Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York and former president and professor emeritus of history at Brown University, is the author of The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization 1880-1946, which will be reissued by Stanford University Press in November.
The year 2014 is fast approaching and with it, the end of the allied forces mission in Afghanistan. At the close of that year, as the president confirmed in his speech from Bagram Air Force Base, the United States and NATO will hand over responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to its own forces. But in the meantime, events on the ground are conspiring against some of the long-term policy goals that the allied nations who committed troops to Afghanistan had hoped would bring peace and stability to that country. The recent burning of Korans as well as the massacre of civilians, not to mention U.S. troops urinating on enemy corpses, posing for photos with the remains of Taliban insurgents, and similar inflammatory actions have contributed to anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments in Afghanistan as well as in neighboring countries, especially Pakistan. Given these developments, President Karzai, in an effort to prove to his nation that above all he is an Afghan nationalist and guardian of Afghan sovereignty, has often been forced to publicly distance himself from America, making demands such as that U.S. forces be confined to their bases and withdraw completely from Afghanistan by the end of 2013. In addition, the Afghan government has insisted that NATO forces stop "night raids" on suspected insurgents' hideouts, which recently resulted in an agreement that should give Afghan authorities veto over controversial special operations raids. For its part, the Pakistani parliament has demanded a halt to all U.S. drone flights over border areas that provide safe haven and supply routes for the Taliban. Further, the Pakistani government has blockaded the flow of U.S. materiel supplying American troops in Afghanistan.
These challenges are arising in the midst of a global economic slowdown that is making it difficult for even those nations rich with resources to chart a reliable course for their future. Economic uncertainties have added to the growing call in the United States and other NATO countries to end the allies' presence in Afghanistan—and hence, the enormous cost in terms of lives lost and dollars spent—even sooner than planned. For Afghanistan itself, which despite some $18 billion in U.S. aid alone over the past decade remains one of the poorest countries in the world on the United Nations´s Human Development Index (registering 174th out of 178 countries), the economic outlook remains bleak. Add in a growing Taliban insurgency against the allied powers along with ethnic, religious, and tribal conflicts and tensions as well as interference from neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and India who support their proxies inside Afghanistan, and what's brewing is a recipe for disaster on many fronts, particularly in regard to the Afghan economy once the United States and NATO have largely departed.
Though in his speech from Afghanistan announcing a pact that spells out the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan over the next decade President Obama promised U.S. aid in developing the Afghan economy, no specifics were given and no plan was announced. Hence, there is little reason to believe that the economic situation in Afghanistan will continue to be anything but precarious. Indeed, according to official Afghan sources, 80 percent of Afghanistan's national budget is constituted by international aid from 62 different donor countries, more than a dozen large international organizations, and about 2,000 international and national nongovernmental organizations. There is no assurance that these countries and organizations will continue their assistance over the next 10 years. In light of all these factors, the economic chaos that is likely to descend upon Afghanistan in the absence of either a stable central government or the realistic prospect of a peaceful resolution or reconciliation between Kabul and the resurgent Taliban will only be compounded by leaving the fate of Afghanistan's largest cash crop—opium poppies—to itself. Although the current U.S. administration abandoned its predecessor's flawed focus on the eradication of poppy crops, the White House and its advisers have fared little better in their own Afghan-centered "war on drugs," and, in his remarks, President Obama made no mention of how his administration will address the problem represented by the poppy fields that are the source of the opium that bankrolls corrupt government officials and the Taliban alike, providing around astonishing 90 percent of the world's heroin. Further, the 2011 Afghanistan Opium Survey of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that there has been a "dramatic 133 percent increase in the farm-gate value of opium compared with 2010." The survey further reveals that "The farm-gate value of opium production alone is US $1.4 billion or 9 percent of the country's GDP; the total net value of the opiate economy amounts to U.S. $2.4 billion...an amount that cannot be easily substituted by other economic activities." In the opinion of Yury Fedotov, executive director of the U.N, Office on Drugs and Crime, "Opium is therefore a significant part of the Afghan economy and provides considerable funding to the insurgency and fuels corruption." Further, as The Washington Post recently reported, Afghan Deputy Minister for Counternarcotics Mohammed Azhar declared, "The price of opium is now seven times higher than wheat...so our farmers have no disincentive to cultivate poppy." This conclusion is backed by the U.N. report, which notes that in 2011, there was a 43 percent increase in the price of dry opium at harvest time compared to 2010 and that farmers surveyed in 2011 cited the high sale price as the most important reason (59 percent) for cultivating opium poppy. In that connection, it is also important to note that while the Taliban receive only a small portion of the income from poppies, the amount is still significant considering the worth of the harvest.