- Lack of legitimacy of the state
- Public services
- Human rights
- Security apparatus
- Factionalized elites
- Foreign interventions
One characteristic of a failed state is the existence of major "gaps".  and Kilcullen's Pillars. 
Kilcullen's "pillars" model is one way to visualize the gaps.
Kilcullen's Three Pillars
Not to have failed, a state must be able to close three "gaps", of which the first is most important:
- security: protection "against internal and external threats, and preserving sovereignty over territory. If a government cannot ensure security, rebellious armed groups or criminal nonstate actors may use violence to exploit this security gap—as in Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia."
- capacity: The most basic are the survival needs of water, electrical power, food and public health, closely followed by education, communications and a working economic system. "An inability to do so creates a capacity gap, which can lead to a loss of public confidence and then perhaps political upheaval. In most environments, a capacity gap coexists with—or even grows out of—a security gap. In Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, segments of the population are cut off from their governments because of endemic insecurity. And in postconflict Iraq, critical capacity gaps exist despite the country’s relative wealth and strategic importance."
- legitimacy: closing the legitimacy gap is more than an incantation of "democracy" and "elections", but a government that is perceived to exist by the consent of the governed, has minimal corruption, and has a working law enforcement and judicial system that enforce human rights.
Kilcullen's model of insurgency as an ecosystem show some of the groups that need to be aligned to break the cycle of failure. They include by geographic, ethnic, economic, social, cultural, and religious characteristics. Inside the box are governments, counterinsurgent forces, insurgent leaders, insurgent forces, and the general population, which is made up of three groups:
Kilcullen Figure 1: Ecosystem of Insurgency
- those committed to the insurgents
- those committed to the counterinsurgents
- those who simply wish to get on with their lives.
The Magic Diamond shows how the population, as a whole, interacts with three forces attempting to modify the situation. It is the balance among the power of the groups in the population that will determine the outcome.
McCormick's "magic diamond" model shows some of the dynamics.
McCormick insurgency model
In the table below, do not assume that a problematic state is not able, while closing its own gaps, is unable to assist other less developed states
Rough Classification of States
|Militarily strong but weak in other institutions
||Lower tensions before working on gaps
||Cuba, North Korea
||Continuing development of working institutions. Focused private investment
||El Salvador, Ghana, Mongolia, Senegal, Nicaragua, Uganda
||Close one or two gaps
||Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Pakistan Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe
||Close all gaps
||Afghanistan, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Palestinian Authority, Somalia