Afghanistan as the pawns to the devastating international and regional power games has been caught in uninterrupted civil and proxy wars since 1978. With the collapse of the Taliban regime and the establishment of a new political system in 2001, a mood of optimism and expectations for a better future swept the country. But, with the re-rise of the Taliban as an insurgent group in 2005 and the triple transitions (security, political and economic) unfolded in the country in 2014, the situation once again turned dreadful. Heightened insurgency, increased crime rates and the destructive activities of the terrorist groups ravaged every nook and corner of the country. Alongside, the economic turmoil, brain drain and emigration become the major social dilemmas affecting the everyday life of the citizens.
Over the last decade, the international community’s agendas of ending the conflict in Afghanistan have been focused on either rigorous military campaigns or abortive peace negotiations. Unfortunately, the fact that the conflict in the country is more of an economic phenomenon has been mostly degraded in the national and international agendas of conflict resolution in Afghanistan. The cost of war on terror as well as the cost of seeking peace and negotiated settlement with the Taliban through various mechanisms e.g., the high peace council, numerous peace processes in different countries and the substantial tribute payments to the terrorist networks and tribal chieftains through various formal and informal channels have been massive over the past years. On an average every year, 60 per cent of the national budget of Afghanistan and a significant portion of the off-budget funds and the foreign aid have been channelled to defence and security sectors and peacemaking projects. With rare resources, remaining for developmental programmes.
Similarly, According to a recent report by Pentagon, out of an estimated $45 billion cost of Afghanistan war for the US in 2018, just 1.7 per cent is the economic aid the rest all have been spent on bullets and probably gifts to local and external peace brokers. In this way, over the past 17 years, the situation in Afghanistan has turned worst, and the Afghan war has become a nightmare for the US and international allies. Did the international community and the government of Afghanistan degrade the more significant remedy (i.e., better economic opportunities) as a viable path for conflict resolution in Afghanistan? Yes, they did.
A moment of deliberation on nature and the dynamics of the ongoing war in Afghanistan would indicate that among the many factors that fuel the conflict and political instability in the country, one decisive factor is the socioeconomic crisis, particularity massive unemployment, poverty, and adult illiteracy. Based on the recent household survey data of the central statistic organisation of Afghanistan, more than half the population of the country, i.e., 54.5 per cent are living below the poverty line and 24 per cent of the active labour force is unemployed. In addition, inequitable distribution of wealth, income and rent is also remarkably high.
While, it is acknowledgeable that there is a hard-core ideology (at the leadership level) that the terrorist movements like the Taliban, ISIL-KP, and other such groups, carry. But at the grass root levels, a large number of people fighting for the Taliban and other insurgent groups are the non-ideological – employed soldiers, who do not fight for the cause of an ideology or the international Jihad propaganda as such but for mere a subsistence livelihood, in a situation where no alternative is available for them. Further, due to an overall chaotic situation in the country, there is a considerable gap between legal and illegal earning opportunities, which have enormously boosted incentives for the later. On a nutshell, the political economy of group access to resources (mines, minerals, and opium trade) at the top levels and the socio-economic ills like poverty, adult illiteracy, and unemployment at micro levels are the significant contributing factors to the perpetuating conflict in Afghanistan.
Indeed, the government of Afghanistan and the international community have failed to tackle the root causes of conflict; increasing poverty, alarming levels of unemployment, widespread corruption and the weak rule of law in the country. The provision of better opportunities for sustainable employment and income, which could have essentially encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to put down their guns and procure their livelihoods through dignified jobs, has not only not been in equal footing with other remedies (war and peace negotiations) part of national and international agendas. But such opportunities have enormously been reducing over the last years. The dearth of legal and sustainable sources of income and employment has compelled thousands to either personally take-up illegal activities; drug producing and trafficking, abductions, assassinations, robbery, illegal mining and various other forms of crimes or be easily recruited by the organised terror networks to carry destructive activities.
