Almost without thinking, many of us accept that the Western mission in Afghanistan is to build up the Afghan National Army and security forces, so that foreign troops can leave the country. President Obama has made it very clear that he sees the task in Afghanistan, not as nation-building (a hated concept since Vietnam), but as winning the war.
What of economic development? Little if any thought has gone into that, according to a new paper.
Afghanistan: Beyond the Fog of Nation Building, written by S Frederick Starr for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, based at Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, highlights this point. "In fact, the US has no strategy for economic and social assistance to the new Afghanistan," says Starr.
He recommends five measures: an effective economic programme for Afghanistan must bring tangible and substantial benefits to large numbers of ordinary Afghans; it must be capable of being advanced simultaneously with the military effort; it must provide the government with a sustainable income stream; it must dovetail not only with the efforts of the Afghan government but also with those of key regional neighbours; any such measures must begin to bear fruit quickly.
Efforts to date have focussed on agriculture and minerals, both of which are flawed. The former, says Starr, takes more time than is available and the latter breeds governmentalisation and corruption. Both depend on transport infrastructure, which does not exist at present and was ignored in the 2010 US policy review.
Starr says "The U.S. must concentrate its 'economic' energies on opening transport corridors within Afghanistan and between Afghanistan, its neighbours, and the broader world. Transport and trade in goods manufactured locally and abroad, resources, and energy are the essential foundation of any successful economic policy for Afghanistan and the region."
Starr refers to a 2010 World Bank study which states that Afghanistan's single greatest comparative advantage is its geostrategic location. It is a hub for continental trade between India, south-east Asia, Europe, Russia, the Middle East and China. "Whatever its larger geopolitical significance, the reopening of continental transport and trade to, from, and across Afghanistan is the single most important determinant of the future of Afghanistan itself".