Perspective — January 23, 2013, 10:38 am

On the Supreme Power of Money in Afghanistan

What Afghanistan’s political economy tells us about its future

Photograph copyright Zalmaï/Reportage by Getty

As high and barbed as their blast walls may go, diplomats and foreign aid workers have not (yet) found a way to keep the capital’s smoggy air from their orderly compounds. But their pinched nostrils may relax a little after yesterday’s New York Times story on Kabul’s out-of-control pollution, which, though it confirmed the city’s soupy air-quality ratings, at least put to rest one fetid rumor:

Kabul [does] not have an aerial fecal problem.

The report, which notes that the city’s particulate-matter counts rank below Beijing’s, highlights one aspect of a larger problem I take up in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine — that ten years of chaotic and misguided development has left Kabul with an unsustainable bubble economy and a mounting ecological bill that has yet to come due:

The city also faces a water crisis; the water table is both contaminated and dropping. Neighbors race against one another, boring deeper and deeper wells. The only place in the city with an underground sewer system is Microrayon, a neighborhood the Soviets built in the 1960s and ’70s. The rest sends its sewage into open gutters or poorly built septic tanks that further pollute the groundwater.

The aid boom of the past decade has fueled wild and haphazard growth without providing the infrastructure needed for it to last. In 2010, total aid spending was $15.7 billion — equivalent in size to the entire Afghan GDP. A decade of easy money has made Afghanistan one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world.

But lurid images of waste and crass consumption aside, Afghanistan’s political economy — that is, the way the country’s economy helps shape its politics, and vice versa — offers a crucial lens for understanding certain contradictions and misadventures of the international military and development presence and the rentier government it has been propping up. It also offers a better way of understanding Afghanistan’s future following the 2014 transition to Afghan security control than the various programmatic schemes being offered up by Western technocrats and generals. As I argued in a recent policy paper for New York University’s Center on International Cooperation:

More than institutional structures, stability in Afghanistan depends on ensuring a political settlement among the country’s diverse powerbrokers and networks. Without such an agreement, this report has argued, even the most robust [Afghan security force] presence, capable civil service, and sustained international assistance will be unable to prevent a possible return to violence and political crisis.

The relevant point here is that Afghanistan’s politics are, more than anything else, about money, which has tied together erstwhile enemies from diverse parts of the country, and provided the basis for the exclusion of others:

At a national level, these political settlements are best embodied by the financial arrangements behind Kabul Bank, which brought a diverse array of actors together, ranging from southern Pashtun networks around the New Ansari market to northern Jamiat commanders allied to Marshall Fahim. This Karzai–Fahim alliance has been crucial in stabilizing the agreement between North and South, but it remains to be seen how it will be affected by the cuts in international spending.

Understanding how these elites and their armed networks will be affected by the withdrawal of international spending is crucial to understanding — and perhaps influencing — the future of Afghanistan. In a paper published in November, the academic Jonathan Goodhand outlines four potential typologies that the country’s political settlements might come to resemble, in order of decreasing optimism: developmental state, consolidated oligarchy, durable disorder, and state collapse/regionalized civil war. He argues that the middle two scenarios — the former being a state in which the current elites manage to forge a more inclusive, if corrupt, order; the latter one in which vicious cycles of insecurity continue at a low hum — are the most likely. He concludes:

External intervention has in effect overthrown a relatively stable [political settlement] (under the Taliban), replacing it with an inherently unstable and violent order, based upon an exclusive and, for many, illegitimate political settlement. Of the four scenarios presented above, the least likely is that of the poor developmental state, though it comes closest to stated Western goals in Afghanistan. After huge investments in blood and treasure, international actors are now in a position of trying to negotiate an exit, but with the real danger that they will leave the country in a worse state than before the occupation.


If you’re in Washington, DC, this Friday afternoon or feel like tuning in to the webcast, I’ll be speaking on a panel about the political economy of transition at the United States Institute for Peace. I’ll be joined by the author and journalist Anand Gopal, who has written extensively on patronage networks in Afghanistan (and on Syria for this magazine), and the economist Bill Byrd, who helped author last year’s seminal World Bank Report on Afghanistan’s economy in transition.

Share
Single Page
is a freelance writer based in Afghanistan. “Kabubble” is his third feature for Harper’s Magazine.

More from Matthieu Aikins:

Postcard April 7, 2014, 5:37 pm

The Ghost Polls of Afghanistan

Election Day in Afghanistan’s hinterlands

Conversation March 20, 2014, 1:18 pm

The Prisoner: A Conversation with Omar Shahid Hamid

Omar Shahid Hamid on novelizing Karachi’s cops and gangsters

From the February 2013 issue

Kabubble

Counting down to economic collapse in the Afghan capital

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • Strelnikov

    Shades of South Vietnam, or Lon Nol’s Cambodia.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

A teenager in Singapore was convicted of obscenity for posts critical of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, that included an image of Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today