic conflict given the erosion of state security, which creates a vacuum that is easily hijacked by militant groups (ibid). Findley and Young (2012) claim that in instances of civil war, rebel groups resort to violent measures to assure the obedience of the population and state authorities, as happened in the Angolan civil war and Peru in the 1980s and 1990s.

An infamous example by the proponents of the perspective that failed states present a terrorism threat is the case of Afghanistan. As Rahimi (2021) narrates, the 1978 communist coup and following Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the eventual breakdown of central rule, which was met with the formation of a growing popular resistance, consistent of groups of local commanders, who took over the central power and grew to dominate the nation. As a result, warlordism came to rule the land (ibid). The terrorist outfit later to be known as the Taliban, emerged in this context, with the initial pretext of putting an end to this infighting of various violent factions (ibid). While the Taliban drove away the majority of warlords from the country, they did not establish any stable state institutions to substitute for the existing power structure (ibid), the repercussions of which are still visible today in the rest of the region, particularly in the case of Jammu & Kashmir. With the recent takeover of Kabul, the disputed territory is already seeing a surge of foreign militants.

While considering the earlier mentioned discussion on the lack of precise definition of the term ‘failed state’, for the current argumentation the Fragile State Index Annual 2021 Report will be used. According to it, the case of Afghanistan showcases the traditional view of a so-called failed or fragile state. Bearing in mind that the Report was published in May 2021, ahead of the August 2021 events, which led to the official Taliban take-over of the country, the Report places the country under number 9, when it comes to fragility, scoring 102 points of maximum 120 possible, where higher score signifies higher degree of state weakness (Fiertz et al.,2021).

This scoring is based on indicators such as weak security apparatus, fragmentation of state institutions, collapse of rule of law, ongoing criminality and political violence (including terrorism), group-based inequality, economic decline, sustained human flight and brain drain, corruption, deterioration of public services, violation of basic human, civil and political rights, severe demographic pressures and others (ibid). While in the case of Afghanistan, all these indicators are present and the country is further ravaged by terrorism, harbouring international terrorist groups, the same does not necessarily apply for the remaining top 20 nations on the list of Fragile States.

While the establishment and operations of terrorist groups in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Iraq have been well documented (Mumtaz, 2010; Menkhaus, 2013; Piazza, 2008; Hashim, 2014), the link between terrorism and the rest of the list of nations, which primarily consists of African countries, is more difficult to determine. This is where the critical scholarship comes in and argues that while terrorist groups might operate in failed states, it is not the fragility or weakness of a state that accounts for their presence (Newman, 2007). On the contrary, the majority of failed states do not host terrorist outfits (ibid). Thus, as Newman (2007) argues, although certain terrorist organizations may thrive in weak or failed states, other explanatory factors must be considered as well.

First of all, while terrorist groups might benefit from a created environment of instability, they also face difficulties operating in fully collapsed states, given the lack of stable structures, such as financial infrastructures necessary to transfer funds and bankroll their activities (Pašagić, 2020). Simons and Tucker (2007) further voice that by arguing that logistical issues in such countries are substantial deterrent for outfits that search for a stable base for operations. Moreover, if one follows the logic that failed states provide safe havens for the establishment of terrorist training camps, then US and allied forces would have discovered such, which however was not the case when they searched the Horn of Africa for Al-Qaeda personnel or camps (ibid). Thus, the concept of a ‘safe haven’ in failed states sounds almost like an oxymoron, given that even terrorist groups do not feel secure under conditions of disorder, and they would have had to use considerable resources to ensure their own security, which often they cannot afford (ibid).

In addition, although the phrase ‘failed states’ sounds appealing, in reality no state collapses entirely, on the contrary – some even become more resilient (ibid). Simons and Tucker (2007) argue that even in countries such as the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia and Afghanistan still now, while by all means the state was unable to protect its borders and was considered ‘failed’, chaos was not necessarily rampant on the ground. While there was certainly a sense of insecurity, locals still knew where, when and with whom to go to certain places in order to remain safe (ibid).

This is where the third perspective on failed states comes in. According to it, the concept of ‘failed states’ is intentionally politicised to serve the political goals of dominant Western states who perceive developing countries as exhibiting a threat to the conventional Westphalian model of world politics (Newman, 2009). Therefore, by exaggerating the danger presented by fragile or failed states, military interventions are justified (ibid). As Nay (2013) argues, the term ‘failed state’ was deviced in the post-Cold War era by certain political elites and major multilateral organisations, who aimed to advance their objectives and further develop performance-based mechanisms for the allocation of their donorship according to their own standards. Bøås and Jennings (2007) assert that nations are deemed functioning and legitimate when they abide to Western norms and rules, implying a uniform prototype according to which states should behave.

They provide the example of Afghanistan, arguing that the military intervention in the country had little to do with humanitarian or governance-based definitions of a failed state. While before 2001, during Taliban rule, human rights abuses were rampant, the Western forces did see little reason to intervene; on the contrary, with the fall of the USSR, the US looked for ways to appropriate oil and gas from Turkmenistan without having to go through Russia or Iran, and thus the only practical option seemed Afghanistan, so they entered into discussion with the Taliban (ibid). Negotiations under Bush continued almost until the 9/11 attacks, which was the turning point of relations between the two countries (ibid). Thus, as Bøås and Jennings (2007) explain, while the rhetoric before the attacks revolved around oil and politics, shortly afterwards that was coupled with a lip service regarding the humanitarian crisis in the country which would justify a military intervention.

Another argument against the failed state concept is that this approach is inherently oblivious to the broad spectrum of historical, political and socio-cultural contexts of a country (Saeed, 2020). As he provides the example of Belgium and DR Congo, which find themselves on the opposite spectrums of the failed state continuum, Saeed (2020) argues that the indicators do not comprehensively analyse the part that both countries have played in their mutual historical developments. Given the impoverishment and destitution that DR Congo experienced under Belgian rule, even with political independence, the country was not able to grow and develop in a positive trajectory (ibid). In return, the resources and assets that Belgium was able to drain from DR Congo helped the country to evolve to the position it finds itself in nowadays (ibid).

To conclude, this paper attempted to exemplify how the notion of ‘failed states’ carries certain intrinsic conceptual limitations, which have assisted some powerful actors on the basis of reductionist erroneous premises to device ambiguous and one-size-fits-all generic security policies. Hence, the level of fragility of a country’s statehood is insufficient evidence for establishing a link with international terrorism. Thus, as Beehner and Young (2012) rephrase Tolstoy’s infamous Anna Karenina principle: ‘Un-failed states are all alike. Every failed state is failed in its own way‘ (n.p).

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