For a long time I've thought that the key to
economic reconstruction in Afghanistan would be restoring its traditional role
of carrying goods from South Asia (full of nice cheap consumer goods) to
Central Asia (now featuring oil and gas revenues). To do this, the "ring road"
that connects the country's major cities and the spur roads to the borders need
to be made relatively safe from bandits, Talibani, and thieving officials. But
every time I've raised this, I've been greeted with eye-rolling and such.
Both General Mc Chrystal and President Obama have affirmed the need for
"economic" and "governance" measures in Afghanistan. They're right, of course. Without them the
U.S.'s stated goals -- to destroy Al Queda and cripple the Taliban-remain purely
negative and not compelling to most Afghans, to the countries neighboring
Afghanistan, and even to our own NATO allies. But what are these "economic" and
"governance" measures? Neither Mc Chrystal nor Obama has spelled these out.
It's time to do so.
To succeed, any such measures
must meet four criteria. First, they must directly and positively affect the
lives of Afghans, Pakistanis, and people in those Central Asian states that
have become key to this region-wide project. If ordinary people across the
region are convinced that they will benefit from America's effort they will
support it. If not, they will stand aside.
Second, the economic measures must leave the Afghan government with an
income stream. Today the U.S. is paying the salaries of all Afghan soldiers and
civil servants. This can't go on forever. Third, it must be possible to pursue
the economic measures simultaneously with the military effort, and in a way
that enhances the military campaign. And, fourth, these initiatives must work
fast, and begin to show results within the next 18-24 months.
Since 2001 the U.S. and other countries have done much good in
Afghanistan, far more than is generally known. Progress in major health
indicators and education are only part of an impressive record. But late in
2009 these do not suffice. To meet our four criteria a more powerful engine is
Fortunately, such a force exists. The U.S. should immediately focus its
energies on opening continental transport and trade across Afghanistan and the
region. This will immediately open large markets to Afghan and Pakistani
producers in scores of legal areas. Ordinary Afghans will be able to get their
goods to markets now closed to them. The yield on truck tariffs will provide a
steady income for the government in Kabul. Such trade can start immediately,
for it involves removing bureaucratic impediments at borders, not vast
Some argue that this cannot happen until the stability situation
improves. They may be confusing cause and effect. If only a few trucks traverse
a road it is easy for bandits to interdict them. If hundreds of trucks do so,
some may still be hit. But most will bore their way through. Soon locals will
be providing the truckers with food, gas, storage, and repair services, as well
as good for shipment. As this happens, the local population gains an interest
in keeping the road open.
But can this really happen quickly? The Asian Development Bank has
shown convincingly that the goods and truckers are there, waiting for a green
flag. These are not just local haulers but transcontinental shippers running
from Hamburg to Hanoi, Damascus to Delhi, the Urals to Hydarabad. Surveys show
that the truckers themselves see the main impediments not as bad roads or the
absence of physical security. These are
tough guys, used to getting through under the worst conditions. But they are
stopped dead by corrupt and inefficient practices at borders, especially in
Afghanistan. Remove these and the dam will break, releasing a vast force of
trade that existed across Eurasia for 2,500 years but which has been blocked in
recent centuries. The International Union of Roads and Transport in Geneva
reports that large numbers of its members are poised to move, once the
impediments are removed. And since the key to removing these impediments at
borders is to improve governance and remove corruption at these points, the
project provides a perfect laboratory for improving governance elsewhere in
The U.S. Army's network for delivering supplies to our forces in
Afghanistan provides a skeleton for the emerging network of routes crossing
Afghanistan. The U.S. needs only to open the same routes to civilian traffic to
get the ball rolling. Soon truckers will want to cross Pakistan as well,
passing on into India and beyond. Is this a fantasy?
In spite of the Pakistan-India conflict over Kashmir, some $3 billion of goods
cross the India-Pakistan land border each year legally, and another $15 billion
illegally. Both are products like refrigerators and stoves, not narcotics.
Given this enormous economic pressure, it is quite conceivable that Indians and
Pakistani could choose to open selective routes, even as they continue to spar
The biggest surge in Afghanistan will fail if it is not intimately
linked with an economic program, and one that pushes Kabul to improve
governance. By releasing the engine of continental trade, the U.S. can achieve
this. Such a project is not against anyone, and will enable the U.S. to engage
constructively with every power in Eurasia, including China, India, Pakistan, Russia,
Europe, the Middle East and even Iran, for which participation in such trade
could be an important carrot.
However, Washington has yet to embrace this as a top strategic
priority, let alone to organize its mission in Afghanistan and the region in such
a way as to achieve it. This last is particularly important, for it requires a
degree of civil-military coordination that has not existed in the U.S.'s Afghan
effort since 2005. The good news is that
it is not yet too late to do this. Once
such a strategy and tactics are in place, the U.S. will have unleashed a force
that generated wealth across Eurasia, and especially in Afghanistan and its
neighbors, over several millennia. It's time to act.
To this, I would
add that a little help from the U.S. military could go a long way here.
Initially, at least, I would have Afghan forces organize large convoys of
perhaps 200 to 300 trucks. Also, remove most of the checkpoints and have
American troops over-watching those that remains. Meanwhile, other American forces
could do some route clearing. Then assign a few Strykers to every convoy and
have Apaches on tap in case there is trouble. Finally, perhaps organize
caravanserais every 40 miles or for overnight stays, meals, and maintenance,
and also to drop off broken-down trucks. (And hire locals to work at those
places, giving them a huge incentive to cooperate against local Talibani.)