Why We Should Focus on Economics in Afghanistan, Not on Fighting

Developing and stabilizing a war-torn nation is about more than just military operations.

militia april5 p.jpg

Abaki militia members gather in Aqtappeh. Reuters

If there's a magic formula for success in Afghanistan, we haven't found it. Building up tribal militias and local security forces, our standard militarized efforts, don't seem to be working. After nearly 11 years of military intervention, we've learned that developing and stabilizing a war-torn country requires more than just military operations. While military action has its role, what Afghanistan needs is not more militias, more armies, or more fighting -- what it needs is more politics and more economics.. 

Relying primarily on traditional military operations to keep the war in Afghanistan's chugging along hasn't worked. Maybe it's time to slowly begin pulling Afghanistan off of life support -- militarily and economically. The only way to ensure the country will be able to stand on its own two feet would be to strengthen its political and economic legs. When NATO forces withdraw from the region, and they will, stability will rest upon the Afghans' ability to create confidence in the government, lasting commercial opportunities for the private sector, and jobs for its citizens. So maybe that's where we should be focusing.

The Afghan government certainly cares. Minister of Commerce Anwar-Ul-Haq Ahady visited Washington DC this week, meeting diplomats and giving speeches on economic transition within the country.

The Afghan economy is in shambles. The billions in aid have not established sustainable systems and supply chains. Too much of the economy is dependent on foreign handouts instead of local entrepreneurship. Often, projects are started only to be halted due to security issues and ballooning costs. Development is heavily constrained by electricity and transit problems, such as the lack of good rail connections, which forces most transportation to be conducted via road (where it is easily intercepted and robbed or bombed).

The process to establish legislation governing commerce, from bankruptcy to competition, has is still struggling. There are new laws, but they're difficult to enforce. Private companies and foreign investors don't yet feel comfortable spending heavily on development within the country. 

Afghanistan's relations with its neighbors are problematic as well. Landlocked, the nation has long relied upon its border-countries for transporting goods in and out. In recent years, however, thousands of containers have been suspended in the Pakistani port in Karachi. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Agreement was mean to ease transit, but it hasn't. 

If regular Afghans can't be shown the utility of a market economy and a democratic government, the war will be lost. And right now, we are losing that war.

It's not just about fighting the Taliban or even training enough Afghan troops. It's about attaining the confidence of the people in the system as a whole.  

Instead of fighting the weaknesses of the Afghan state, we should play to Afghanistan's strengths. The country has great potential for economic growth. Foreign investors are showing increased interest in the country as rule of law improves. More companies are looking to establish a presence, especially regarding infrastructure. And many sectors show incredible opportunity, most notably the mining sector. 

But none of this can happen without NATO shifting their rhetoric and actions to focus more broadly on political and economic security. The foundation needs more support, as troops will soon begin to withdraw. At that point, it is still unclear how the country will do.


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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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