Afghanistan’s ex-president, Ashraf Ghani, once wrote a book called “Fixing Failed States”. On August 15th he gave up trying to fix Afghanistan and fled to avoid capture by the Taliban, a jihadist group that seized power later that day. Afghanistan is often described as a failed state, perhaps the least-coveted accolade in geopolitics. However, it is not the only one. In recent months, pundits have applied the label to Myanmar, Lebanon and even Nigeria. But what does it mean? When does a state slide from fragility to outright collapse?
The term can be traced back to the 1990s. It was first used to describe Somalia, which crumbled into chaos after a coup toppled its dictator, Siad Barre, in 1991, and the country’s clans started fighting among themselves. When fighters threatened aid workers, the United States sent troops to protect them. The Americans were then sucked into a battle in Mogadishu, the capital, that left 18 American soldiers and hundreds of Somalis dead. The Americans gave up and pulled out. Somalia heralded the start of a post-cold war trend. Political crises soon followed in Bosnia, Liberia and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union stopped aiding client states after it ceased to exist. America ceased propping up dictators solely for being anti-Soviet (though many dictators found ways to keep the dollars flowing). Without patrons with deep pockets, several regimes were toppled, and some states slid into anarchy.
The simplest definition of a failed state is one that cannot fulfil its most basic responsibility: to provide security. If the state no longer has a monopoly on violence, everything else breaks down, from electricity to roads, schools to health care. Most people in a failed state tend to be poor, while elites tend to be predatory. What is less clear is when a state moves from “failing” to “failed”. Take Nigeria. Parts seem perilously close to failure. Boko Haram, a brutal jihadist group, controls a swathe of the north-east, and the army’s attempts to crush it have proven ineffective. In other regions, conflicts between farmers and pastoralists kill thousands. Yet Nigeria holds together. Elections are dirty and violent, but more or less reflect the will of the people. Government is corrupt, but most Nigerians recognise it. When especially angry, many Nigerians describe their country as a failure. But it does not really deserve that label.
Yemen is a clearer example of state failure. Dozens of local groups have fought a ghastly civil war since 2014. Unlike in Nigeria, the government has completely collapsed. Some 16m people lack enough food. Massive destruction of health services and water infrastructure contributed in 2017 to one of the worst cholera outbreaks in recent history. Efforts to curb covid-19 are practically non-existent. Syria, too, is a failed state. There is no end in sight to its decade-long civil war. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime rules the capital, Damascus. But much of the country is controlled by Islamists, remnants of the secular opposition, or Kurds, who have ambitions to secede. The economy is shattered. More than 600,000 Syrians are dead or missing; another 13m have fled their homes.
The Fund for Peace, an American think-tank, attempts to quantify how close a state is to failure in its annual Fragile States Index. It scores every country from “very sustainable” at best to “very high alert” at worst, based on indicators including economic decline, security apparatus, public services, and human rights and the rule of law. Yemen and Syria both landed in the “very high alert” category for 2021. So did Somalia. As for Afghanistan, before the Taliban takeover it was placed in the second-most fragile category, “high alert”. In Mr Ghani’s book, he argued that upholding rule of law and ending violent insurgencies were two important ways to bring a failing state back from the brink. Alas, he failed. ■