"No, the farmer said back, clearly frustrated. "This waiting has
rotten one crop of potatoes already. We will starve if we cannot move
our potatoes to the bazaar and sell them."
"I wish I could help you," the local U.S. military commander
responded, clearly concerned. "But I do not have the authority to
re-open the border. That is a decision the governments in Kabul and
Islamabad must make."
The Afghan farmers gathered their potatoes they had brought as evidence they grow quality food and left, looking dejected.
This story is adapted from a real situation I encountered while still
working with the Human Terrain System. The HTT member who recorded this
situation was asking us researchers if there was any way to track the
economic effects of border closures, or how one could go about asking
Kabul and Islamabad to open them so local businessmen don't get harmed.
We never were able to come up with a good answer--there are estimations
of cost, but they're not grounded in much data.
There has been very little research about the economic costs of
expensive cross-border commerce and how the unresolved political issues
between Afghanistan and Pakistan contribute to a moribund local economy.
From anecdotal evidence, the effects can be severe, but that doesn't
mean they're severe everywhere.
What we do know is the difficulties of transporting commercial goods into Pakistan is such a hassle it's causing traders to publicly complain to the government:
Hundreds of trucks laden with dried and fresh fruits,
herbals, carpets, precious and semi-precious stones have been stranded
on both sides of the border due to technical problems in the
recently-signed Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA),
said Khan Jan Alakozay, the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and
This is a major problem in helping Afghanistan to develop
economically. It is not a problem of infrastructure: Even before the
U.S. military's ginormous paving campaign
there was a lot of commerce between Afghanistan and Pakistan (in fact,
many analysts argue that it was the Taliban's informal alliance with the
so-called "trucking mafia" of Quetta that enabled them to be so
effective at mobilizing their forces and maintaining some control of the
roads). This is not a problem of security, either: The trucks are not
being destroyed or attacked, they are literally sitting at the border
waiting to deliver their goods.
The biggest barriers to Afghanistan developing economically are
political, institutional, and regulatory--not physical or security or
investment. Yet, most of the U.S. government's efforts to improve
Afghanistan's security focus on physical solutions (like expanding the airport in Kandahar to export things like fruit and cement), security solutions (like the Village Security Operations the special operations forces are so enamored with), or foreign direct investment (as the TFBSO is so focused on). They focus on the wrong solutions to the wrong problem.
The U.S. government is not very active in resolving the political issues plaguing
Afghanistan's government, or its relationships with Iran and Pakistan,
two absolutely crucial prerequisites to it ever becoming a stable
country again. We should not expect a particularly successful outcome so
long as the politics of the region are relegated to secondary concerns,
if they are concerns at all.
A version of this entry appeared at Registan.net.