Afghanistan has enormous economic potential as outlined in a recent US Army review; developing this is the key to stability. Despite fourteen years of US military support, the situation has deteriorated to the point that the senior US officer has stated flatly, "we have to provide our senior leadership options different than the current plan. This plan focuses on building up the capacity of the forces; it ignores the underlying reality that security simply cannot be achieved without development. No wonder Americans want out. Over 3,000 US service members and civilians have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded; direct, short-term costs come close to a trillion dollars. The Taliban's reach is the widest it has been since the United States entered the country while corruption severely undermines the prospects for stability. Not only has the US government focused on the military operations, so has the media; major improvements in infrastructure, telecommunications and human resources have been invisible to the American public which understandably sees Afghanistan as a black hole that eats people and resources. Far from being a short-term solution, the military effort has evolved into a long-term quagmire. The United States has failed to provide a coherent alternative to the Taliban.
The Obama administration understands that a collapse in Afghanistan would be detrimental to US interests. Yet it continues to pursue a military solution when it needs to shift gears and focus on systematic economic development. Prioritizing economic development should be perfectly natural for the United States, the most advanced commercial economy in the world. Post-World War II the Economic Recovery Program - better know as the Marshall Plan - turned a group of historically warring European countries into a region of peace; later US support to South Korea transformed that war-torn country with almost no economic resources into a commercial powerhouse.
Simply announcing a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan with the support of the international community could have a significant short-term impact, giving everyday Afghans a sense of what is possible. But the most critical challenge is creating a comprehensive concept of economic development. The US Army report referenced above and a comprehensive New and Better Plan for Afghanistan by Prince Ali Seraj outline major areas of opportunity:
- Agriculture. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was known as the Fruit and Vegetable Basket of Central Asia. Fresh and dried fruits and vegetables were exported worldwide. Today Afghanistan produces a fraction of what it produced 30 years ago. The Taliban and al-Qaeda cut down thousands of mature fruit trees in the Parwan Province alone. Wheat and corn were staple crops, and the olive groves of Jalalabad, the cotton farms of Helmand and the North, the citrus farms of Nangarhar and the sugar plantations of Nangarhar were all active agricultural producers. Then the government supported this with networks of irrigation canals and storage silos; the purchase and storage of excess crops; an active agricultural extension program; and a network of Agricultural Banks that helped provide working capital for farms. Even though the workforce is now 80% agricultural, only half the arable land is under cultivation, and much of that for opium. There are broad opportunities to reinvigorate the earlier production. So, for example, by 2007 fruit and nut exports had grown back to $113 million, but were still only a fraction of prior levels. Agriculture infrastucture is an obvious need along with equipment rental, and crop diversification provides new opportunities. Biodiesel production could help fill a critical economic need for fuel; saffron production in Herat has proven to be one of the best cash crops in Afghanistan and now even threatens Iran's market dominance. A US-built soy processing facility in Mazar-e-Sharif has been basically idle due to poor organization and a focus on human nutrition rather than animal feed. Urban agriculture could provide a whole new area of development.
- Industry. Prior to the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had a significant light industrial base that has been destroyed by decades of fighting. Textile and cement facilities, as well as leather works, shoe factories, slaughter houses, sugar and cotton plants, pre-fabricated housing, wool processing, metal works, and vegetable oil plants are now sitting idle. The problem has been exacerbated by subsidized imports, particularly from Pakistan. So it is very difficult to start up a flour mill or a water bottling plant without protective tariffs for local industry. In one particular effort, personally related by Prince Ali Seraj, refurbishing a pharmaceutical plant was undermined by importers of fake medicine from Pakistan. Now the drawdown of Western support has significantly reduced demand. So, for example, in Herat, the economic hub of west Afghanistan, 200 of the province's 470 factories have closed since the recent Presidential election and over 40,000 workers have lost their jobs. With the proper amount of investment, management and government tariff protection, all of these industries could be rekindled and thousands of jobs created.
- Carpets. The rug industry is an unusual case because production does not depend on larger facilities, but is mainly a handicraft industry. So improvements here would directly affect hundreds of workers (mostly women) in rural area. The Army review estimates that production could increase several times if companies finished goods in country and sold directly to international markets, rather than exporting through intermediaries (mainly Pakistani) who add large markups and then sell to the world market without any reference to country of origin. Despite these problems, carpets have generally been the number one export item from Afghanistan so there is a clear potential for major development.
