Global Policy Forum

Is Afghanistan Doomed As A "Failed State"?

Ambassador Carlo Ungaro, a retired Italian senior Diplomatic officer, argues that “the very term “failed state” evokes a sense of hopelessness and despair, and should therefore be used as sparingly as possible.” Drawing on the cases of Liberia, Somalia, and especially Afghanistan, where he served during sixteen years, he asks “what precisely is needed for a Nation to qualify for that dubious title?” Ungaro argues that it is indeed USSR and US’ invasions of the country that truly caused the conditions preventing Afghanistan’s economy, social standards, and governance from improving since the 1970s. And despite US troops’ upcoming withdrawal, there are little reasons to be optimistic about the future of Afghanistan.

By Carlo Ungaro

October 1, 2012

The very term "failed state" evokes a sense of hopelessness and despair, and should therefore be used as sparingly as possible.

Some years ago, Liberia was considered the quintessential failed state, but it pulled itself back, thanks, in very great part, to the emergence of political figures with charisma determination and honesty, and also to the indispensable support of the International Community.

Between 2001 and 2004, I was closely involved with Somalia, then also considered a failed state. Some eight years on, however, it seems to have made little progress in emerging from that awkward limbo.

But what is the real meaning of the term, or, to put it differently, what precisely is needed for a Nation to qualify for that dubious title? Should Afghanistan be considered such? is the country that one remembers and has deeply loved irredeemably destined to disappear from the international scene, or  does Afghanistan, now nearing the end of another chapter in its tragic Odyssey still have the will, the strength and the capacity to return, as an equal partner, into the society of Nations?

I remember Afghanistan in the 1970's as one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet it proudly and capably fulfilled its role as a neutral buffer between empires,  a role inherited from the days of the "Great Game" but still valid in those of the Cold War. Wise governance was bringing about a slow but steady improvement in the quality of life, particularly for women, and this was especially true during the short-lived  republican period that followed the bloodless coup which had overthrown the Monarchy in 1973.

Two lengthy and brutal foreign invasions, interrupted by years of particularly violent civil war would suffice to bring any human social structure to its knees, and would have succeeded to do so in Afghanistan if it weren't for the extraordinary pride, resilience and courage of the Afghan people (I refer to both men and women) and their refusal, over  the past centuries, to submit to outside domination, even in the presence of a foreign-imposed government. This happened in the days of Shah Shujah Durrani, during the 1840's, it has repeated itself since, and could well determine events in that obscure future when the foreign troops now occupying Afghanistan will presumably have left.

The information, fragmentary as it is, that this land, once considered hopelessly condemned to perennial poverty  might actually possess considerable mineral wealth does not necessarily constitute a blessing. If true it would greatly complicate matters, as the already ruthless quest for power will receive support and backing from foreign sources the interests of which will, at best, coincide only with those of a very small minority of the power structure. All this risks being  presented in an old fashioned ideological form, a post-Cold War resurrection of Manichean dualism, in which the presumably libertarian forces of "free market" capitalism will attempt to wrest power from the more  "socialist" oriented ones, in the name of a questionable version of Democracy.

Recent history leaves little room for optimism, and the feeling prevails that any National Government structure left behind by the occupying forces  will give way to a repetition -- or perhaps a resumption -- of the preceding civil war, with ultimate results  that are impossible to foresee, considering the additional burden of a much wider overt or covert international involvement, precisely because of the riches presumably hidden in this inhospitable soil.

Time is really very short, and one does not read or hear of any intention, on the part of the NATO Allies, to review their negotiating stance in order to take these new factors into due account.

In my experience, Afghans are skilful negotiators, often a step ahead of their interlocutors. It would seem worthwhile testing the responses to ideas along the lines of sharing not only political but also economic power, in a type of regionally oriented framework which, by opening up new, entirely legitimate vistas, could also diminish the constant threat posed by the exportation of opium to the  outside world through neighbouring countries.

The people of Afghanistan have suffered great privations, through no fault of their own and surely deserve a better fate than to be left again at the mercy of "War Lords", this time even more powerful because of possible international backing and support.

The ultimate answer to Afghanistan's problems is, or at least should be, in the hands of the Afghans, and should not be imposed by outside forces. The Country certainly possesses the required human resources, and its people have the ability and the will to reach solutions on their own, but are in need of benevolent, intelligent, non violent guidance and support from the International Community.

Those who love Afghanistan can only hope, and continue hoping until hope creates.


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