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Getting it Wrong in Afghanistan


The last few years have seen a dramatic loss of momentum for coalition forces, as efforts to lessen opium production have failed to progress. The question has always been, what can rural farmers be sold on farming besides poppies? Well, it appears that cannabis has become popular as well — not exactly what we had in mind.

Meanwhile, “rising food prices in Afghanistan are creating a crisis that is so far silent but that could manifest itself in urban riots, increased recruitment to the insurgency, and increased planting of both opium poppy and cannabis to earn cash incomes to buy food at the higher prices.”

What’s particularly painful about the current food shortage is that it represents possibly the biggest missed opportunity in Afghanistan. “Many factors are contributing to the rise [in agricultural prices], but the biggest is runaway demand. In recent years, the world’s developing countries have been growing about 7 percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards.”

This demand increases the incentive for Afghan farmers to grow wheat instead of poppies, but alas, to no avail.

Why?

The Afghan government, which lacks economic expertise and administrative capacity in rural areas (to say the least) has proposed some kind of support for wheat farming to compensate for the food shortages and take advantage of the rising prices, which appear to be a long-term trend. Currently Afghan farmers are poorly positioned to take advantage of the wheat price rises, as traders monopolize most of the profit, as they do with poppy and cannabis. The World Bank vetoed such a program for the usual reasons (distorting markets, etc.) many of which are valid — in addition to the fact that the Afghan government could not administer a complex and wasteful program like US agricultural price supports, especially since Afghan cultivators have no political influence.

Nonetheless, the rise in price in wheat and other commodities (what is happening to horticultural commodities, flowers, essential oils, and so on?) presents an opportunity for investing in other cash crops and their marketing in Afghanistan. For all the rhetoric about how the drug economy is supporting insurgency and terrorism, where is the program to seize this market opportunity? And for all the talk of the importance of Afghanistan to global security, where is the program to assure Afghans of an affordable supply of basic food? This would do at least as much good as more NATO troops, and with less risk of collateral damage (market distortion versus killing civilians).

The No. 1 takeaway from our experience in Iraq is that we must engage not only militarily, but economically and politically. The lack of a sufficient economic program is certainly not helping.

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