State Failure vs. State Collapse

November 24, 2006

A UN Security Council fact-finding mission has concluded its trip to Afghanistan and found that without sustained support the country may “slide back into conflict and a failed state again.”

If this statement is not a gross distortion of facts, then it certainly shows a profound misunderstanding of them. Despite its decidedly alarmist tone, the mission’s report paints a picture far prettier than reality: the reality that Afghanistan is already a failing state, and a state in conflict.

Despite the media and politicians’ rather open-minded approach to the use of terms “state failure” and “state collapse”, in serious scholarship and the literature on state failure and collapse, these phrases have precise and exacting meanings.

On last year’s Failed States Index (compiled by Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine) Afghanistan ranked #10 out of a total of 146 countries. While the ranking was comprehensive and also included countries such as Norway at 146th place and the US at 128th place (clearly strong states), it does say something about Afghanistan at 10th place, in the same neighborhood as Liberia, Haiti, Somalia, and Guinea. (Read my “A Failing State in a State of Denial” on Pakistan’s surprising rank at 9th place ahead of Afghanistan published at South Asian portal That ranking placed Afghanistan among clearly failing states, and the fact that since the index’s release the situation has deteriorated should only move Afghanistan higher in the ladder of failing states.

The idea of the ranking of failing states and the progressivity of state failure should suggest a terminal stage of sorts. This terminal stage is when it is said that a state has collapsed -as was the case in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.

Perhaps what the UNSC mission had in mind was this -that without sustained (or increased) support from the international community, the state in Afghanistan may collapse, because it is already a failing state.