Looking Down the Afghan Road

What must the United States do in Afghanistan in order to be able to maintain at the end of our overt military involvement that we have succeeded? From a strictly American point of view, the narrow answer is that the Afghanistan we leave behind will be a strong and stable place from which Al Qaeda has been removed and to which it cannot and will not return (preferably because it will have ceased to exist). From an Afghan point of view, a more prosperous country in which Afghans experience a better life would seem a reasonable hope. The two visions come together in the sense that an Afghan population that is happier with its lot in life will presumably be less prone to harboring the “violent extremists” that President Obama promises to obliterate than an unhappy people.

How do we get there? For the moment, let’s set aside the two major obstacles–the civil war and instability within the Afghan government itself. Clearly, it is difficult to assume (possibly even fanciful) that the United States and its partners will be able to vanquish the Taliban, or that a stable and–especially–non-corrupt government that has the population’s loyalty will evolve in Kabul. These two conditions, of course, are vital to thinking about how to help construct the kind of post-war Afghanistan that would help vindicate the sacrifices that have been and will continue to be made in the name of a “better state of the peace” in Afghanistan (the term is lifted from Sir Basil Liddel-Hart, the interwar British strategist, and incorporated in Snow and Drew, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond). I am not sanguine that either will be achieved, but they are certainly necessary conditions for a happy post-war Afghanistan.

It comes as no surprise to say that the key to a stable Afghanistan is development, principally in the economic sector. In the Afghan case, this means uplifting the standards of living and basic conditions of life to levels that have never existed in the country. The premise is that doing so will give Afghans of all basic ethnicities and prior loyalties a stake in the Afghan future that will make them forces for stability, not fractious instability.

This will be no small task. Afghanistan is one of the poorest, most underdeveloped countries on the face of the Earth. As noted earlier, about the only part of the economy that is productive (if that is the right word) is the portion devoted to the production of opium poppies: remove the drug trade, and there is little left of the Afghan economy.

I have collected a few statistical examples (from the 2009 World Almanac and Book of Facts) to suggest the problems ahead. The per capita gross domestic product of Afghanistan is $1,000 (the equivalent figure for the United States is $45,800). Approximately 80 percent of the Afghan population is engaged in agriculture (10 percent each is involved in industry and services), although only 12 percent of the land is arable (Afghanistan suffers from a very arid climate and has numerous areas that are classified as deserts). Most of the agriculture (beyond poppy cultivation) is subsistance farming. The leading industries in the country are textiles, soap, furniture, and shoes, all basic necessities for internal consumption. In 2006, Afghan exports totaled $274 million, while imports were at $3.8 billion. These figures, of course, are from the legal economy and do not reflect exports of illicit products.

The infrastructure is basically non-existent. For a population of 33 million, there are, for instance, 41,000 automobiles and 100,000 commercial trucks. Afghanistan has 12 airports. There are 14 television sets and 136 radios for every 1,000 people in the country, and 81,200 telephone lines total in the country. The literacy rate country-wide is 28 percent. The life expectancy of Afghan males is 44 years, 44.4 for females. The infant mortality rate is 154.7 per 1,000 live births.

Where does one even start to turn this situation around? Under current conditions, a massive, Marshall Plan-like effort is almost certainly impossible on at least three grounds. First, given current government corruption and inefficiency, a large amount of it would almost certainly be stolen. Second, the country lacks even the rudiments of infrastructure to absorb and usefully use large amounts of funds. Think of the spectre of the 1990s and the influx of large amounts of funding into many east Asian countries and the overheating of economies that ensued. Third (and at a practical level, most important), there is no way that the United States and its allies will underwrite a massive program.

It is sometimes alleged that had the United States made “modest” investments in Afghanistan in the early 2000s (in the range of $5-8 billion per year) that the situation in that country would be quite different than it is today. Given the sheer enormity of the Afghan problems of which these examples are mere tips of the iceberg, it is hard to see how investments at those levels would have made such a critical difference. But I may be wrong about that.

This brings us back to where we are. In order to get to the point where the United States can begin to undertake the transformation of Afghanistan from its current situation to a happier one, two things have to occur: the civil war must be won, and an exemplary government must come into existence. Both of these are major, possibly insurmountable, mountains to climb. And even if we climb them, there is still the further mountain of transforming Afghanistan. Are the first two climbs worth the effort, given what lies beyond?

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