It’s the economy, stupid, even in Afghanistan

March 1, 2009

With violence at its highest level in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, you would think security must be the number one concern of the people there. Wrong: like much of the rest of the world, Afghans are worried more about the economic situation and  unemployment than fretting over the outcome of the war between the U.S.-led coalition and the Taliban/al Qaeda. 

A Gallup poll released a few days ago said 41 percent of Afghan adults named the economy as the number one important issue they and their families faced, followed by 16 percent mentioning the related issue of unemployment. The poll conducted in December found 12 percent named security as the most important concern.

And this is in spite of the fact that Afghanistan’s isolation from world trade and global finance is shielding it from the meltdown that threatens other countries, as my colleague Sayed Salahuddin wrote.  The Afghan economy has been kept afloat by the inflow of billions of dollars of aid, the spending and jobs provided by 69,500 foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan, as well as an illegal drugs trade worth an estimated $3 billion a year.  So if foreign donors cut back on aid as unemployment rises in their countries, the recession would reach Afghanistan too.

So if the Afghan people are more concerned about their economic well being than anything else, should the world be addressing those concerns as much as tackling a resurgent Taliban? In any case, don’t both feed into each other? An economic collapse and mass unemployment can only multiply the  considerable security challenge that foreign forces face.

The governor of the southern Afghan province of Kandahar was reported as saying the other day that joblessness was driving the youth into the arms of the Taliban

Conversely, if security deteriorates further, it can only hurt Afghanistan’s economic prospects

President Barack Obama while deploying an additional 17,000 troops to the war-torn nation  also said “you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means.” The inference being that. for the country to stabilise you would have to address other issues such as its economy and a poltical system that isn’t seen to have delivered on its promise.

Is the administration ready to put its money where its mouth is then?

If you looked at a recent debate on “The Arena”, U.S. website Politico’s daily online discussion forum, there are misgivings already about whether the administration has thought through its Afghan strategy or if it is ”merely treading water in the region, losing American lives here and there and making no real progress” as one commentator put it.

Robert Dreyfuss writing in The Nation said what was troubling about the administration’s signals on the Afghanistan-Pakistan front was that they they were all “tilted toward war and counterinsurgency”, with little being said about diplomacy, negotiations or deal making.

(File picture of Afghan woman begging police not to destroy her poppy farm,  moneychangers in Kabul and women at an aid distribution centre)

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