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Afghanistan Is A Failed State, But Not Beyond Saving

A woman and her child await their turn to get drinking water from a community tap in Baghlan, in northern Afghanistan, earlier this month. Years of conflict and drought have left large sections of the populations without access to clean water.
Speaking at the recent Munich Security Conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed optimism about Afghanistan. Things are improving, he said, and the West should provide more support to crack down on Al-Qaeda 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 only a limited, monopoly on the legitimate use of force; cannot adopt and enforce decisions 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 or failing one, depending on the level of these shortcomings.

Based on these criteria, Afghanistan is a failed state. For years, it has been, and still is, one of the world's top 10 failed states, along with Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, and others.

An Afghan-German aid worker was kidnapped recently in Herat. The gangs responsible asked for a $50,000 ransom. Since his family could raise only $40,000, the man was beheaded after being held hostage for 17 days. The Taliban regularly kidnap government employees, foreign diplomats and aid workers, journalists, and others. They either demand a ransom, or ask the hostages to cooperate with them against the Kabul government.

And they execute their hostages if their demands are not met.

Barely Beyond Kabul

The Taliban and criminal gangs, old and new warlords, and tribal leaders rule vast parts of the country. The authority of the government, many of whose ministers are considered corrupt, barely extends beyond its offices in Kabul. In order to survive, the Karzai government has to ignore or accommodate all those forces working to undermine it, from the Taliban to the warlords. This has even empowered them, occasionally forcing Karzai to appoint them as governors or to acknowledge their local authority.

Based on these criteria, Afghanistan is a failed state. For years, it has been, and still is, one of the world's top 10 failed states, along with Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, and others.
In an effort to secure his government's survival, Karzai invited "nonterrorist Taliban" to participate in the government. He even proposed negotiations to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, saying he would guarantee Omar's safety if he would accept the authority of the government. Omar's group rejected that proposal, saying that it is Karzai himself, and not the Taliban leader, who should be concerned about his safety.

Longing for security and an improvement in their lives, Afghans have been increasingly turning their backs on a government that has failed to deliver either. A recent ABC/BBC/ARD poll indicated that support among Afghans for the Karzai government and U.S. efforts has dropped by half since 2005. The biggest danger is that, as in 1996 after four years of chaotic mujahedin rule, people will have no choice but to turn to the Taliban to impose countrywide "security" within the framework of an archaic and totally repressive system.

Reports that Karzai's brother Ahmad Wali, head of the Kandahar Provincial Council, has been involved in drug trafficking have caused widespread public disappointment. A second Karzai brother has taken over Afghanistan's only concrete factory in Pul-i Khumri and acquired by dubious means ownership rights to vast state lands. A third brother, Jalil Karzai, is said to have simply driven away after a recent car crash in Kabul involving his car and a taxi that killed five people.

Escalating violence and widespread corruption fueled a surge in opium poppy cultivation in 2006 and 2007, pushing opium output to an all-time high. Despite efforts by the Afghan government and their, Afghanistan is now the source of more than 90 percent of the world's illegal opium.

'Nobody Can Be Held Accountable'

People in villages and towns complain they haven't benefitted 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 RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, "Foreigners plan and spend their money independently of the 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," Malekyar adds. There is no transparency in spending.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2025 notes that Afghanistan will face continued instability and remain a failed state unless employment conditions improve considerably. It predicts that for the next 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."

Sending yet more troops to augment the existing international forces, as planned by the Obama administration, will probably be necessary to counter an alarming surge in the Taliban's activities and influence. But public support is crucial to fighting terror and violence. To reverse the decline in public support for the Afghan government and the international community, there will have to be a visible steady improvement in the 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. Forty percent of the population still believes that the country is moving in the right direction. Maybe the presidential election this summer is an opportune moment for both the Afghan government and the international community to think again.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.