Surveillance in Weak States: The Problem of Population Information in Afghanistan

Ali Karimi


Surveillance scholarship has long been focused on surveillance technologies in strong states. This article explores the technological challenges of governing Afghanistan, a weak state, where reliable population data do not exist. In assessing the ways governance is practiced in a country of “ghosts,” I show that the failure of the state in Afghanistan is linked to a chronic poverty of reliable information on the country’s population and geography. A weak state with limited access to reliable population data must use force instead of knowledge to govern the country. I also argue that the digital technologies of surveillance practiced by the Afghan state and the U.S. military to substitute for the lack of traditional forms of government data are not effective and cannot strengthen the state’s capacity to deliver services. In contributing to debates on surveillance and security, this article provides a technological critique of state failure in Afghanistan by highlighting the costs of poor population information.


population information, surveillance, governmentality, weak states, Afghanistan

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