- Mining. Afghanistan's mineral potential represents a major opportunity for the national economy. A conservative estimate by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) agency valued these assets at nearly one trillion dollars. This includes a major copper deposit at Aynak and iron ore deposits at Hagijak as well as gold, chromite, lithium, coal, oil and gas deposits. There is some current exploitation, particularly for high-quality marble and scattered small-scale mining operations. A focused effort on gemstones has involved over 1000 women, including war widows, training artisans to produce high-quality jewelry and sell directly to the world market. But large-scale exploitation faces several major challenges. A contract with a Chinese company to mine Aynak got bogged down in corruption issues, security problems, and protection of overlying historical sites. Mining at Hagijak would require reliable rail access. Major mining efforts typically require several years of preparation, so it is critical that any contracts require initial infrastructure and human resource development if they are going to have any short-term impact. A new mining law helps to address the corruption problem, but illegal mining remains widespread.
- Transportation. This is the key to any broad economic development, domestically to tie the country together; in a broader view, Afghanistan is central to any regional connectivity linking Central Asia to Iran and Pakistan and thence to the ocean and on to India and the Middle East. Internally, a basic network including a ring road and key extensions has been developed. But it has been hampered by security concerns and by poor quality construction - superficial asphalt road without solid bed; already much of the completed portions are badly in need of maintenance. This does provide an opportunity for significant jobs in the short term, as well as a need to build logistic facilities such as warehouses and maintenance parks. Regionally, Afghanistan is part of the traditional Silk Road network that connected China and Europe. China is actively working on revitalizing these corridors. Both China and Afghanistan are members of a Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program, ten nations working together on a regional transport network; Afghanistan would be the hub of this effort. Three specific aspects are worth noting. First, rail construction is critical both to tie the nation together and to facilitate international commerce. Afghanistan can also play a particular regional role as surrounding countries use three different rail gauges, so Afghanistan can create transfer facilities tying all together. Second, there is a broad effort to develop a Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India Gas Pipeline (TAPI) to transport Turkmen gas to South Asian markets; work had actually been scheduled to start this year. Finally, Afghanistan has no national electric grid and no prospects for creating one in the near future. So interconnectivity with neighboring countries is critical; existing connections with Uzbekistan can serve as a model. Construction of electric grid components could not only provide jobs but also contribute directly to short-term economic improvements
Overall, Afghanistan has an impressive potential for economic development. Failure to systematically support this development lies at the root of the current dismal situation. Afghans have no sense of their national potential or how to achieve it. With a fragmented and ineffective government, Afghans are staring nto an abyss of continuing bloodshed, civil war, economic disintegration. Although most Afghans reject the Taliban ideology as alien to Afghan traditions, many see no real prospects. Thousands are already fleeing, carrying with them many of the skills the economy needs and adding to a refugee flow that is already overwhelming Europe with refugees from Libya, Syria and Iraq. It is clear that the only real solution to the overall refugee crisis is to address the root causes in the home countries. Afghanistan is the most attractive starting point; it has not yet disintegrated into the turmoil of the other source nations; there is still an opportunity to reverse its decline before it produces another major refugee flow. So European nations have every incentive to join in an international Marshall Plan for Afghanistan to spur the economic development so central to stability and stanch a looming additional refugee flow before it intensifies. Afghan development would also help dispel Muslim skepticism on US motives, an increasingly important consideration as Daesh spreads turmoil
Obviously security is a major concern and this necessitates that initial economic development efforts must focus in quieter areas or in areas where the government can concentrate security forces. And it would necessitate working with Afghan ministries, economic associations, companies and other interested organizations to support grass roots developments, including support for current programs, such as the National Solidarity Program, which operate at that level. The immediate economic requirement is creating jobs, addressing continuing reports of Afghans who join the Taliban simply to get a job. In fact the government has recently initiated a Jobs for Peace program which could be significantly reinforced. Five years ago an Afghan Development Corps proposal to provide both jobs and infrastructure development originated in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seeking to do just what the US Civilian Conservation Corps did in the 1930's - put people to work. Infrastructure projects could provide short-term jobs and long-term prospects. Rail development projects are critical to real exploitation of Afghanistan's mineral resources. Just as rail lines opened up the American West to broad development, Afghan rail projects could spur broad development in Afghanistan as well as heighten international interest in mineral exploitation and become a major joint project with Pakistan. Focused agricultural assistance in the quieter areas of the country could demonstrate broader possibilities and support an initial redevelopment of light industry. An assortment of small-scale mining operations could be developed into viable companies; large scale development remains years off, but contracts requiring initial infrastructure and human resource development could also be very helpful.
Shifting gears to economic development in Afghanistan would give everyday Afghans a whole new perspective on efforts to create a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, on how Afghanistan could become a modern nation. Broad involvement of locals would also provide a maximum incentive to support security activities. And it could provide a new model for the region. US global leadership cannot simply avoid defeat in Afghanistan but has to demonstrate real leadership in bringing stability to a failing state.