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Opinion | A look at Afghanistan's economy post-2014

By Nasir Shansab
On February 7, 2014

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 poorly 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 percent of Afghanistan's population. Nothing will change in their lives. They were either low-paid salaried government 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. 

There were several sectors that could have been built up to serve as pillars of Afghanistan's economic strength, but were not. 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 percent 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. But not much progress has taken place in most 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 percent 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 funds 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 is a former leading Afghan industrialist and is the son of Afghanistan's once Minister of Agriculture. He is the author of "Silent Trees: A Novel of Afghanistan," and has appeared recently on Bloomberg TV, Global Television Canda and Voice of Russia.


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