The international community is scheduled to depart Afghanistan in the end of 2014. Unfortunately, quitting Afghanistan after ten years of uncertain war and misplaced assistance will bring Afghanistan back to where we began: a failed state. A failed state that saw gross human rights abuses, a nation that became a pawn for its neighbors for their strategic assets, and a nation that was unwillingly made a base for terrorist organization that was capable of striking as far as the United States.
Since the War on Terror began, the international community has spent billions of dollars to rebuild Afghanistan, and according to the World Bank the estimated total U.S. spending in Afghanistan over the past decade was as much as $444 billion, including $118.6 billion in fiscal 2011. Unfortunately, most of that money was spent on military equipment or U.S. troops’ salaries. What meager amount was left of the aid was wasted on superficial, unsustainable projects and corruption, and despite claims to the contrary, according to the World Bank, “most international spending ‘on’ Afghanistan is not spent ‘in’ Afghanistan, and much of what is spent in Afghanistan leaves the economy through imports, expatriate profits and outward remittances”.
The collapse of the Afghan government post-2014 will not be due to the monetary support it receives towards its human resources, but rather the collapse will be certain if military assistance is not maintained. Nevertheless, after ten years, thousands of innocent lives lost, and billions of dollars, it would be unthinkable to abandon Afghanistan to regress to its former state.
According to the recent World Bank report, Afghanistan will need 7.5 billion dollars annual assistance, mainly for its security forces, to maintain its present status, which would still rank it as one of top ten least developed countries with an average per capita income of $528. The challenge is as it was in 2001 is how can aid money be effectively distributed and utilized, specifically in the next three years, to set the grounds for an effective Afghan state prior to 2014?
Military spending is an obvious necessity, but for how long can the international community sustain the billions of dollars in these uncertain economic times to keep Afghanistan buoyant; the international assistance to Afghanistan is roughly 92% of its GDP.
After ten years, the military focus has demonstrated only mild results to say the most. The approach of the last ten years, despite its many “successes”, hasn’t made Afghanistan an independent nation both from security and financial perspectives. Afghanistan continues to be an internationally dependent state under threat from extremist organizations and their international facilitators such as Pakistan’s intelligence services and Iran. A more sound approach is to not only invest in the Afghan security forces, as has been happening in the last decade, but also to engage in catalyzed nation building, such that we don’t merely provide them fish, but they learn how to fish. To that end, Afghanistan needs a Marshall Plan-like seriousness.
The Marshall Plan, which was large-scale post World War II American assistance to Western Europe to rebuild its economies, in order to thwart communism, is very much needed for Afghanistan to thwart extremism. The Marshall Plan provided the Western Europeans the assistance to rebuild their war devastated economies by encouraging trade and modernizing their industry, none of which has happened in a meaningful matter in Afghanistan. The effect and true contribution of the Marshall Plan to Western European economies is debatable, but what is not debatable is the fact that the United States provided Western Europe a sense of hope and self-reliance, something that hasn’t been achieved in Afghanistan.
Arguably, that sense of hope and self-reliance brought political stability through economic prosperity, and perhaps that is what Afghanistan has been lacking in the last decade, not mere military success. Unfortunately, contrary to the Marshall Plan, instead of investing in Afghanistan’s economic recovery — after an initial military success — the international community pursued a futile military campaign against an elusive enemy that appears to have no end. Fortunately, it still isn’t too late to learn lessons from history and redirect our focus.
Afghanistan of course is no Germany, which was a major powerhouse of Europe prior to World War II; unlike Afghanistan, it was replete with skilled and educated individuals from all walks of life, and it was much easier to recruit and support them to redevelop their nation.
Nevertheless, we aren’t delusional to believe Afghanistan can anytime soon achieve the same feats with international assistance as did Germany, but we can hope is to achieve the same degree of economic, political, and military stability that Afghanistan enjoyed prior to the Soviet invasion in December of 1979.
The Marshall Plan span from 1948 to 1952, and within those four years Europe saw a tremendous economic growth that reduced poverty and starvation with praiseworthy subsequent prosperity the following decades that saw dramatic improvement of standard of living. The international community has three more years in Afghanistan. How can it achieve some economic and political stability vaguely similar to Western Europe? For obvious reasons solely engaging in military option has been minimally successful. In addition to the necessary military intervention, Afghanistan needs serious engagement in its education, mining and agricultural sectors to become self-sufficient.
Part of teaching nations to fish is to educate them how to efficiently and effectively fish. According to the country profile report of Library of Congress-Federal Research Division, “in 2006 an estimated 57 percent of men and 87 percent of women were illiterate, and the lack of skilled and educated workers was a major economic disadvantage”. The international community and the Afghan government have made strides to increase enrollment in schools, but the results are unknown. The Afghan Ministry of Education touts having 8 million students enrolled in school, but has provided limited information on their quality and retention. The August 2008 publication of Library of Congress reports only 22,000 students were enrolled in higher education, and the rehabilitation of the five available universities — for a population of 32 million — was “progressing slowly”. Having understood that education is one key to economic success, one wonders why hasn’t the international community invested more to improve the availability of education?
Afghanistan is a poor country that heavily depends on its agriculture for economic stability. There is no reliable statistics on any major aspect of Afghanistan’s agriculture, except for broad statements with limited value, but there is wide consensus that there is a major problem. The three decades of war has decimated Afghanistan’s agricultural and non-agricultural infrastructure to the point where it its agricultural productivity contributes to 30 % of its GDP, when in fact, 55 % of the households are involved in some agricultural activity.
Part of that low productivity may be attributed to a large portion to the ongoing conflict, utilizing land for opium, and lack of appreciation of the international community of the importance of revitalizing Afghanistan’s agriculture.
In 2010 a small team of American geologists, reaffirmed what Afghan surveys had demonstrated, that Afghanistan had $1-3 trillion of untapped mineral deposits. This knowledge is significant and if extracted the revenue from these mines can provide Afghanistan the much needed resources it needs to close the gap for its monetary deficits. So far, a deal has been agreed with China’s China Metallurgical Group Corp. to begin mining Aynak Copper mine in Logar province, which could provide Afghanistan 1.2 billion dollars annually.
Other potential mines include the huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium. Some of these mines like the iron and lithium are so big that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world.
In conclusion, Afghanistan’s future doesn’t rest simply on engaging an elusive enemy militarily; the last decade has demonstrated that amply. While the military option is an important factor to quarantine an enemy you can’t defeat militarily, at the same time you may be able to defeat them with social, economical and philosophical changes, as was demonstrated during the years prior to the fall of the Soviet Union.
It is towards that end that the international community must start to engage Afghanistan more seriously from a non-military perspective, and it is through that understanding that one should revisit the pros and cons of a Marshall Plan-like approach to provide confidence, self-reliance, education, and economic investment to Afghanistan above the gung-ho military approach so entrenched in the minds of policy makers.