Afghanistan: A Failed State, But Maybe Not Completely Hopeless

By Abbas Djavadi – At the recent Munich Security Conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai demonstrated optimism about Afghanistan. Things are improving, he said, and the West should provide more support to crack down Al-Qa’eda and other terrorist groups.  He categorically rejected the view that Afghanistan is a failed state.

What is a «failed state,» after all? If a government can’t physically control its territory, has no or limited monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can’t take and enforce collective decisions for the whole country, is unable to provide basic public services, and can’t represent the whole country in the international community, that state is a failed or failing one, depending on the level of these shortcomings.

Based on these criteria (see Fund for Peace), Afghanistan is a failed state. For years, it has been and still is one of the top ten failed states of the world, along with Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, and others.

Recently, an Afghan-German aid worker was kidnapped in Herat. The gangs asked for $50,000 ransom. Since the family could raise only $40,000, the man was beheaded 17 days after being held as a hostage. The Taliban regularly kidnap government employees, foreign diplomats, and aid workers, journalists, and others. They either demand ransom or ask the hostages to cooperate with them against the Kabul government. And they execute their hostages if their demands are not met.

The Taliban and criminal gangs, warlords — old and new –, and tribal leaders rule the vast parts of the country.  The government, many of its executives corrupt, has a very weak authority outside of its headquarters and offices. In order to survive, the Karzai government has to ignore or accomodate all those forces working to undermine the government: from the Taliban to warlords. This has even empowered them, occasionally forcing President Karzai to appoint them as governors or to de facto respect their local authority.

In an effort to secure his government’s survival, Karzai offered «non-terrorist Taliban» to participate in the government.  He even proposed negotiations to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, saying he would guarantee Omar’s safety if he would accept the authority of the government. Omar’s group rejected: «Not the Taliban leader, but Karzai himself should be concerned about his safety.»

Longing for security and improvement of their lives, Afghans have been increasingly turning their back to the government that has disappointed most who have been waiting for the government to deliver. A recent ABC/BBC/ARD polling indicated that support among Afghans for the Karzai government and US efforts has dropped by half since 2005. The biggest danger is that, like 1996 and after four years of a chaotic Mujahidin rule, people will have no choice but to turn to the Taliban for a countrywide «security» in an archaic and totally repressive system.

To the disappointment of the public, reports surfaced that President Karzai’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, has been involved in drug trafficking. A second brother of the president has taken over Afghanistan’s single concrete factory in Pul-i Khumri and taken the ownership of vast state lands, all using fishy tactics. A third brother, Jalil Karzai, is said to have a recent car crash with a taxi in Kabul and to have simply driven away. The accident has killed five.

Escalating violence and widespread corruption fueled a surge in opium poppy cultivation in 2006 and 2007, pushing opium output to all-time highs. In spite of efforts by the Afghan government, the US, and their partners, Afghanistan is now the source of more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium.

People in villages and towns complain that they haven’t seen anything from all those «millions of dollars» donated by foreign countries to improve life and infrastructure in the country. Government officials complain that they have no access to foreign aid. According to Helena Malekyar of Radio Free Afghanistan, «foreigners plan and spend their money independent from Afghan government.» Even foreign countries don’t coordinate their aid and development assistance activities among themselves. Nobody knows how much is being spent by whom for aid and development in Afghanistan. «One of the main problems is that nobody can be held accountable for any spending: not the Afghan government and not foreign countries.» There is no transparency in spending.

The US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 notes that Afghanistan will face continued instability and state failure unless employment conditions change considerably.  Still, the Global Trends 2025 is not so optimistic: in 15 years, «tribal and sectarian disputes will probably continue to arise, be fought out, and shift constantly in Afghanistan as the various players realign themselves.»

Adding troops to the existing international forces, as planned by the Obama administration, will be probably necessary to face an alarming surge of the Taliban’s activities and influence. But public support is key to fighting terror and violence.  To reverse the decline of the public support for the Afghan government and the international community, people have to see a steady improvement in economy and public services: from assisting private and small businesses to domestic and regional trade, from health care to education, from effective police and army forces to government agencies that are trying to clean up corruption.

Afghanistan is not lost yet. Still 40% of the population believe that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction. Maybe the next presidential election in summer this year is a good impetus for the Afghan government and the international community to think again.

(Published on RFE/RL’s website)