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Unfinished Business in Afghanistan

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
February 10, 2003
Financial Times


Fighting has broken out in Afghanistan once again, the heaviest in the past nine months. More than 300 US soldiers, fighting alongside European and Afghan forces, have in the past few weeks killed at least 18 Taliban rebels.

Scouring cave complexes on the border with Pakistan, they have discovered evidence that the Taliban is trying to regroup and reassert itself, using supply routes and local support in Pakistan. As Washington gears up for war in Iraq, the US must not forget that it has significant unfinished business in Afghanistan. And while security concerns seem paramount, stabilising the economy is equally important, in fact integral, to long-term security in the region. Afghanistan remains unnervingly fragile. Basic security and stability have still not been achieved. Expansion of the UN's 4,800-strong International Security Assistance Force is a dead issue. Instead, the US remains committed to training a professional, multi-ethnic Afghan National Army. But that will take years. After months of boot camp, only one company of 50 men has been deployed, with a few hundred more soldiers in the pipeline. Meanwhile, outside Kabul, regional warlords and bandits, often in cahoots, prevail. Aid agencies are reluctant to expand their services beyond a few urban centres. Without security there is no hope for the economy, and without a stable economy there is little hope for the people.

Afghanistan has to make the most of international support during its post-Taliban window of opportunity. How long that window will remain open is unclear but it is certainly not indefinite, and Afghanistan desperately needs help to jump-start its economy. Yet the Bush administration remains more focused on prosecuting its war on terror than on its reluctant nation-building in Afghanistan. Spending on military operations has averaged more than Dollars 1bn a month, while humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to that war-ravaged country was less than Dollars 530m in 2002. Even some in the Pentagon have begun to wonder whether US interests would not be better served by shifting more resources to reconstruction.

The economic challenges are enormous. Afghanistan has never really experienced a modern economy and has scraped by the past 25 years on international handouts - from the Soviets, the west and relief agencies. It has few natural resources, little functioning infrastructure and a largely uneducated population. Ninety-five per cent of Afghan women and 65 per cent of men are estimated to be illiterate, life expectancy is a mere 40 years and maternal health conditions are medieval. Yet there is a way forward.

Investment in agriculture, the traditional mainstay of 80 per cent of the country's workforce, has the potential to create food self-sufficiency and entice the soldiers of rebel leaders to swap their Kalashnikovs for a more stable agrarian life. Likewise, reconstruction initiatives - rebuilding irrigation, transportation and communication networks, schools and hospitals - can provide desperately needed jobs. Earning regular pay is an attractive alternative to constant ethnic fighting and the call of jihad. Training women as healthcare workers and teachers provides badly needed social services and also integrates them back into civil society and the workforce. Providing them with access to micro-credit helps stimulate local enterprises and gives women a crucial stake in the economy. Without a stable economy, opportunities for women will not exist and their role in society will remain marginalised.

If Afghanistan can productively capitalise on international support over the next decade, it has the potential to achieve economic stability and even a role in the world economy. It could regain its status as a 1970s exporter of agricultural products such as fruit, flowers and livestock. It could earn not insignificant economic rents from a long sought after oil pipeline across the country and as a transportation hub linking the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Rough estimates for that road-tunnel network through the country's mountainous terrain reach as high as Dollars 300bn -a huge public works project that international sources would fund only if there were stability in the country and a central government was able to collect tolls.

Opium production and drug trafficking will inevitably be another source of economic activity, but a stable and growing economy should relegate that to the margins. Likewise, it is inevitable that some warlords will replace their paramilitary ambitions with Russian-style mafia empire-building. The Afghans' challenge is to create economic incentives and rule of law to channel that activity into more productive areas such as construction and trade.

In December, Mr Bush signed the Afghan Freedom Support Act authorising Dollars 3.3bn in economic, political, humanitarian and security assistance over the next four years. Congress must now follow through and appropriate at least that much for a country that could so easily slide back into chaos. Continuing to track down Taliban troublemakers is necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure Afghanistan's stability.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations