Rebuilding the Afghan dream

The Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan should highlight the fact that the campaign for the country’s economy is as important as the counter-insurgency effort

June 27, 2012 01:39 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:43 pm IST

ROADS TO HIGHWAYS: Swords can be turned into ploughshares if there are alternative opportunities. The picture is of the Bala Hiasr fort near Kabul.

ROADS TO HIGHWAYS: Swords can be turned into ploughshares if there are alternative opportunities. The picture is of the Bala Hiasr fort near Kabul.

India’s initiative to host the Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan tomorrow is a welcome step forward in enabling the country to achieve long-term economic self-reliance, in line with the key objectives of recent international conferences. The one-day summit intends to showcase Afghanistan’s economic potential and attract foreign investment, while exploring possibilities of cross-country investment partnerships and collaborative ventures from within the region and beyond as a regional and international confidence-building measure.

The daylong discussions should highlight that the war in Afghanistan is not being waged on the battlefield alone: if our country, Afghanistan, is 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.

Building infrastructure

We can’t build schools during firefights; but without schools, the firefights will continue. Yet a disproportionate amount of international resources — about 80 per cent of the aid provided by each contributing country — has 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 $3 trillion worth of mineral wealth, we lack the transportation network to ship these resources to markets.

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 neighbours will spur long-term growth.

Opium cultivation

Production of illegal drugs 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 were revitalised, fewer farmers would rely on opium harvesting — a dangerous enterprise to begin with — to make a living.

Instead, they could grow wheat, pomegranate, saffron and high-value crops. As agribusiness becomes profitable and sustainable, it would drive down the cost of food for the poor and raise rural incomes, which should in turn further weaken the insurgency in crucial provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.

Energy needs

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 a very large market for electronic goods, drastically expanding consumer consumption. Just as importantly, the Afghan people could finally reap the benefits of a globalised world through use of the internet — only three per cent of the population has access to it.

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 be strengthened only when Afghan civil servants are thoroughly trained and paid competitive salaries on a sustainable basis.

Right now, a driver at an international non-governmental organisation (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 channelled from aid organisations — 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 R. Bolton once 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 ploughshares if they have alternative opportunities.

Regional 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 regional interests.

But if the international community relies on military might alone, how will the outcome in Afghanistan differ from that of the Americans in Vietnam, the French in Algeria or the Soviets in Afghanistan?

Militaries alone simply cannot defeat insurgencies.

(The writer is an international security and development analyst, and formerly served as Afghanistan’s Deputy Ambassador to the United States.)

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