Due to the very problem of insecurity, on the other hand, the private and foreign investments, which are the primary sources of jobs in many countries, are insignificant in Afghanistan. The loss of the confidence of the investors and producer, the flight of the capital and brain drain have been growing over the past years, more so since 2014. Peace negotiations with few tourists’ leaders here and there and the counterterrorism strategies cannot go successful in Afghanistan unless the remedy is sought in grass root levels. When a large number of the population is impoverished and deprived of a dignified source of living, they can easily fall prey in the hands of terror groups other than the current ones, anytime in the future. Therefore, the provision of sustainable sources of jobs and income need to be seriously taken into considerations for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. One such feasible means at the moment is the public investment in the establishment of small and medium scale labour-intensive factories and the reactivation of the country’s state-owned enterprises.
Public sector enterprises have a long history in Afghanistan. For the first time, during the second term reign of Amir Sher Ali (1868-79) few factories were established in Kabul. The decades of planning (1953-1973) were comparatively a period of significant industrialisation, infrastructure building, and economic progress in Afghanistan. A wide variety of firms from cotton mills to large-scale public transportation enterprises, construction firms, electricity-generating factories, arms-producing factories, public utilities, agricultural cooperatives, and insurance firms, were built. These enterprises at times could provide up to 60 per cent of the revenues of the governments, and their products could to a reasonable extent fulfill the demands of the government institutions and the domestic markets (MoF, Afg).
The government of Afghanistan had fully owned 64 fully or semi-operational public sector enterprises, locally known as Tasady in 2004 (MoF, Afg). Though not in good shape and full operation, still few SOEs have a significant market share in their relevant sectors, like the electrical utility company (Sherkat-e-Breshna), Afghan Telecom, and the Ariana Airlines, etc. However, on the one side, most of these enterprises were damaged during the wars of the 90s and on the other side, with the adaptation of Afghanistan to the neoliberal economic ideology these enterprises were impelled to privatization and dissolution. Since 2005 when the privatisation plan was approved, some 26 of the SOEs were either privatized, changed to public companies or dissolved (MoF, Af).
In the absence of a progressing private sector, the government is obliged to play the role of the entrepreneur in the economy. At the moment, to prevent a larger humanitarian crisis caused by war, drought, and economic turmoil, the government of Afghanistan needs to undertake a robust social security system. Under the current critical situation, the state-owned enterprises could be the best policy instruments in the hands of the government to fight unemployment, inflation, and poverty in the country. If the half-remained Skeleton of the SOEs in Afghanistan are rescued from the looting under the labels of privatisation and if enough investments are made for their re-operationalization and capacity expansion, they would, directly and indirectly, provide a sustainable source of living for a significant portion of workers, who are otherwise easy preys in the hands of the terrorist groups.
Currently, along with the US and Russia, almost every country in the region from Pakistan to Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and recently Turkey are trying to have their share of play in the ongoing peace negotiations with the Taliban, often by circumventing the people and government of Afghanistan; scattered initiatives that can only make the peace process more complex and challenging.
However, few of these countries have something tangible to offer for the betterment of the situation in Afghanistan, rather than the pursuance of their strategic interests. It should not go unacknowledged that few countries like India on the other hand, have been the most reliable partners to the development of Afghanistan over the past years. They can continue to win people’s hearts and minds through their soft policies of developmental interventions. Such assistance as infrastructural development and job creation for the ordinary people can best lead Afghanistan towards lasting peace and stability by boosting the capabilities of the people and eternally stimulating the grassroots’ voices for peace and cooperation with the government.
As India has a long history of running public sector enterprises, the government of Afghanistan can seek technical assistance from India and other such countries for the re-operationalisation of its SOEs and establishment of additional labour-intensive processing and manufacturing units in Afghanistan. The need for the robust participation of the government and the assistance of the international community for countering economic downturn, unemployment and poverty are inevitable for the resolution of the uninterrupted 50 years of conflict and the establishment of lasting peace in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, it would be more of sustainable jobs and income, not bullets and complicated peace rounds that will persuade a large number of people to stand alongside the democratically elected government of Afghanistan against the terrorist oppositions.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)
Mirwais Parsa is an Afghan researcher who is currently pursuing a PhD in Economics at the South Asian University in New Delhi, India.
It would be more of sustainable jobs and income, not bullets and complicated peace rounds that will persuade a large number of people to stand alongside the democratically elected government of Afghanistan against the terrorist oppositions.