Failed and weak states are unable for various reasons to provide security and other basic services for their citizens. The Bush administration and a growing number of foreign policy experts say failed states pose a threat to world peace and security. But as VOA's Brian Padden reports, there are critics who argue that intervening in a failed state can do more harm than good.
Gul Khan was just a boy when his family left its village near Jalalabad to escape the war in Afghanistan. For more than 30 years, he lived in Pakistan because he says it was too dangerous to return. Today he is coming home.
"I am asking my brothers and villagers to come back to this village and this lovely country. If they come back, we can rebuild," he said.
While Gul Khan may feel safe to return home, foreign policy analysts at the private Brookings Institution in the United States recently listed Afghanistan as a failed state. Brookings' weak-state index says that six years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains plagued by slow reconstruction, a weak central government, and war.
Democratic Congressman Adam Smith is a long-time advocate for international intervention in failing states on humanitarian grounds. He says Afghanistan exemplifies why collapsed states present a threat to the world.
"Afghanistan was a failed state where al-Qaida was able to find a safe haven and launch the 9/11 [September 11th, 2001] attacks against this country. If Afghanistan had not been a failed state, that would not have been a safe place for people like Osama bin Laden to go," said Smith.
Since the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, the Bush administration, and many in the foreign policy establishment, have advocated intervention in failed states to save them. But critics say there are more important issues.
"The fact is that we could have dealt with the problem of al-Qaida." said Christopher Preble, foreign policy director at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research organization in Washington. He says the United States should focus on eliminating terrorist threats and not get entangled in nation building.
"The majority have failed and those few that have succeeded have been extremely time consuming and costly. The whole notion of making, fixing failed states a core object of U.S. foreign policy to me is just fatally flawed," added Preble.
Not everyone agrees on what represents a failed state. But states break down for a variety of reasons - war, natural disaster, poverty and corruption among them. Fixing a country can require significant risk and commitment.
More than 140,000 U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in 20 countries around the world. Peacekeepers have been in Bosnia for more than 10 years.
The United States' protracted experience in Iraq has reminded the world that holding an election does not by itself create a secure, functioning democracy.
Ambassador John Herbst, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, says to help weak states like Iraq, his department has requested an additional $248 million to develop a civilian corps that includes engineers, health workers and city planners.
"I think the best thing to say is that we need to understand clearly as we enter an operation what the situation is, how long we should be expecting to stay, what we need to do in order to operate most efficiently so that we can get our job done and leave," he said.
But there are limits to what even the most ardent intervention supporters think is possible. The Brookings Institution's report examined 141 countries and included Afghanistan, Iraq, and eight African countries in the top 10 weakest states.
It lists Somalia as the most collapsed state in the world, but Congressman Smith is not calling for a U.S.-led intervention there.
"That is tough," said Smith. "They are at the bottom of the heap. I think at some point when we see a failed state we simply have to focus on containment."
Smith says sometimes all the United States and the international community can do is try to keep the instability from spreading.