Afghanistan may be back in the American conscience, but this is hardly good news. If anything, President Obama‘s much-needed focus on the campaign against the Taliban has outlined just how difficult the fight has become. Frustrated with what many are calling a quagmire, American commentators either advocate for withdrawing from Afghanistan or engaging in a more intense military campaign. These are both understandable responses, but even so, they are far from a complete remedy.
The war in Afghanistan is not being waged on the battlefield alone: If we are to emerge as a strong and independent democracy, the campaign for Afghanistan’s economy must stand on equal footing with the counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, they are one and the same.
We can’t build schools during firefights; but without schools, the firefights will continue. Yet a disproportionate amount of international resources – about 80% of aid provided by each contributing country – have been devoted to military operations at the cost of job creation and long-term economic development. But it is more jobs – not just more bullets – that will persuade militias to lay down their weapons.
Fortunately, Afghanistan is endowed with natural resources – copper, iron ore, lithium – and can finance its own development, though only if the country receives the necessary investment and technical assistance from the international community. Although Afghanistan has some $3 trillion worth of minerals, we lack the required transportation network to ship these resources.
Building the necessary infrastructure – railroads, highways, processing plants – will not only facilitate the mining industry but also create jobs. A sustainable livelihood, no matter how small, will immediately weaken the insurgency – and its base, a destitute populace – while a modern transportation network that links Afghanistan with its neighbors will spur long-term growth.
Drug production in Afghanistan is another key problem that can be addressed by economic development. We know from international experience that global demand for narcotics finds ready supply in nations where governance is weak, instability high and poverty rampant. But if Afghanistan’s agriculture sector is revitalized, fewer farmers will rely on opium harvesting – a dangerous enterprise to begin with – to make a living. Instead, they could grow wheat, pomegranates, saffron and other high-value crops. As agribusiness becomes profitable and sustainable, it will drive down the cost of food for Afghanistan’s poor and raise rural incomes, which should in turn further weaken the insurgency in crucial provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.
Energy is another factor pivotal to earning the trust of Afghans. Without a comprehensive electricity grid, Afghanistan can hardly achieve a productive economy. The availability of electricity can open an incredibly large market for electronic goods, drastically expanding consumer consumption. Just as importantly, the Afghan people could finally reap the benefits of a globalized world through use of the Internet, to which only 3% of the population currently has access.
Further, corruption can be stemmed when the abuse of power is no longer necessary as a means of economic uplift. Corruption is a symptom, not a cause, of weak governance, which can only be strengthened when Afghan civil servants are thoroughly trained and paid competitive salaries on a sustainable basis. Right now, a driver at an international NGO or a United Nations agency earns at least five times more than a civil servant working for the Afghan government. Nor can this situation be improved unless resources are channeled away from aid organizations – too many to count, really – directly toward restructuring the Afghan government into an efficient apparatus of resource allocation.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U. N. John Bolton recently argued in the Los Angeles Times that “religious fanatics, and their grievances, do not arise from poverty or deprivation.” To the contrary, many Taliban fighters join the insurgency simply to earn a living. A significant number of these “rented” Taliban can be made to turn swords into plowshares if they are given alternative opportunities.
American security is closely tied to the nascent Afghan economy. Without stability, the Taliban will continue to enjoy widespread support – and a base from which to attack American interests.