Letters from Afghanistan – Part III: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”


October 16, 2010

Afghanistan – Land of Legends! Freedom struggles against the British and resistance to the Soviet Union.

The Afghans: a people often oppressed and tormented, but ultimately invincible!

So much for the legends!State and Tribe in Nineteenth-Century Afghanistan

As pointed out by another student of international affairs a few months ago, one of the silliest common beliefs about Afghanistan is its centuries-old fixture as “the graveyard of empires.” Afghans almost buried the British Empire in 1919 and succeeded in destroying the mighty Soviet Union seventy years later. Soon, we are told, the same thing is going to happen to the United States and its NATO allies because it has happened before.

So much for the legends. Let us talk about facts:

Average adult literacy in Afghanistan is 28% (43% for men, 12% for women) while the average Afghan expects to live for 44 years at birth, which is so low because a quarter of Afghan newborns don’t live for more than five years. The country is struggling with massive unemployment (40%), high inflation (30%), and high annual birth rates (2.5%).

It’s a platitude to point it out but the international media outlets and the blogosphere are paying so much attention to “the Obama surge” (and its July 2011 deadline), the Taliban, and Pakistan’s controversial role in Afghanistan that we can’t see the more important dimension of the current situation in the war-torn country: its economy.

“It’s the economy, stupid” especially rings true for Afghanistan’s current problems. An Afghan economy that grows on its own means; one that does not require billions of dollars in international aid (and where the major export is not opium), is what will truly “secure” Afghanistan; not more (or less) U.S. troops.

Since 2002, Afghanistan’s economy has grown by an average 10% (without taking opium into account, of course), which shows that the south-central Asian country has a lot of potential.

To realize that potential further, several issues about Afghanistan’s economic development need to be addressed.

Afghanistan has to be energized. Literally. The country has immense potential for hydroelectricity. Snowfall on the mountains in central Afghanistan supplies 80% of the country’s annual precipitation of 400 mm (about 16 inches), a bit too much for a supposed “desert.” But even nine years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan still imports nearly 50% of its electricity. Not a single hydroelectric dam has been built in the past nine years. Not that it’s easy: Afghanistan formed its autonomous state-held company to oversee electricity production and distribution only last year. It will be some time before the country becomes self-sufficient and powers its burgeoning industry with its own means. But it has to happen sooner rather than later if Afghanistan is to develop economically.

In a similar vein, managing Afghanistan’s precious water resources is vital for reconstruction. In one of my interviews with a USAID expert in Wardak province last March (the U.S. Agency for International Development is the government agency that manages American aid to developing countries), I was shocked to learn that approximately 70% of the water intended for irrigation actually gets wasted in the ditches before even reaching the fields! At a time when more than half of its arable lands cannot be irrigated (merely 12% of Afghanistan’s area of 650,000 km2 / 250,000 sq mi is arable anyway), Afghanistan is not that rich (!) to waste so much water.

Rehabilitating the water infrastructure in the country-side and managing it effectively is extremely important for increasing agricultural production because the livelihood of 80% of Afghans depend on it. Afghanistan, which was self-sufficient in food production before 1979, imports a significant amount of wheat in order to meet domestic demand. By the end of 2010, despite a total wheat production of 4.5 million tons, Afghanistan will import another 700,000 tons from Kazakhstan.

It’s a pity because Afghanistan’s agriculture was a success story before the Soviet invasion. Take Wardak again: famous for its sweet and juicy apple, the province had produced a record 300,000 tons of the fruit in the mid-1970s and had exported most of it. Last year, because of a poor apple harvest in India and rising demand in Dubai, Wardak was able to export about one-third of its apple output of 150,000 tons (half of pre-war levels) to those markets. Another 30,000 tons was sent to a factory in Kabul to produce apple juice.

Getting back the other 150,000 tons (and going beyond that figure) is the challenge. (Re)-introducing modern techniques to Afghanistan – artificial fertilizers, mechanization, pesticides, etc. – can help but the real challenge actually comes from training farmers and helping them access markets. For example, in most provinces, farmers’ unions – which provide seeds, machines, and information to its members – have begun to spring up only recently. In the long run, only an energetic class of farmers can help alleviate the plight of rural Afghans and foster economic activity in the war-torn country. (With a majority of Afghans joining the Taliban for financial gain, the implications of such a positive development on the security situation in Afghanistan are too obvious.)

In the medium run, boosting agricultural productivity in Afghanistan will lead to redundancy in agriculture (read: more unemployment). But that won’t be so bad because releasing some of the labor force from agriculture would give Afghanistan the opportunity to focus its attention on a matter: mining.

According to a New York Times story that came out last June, Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits (namely, iron, cobalt, coal, copper, and lithium) could be worth as much as $1 trillion. (Afghanistan’s current GDP is estimated to be $30 billion so $1 trillion isn’t exactly loose change.) If managed properly (big “if” – the world is full of countries that squander their underground riches), the 21st century can be quite different for Afghanistan than the past thirty years.

Of course, for any of these ideas to bear fruit, the responsibility for running Afghanistan must be turned over to the Afghans. I’m going to discuss this issue at greater length in my next post.

* The author’s travels in Afghanistan were sponsored by the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Turkish Embassy in Kabul.

The author is grateful to the following for their invaluable help:

His Excellency Ambassador Basat Öztürk, former Deputy Chief of Mission Onur Katmerci, Second Secretary Onur Şaylan, Military Attaché Colonel Can Bolat, and Kemal Doğan of the Turkish Embassy; Didem Büner and Burçin Gönenli of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; former Civilian Coordinator Türker Arı, agricultural expert Osman Kabacaoğlu, TİKA expert Mikail Taşdemir, and Mahir Akhüseyinoğlu of the Turkish Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province; General Levent Çolak, Colonel Ali Bilgin Varlık, and Colonel Ramazan Akyıldız of Kabul Regional Command; TİKA Vice President Mustafa Şahin, TİKA’s Kabul representative Özay Özütok, and TİKA experts Adem Urfa, Talha Kaçar, and Ahmet Dayı; His Excellency Governor Halim Fidai of Wardak Province; State Department Representative Jeff Stanton and USAID expert Douglas Blanton in Wardak; Mark Ward, former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan; Prof. Abdul Iqrar Wasel, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University; Prof. Yusuf Altınışık and Prof. Gulamresul Karlog of the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at Kabul University.

The views expressed in this article DO NOT reflect the opinions of the above-mentioned or the position of the Turkish government.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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