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Guest Column

Afghanistan's Economy Post-2014
By Nasir Shansab
Feb 9, 2014 - 12:20:30 AM

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Politically, we may have a vague idea of what exactly will happen in Afghanistan after 2014. Economically, however, we can quite accurately predict that Afghanistan will return to its former life of poverty.

Even the riches that supposedly rained on Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013 didn't ease its agony. Most of the money never reached it. According to estimates, out of each dollar assigned earmarked for that country, only 14 cents reached it. Yet, it was still a lot of money for a country with a yearly per capita income of less than $300.00. And the money that actually made its way to Afghanistan was either stolen outright or spent on projects that were badly conceived, shoddily constructed, or never got off the ground. And only relatives of the political elite or people otherwise close to it got most of the contracts.

That wouldn't be the worst of all scenarios if the newly rich had invested their money in their country. But they didn't. They preferred to park their money in foreign banks or buy real estate in foreign countries.

In short, after a massive inflow of funds, the Afghan government, backed by the international community, has neither built a functioning economy nor created a self-sufficient financial foundation to pay the country's bills.

However, whatever might happen to Afghanistan's economy after 2014, it will be inconsequential to 95% of Afghanistan's population. Nothing will change in their lives. They were either low-paid salaried employees of the government or eked out a subsistence living by farming their tiny plots of land before the United States invaded their country. They will continue to be inefficient and low-paid government employees or go on working their land after the U.S.-led international community leaves Afghanistan.

This vast majority of Afghans was utterly neglected by both the Afghan authorities and the donor community. It was as if this mainly illiterate and poverty-stricken people didn't exist. They were considered, it seems, to be a faceless mass with no needs, no wants, and no hopes. Nobody seriously bothered to devise a sensible and practicable plan to help them better their lives.

Here are a few examples of Afghanistan's economic strength and where help should have been concentrated upon: The country's cotton yield, once a valuable commodity for foreign and internal markets, has declined to a mere 15% of its former harvest. Fruits have always been a mainstay of Afghanistan's agricultural production. Planeloads of fresh fruits were flown abroad. The production and exportation of dried fruits was another profitable item and provided reliable jobs for large numbers of people.

To revive these sectors, the growers and producers needed help with accessing improved seeds and saplings to upgrade their products and rebuild their decimated tree stocks. They needed refrigerated storage centers to prolong the shelf life of their merchandise so that they could sell it gradually at stable prices, avoiding having to rush to the market and dumping their wares at any price to prevent it from rotting before their eyes.

Another way to help the peasants would have been to teach them how to clean, sort, and pack their products professionally, enabling them to sell their goods in richer markets in order to secure higher profits. Instead, Afghan authorities and foreign experts installed generators in some villages. Most of the affected villagers did not know how to operate and service the machines. Moreover, they lacked the money to buy the diesel to run them.

Helping this large segment of Afghan society would have not been expensive. In the virtually cashless and unimaginably impoverished Afghan countryside, the dollar goes far and much could have been done with less if people with some imagination and goodwill had gone about the task.

Neither has much progress taken place in other sectors of the economy. For example, Afghanistan once had a vibrant textile industry, employing thousands of workers. Today, there is no textile manufacturing to speak of. While billions of tons of limestone await processing, cement factories remain closed or operate marginally and 95% of the country's need for cement is imported.

Most of the country has no electricity. The large power plant that USAID built outside Kabul at a cost of more than $200 million is shut down. Its diesel-operated generators are extremely expensive to run and the Afghan government can't pay for it.

At the moment, the city of Kabul purchases most of its electricity from Tajikistan and the international community pays for it. Who will cover the cost post-2014 is not clear. What is clear is that the Afghan administration lacks the fund to pay the bill.

In describing this utterly negative situation, I am not trying to imply that nothing positive has been achieved in Afghanistan. Many schools have been opened. Girls are free to go to school and more than a million do. Kabul University has been partially rebuilt and is back in business. Some roads and bridges have been built and others repaired. Some of what has been done will continue and some may not be sustainable.

However, what I believe must be said, is that both the international community and the Afghan government have failed to lift Afghanistan out of its pre-2001 broken condition. When the rich flow of money becomes a trickle or stops altogether, the warlords will resume their previous fight for resources and the protection of their fiefdoms.

Afghanistan is today and will remain after 2014 a failed state with all the perils that that entails both for the U.S. and the international community.

Nasir Shansab
February 7th, 2014

See also:

Egypt in Crisis
by Nasir Shansab
Aug 27, 2013

The persistent talk and speculation as to what the U.S. should do about the crisis in Egypt is irrelevant. What will happen in Egypt will happen regardless of what the U.S., or any other country, does or doesn't do about it. Since the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, American policy towards Egypt has been supportive of its governments. That policy has been a blessing for its leaders and a curse for its reformers. It is time for the U.S. to step back and let the Egyptians settle their problems among themselves. What the U.S. could and should do is to persuade other countries to also refrain from interfering in Egypt's crisis. Saudi Arabia's promise to provide the coup leadership with $12 billion will merely fuel the fires of unrest and hatred.


Nasir Shansab is a former leading Afghan industrialist and is the son of Afghanistan's once Minister of Agriculture. Forced to leave his country in 1975, Nasir now lives in Washington DC and holds dual U.S. and Afghan citizenship. He is the author of "Silent Trees: A Novel of Afghanistan", a new novel set in Afghanistan prior to Soviet invasion. Nasir has most recently appeared on Bloomberg TV, Voice of America, Global Television Canada, Voice of Russia, "America's Radio News" (TRN), Jim Bohannon, "America Tonight" with Kate Delaney, The Rich Zeoli Show on WPHT Philadelphia, KXL Portland, in 'The Hill', and on several other outlets.


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