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 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Strelnikov

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

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us."
Photograph by Joe Raedle
Post
A Band of Her Own·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What in the poem is an unappealing display becomes, with the addition of the soul-influenced, flute-inflected background, funny, almost self-consciously so."
Photograph by AP/Bill Chaplis
Article
Cage Wars·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"In the 1970s, “Chickens’ Lib” was a handful of women in flower-print dresses holding signs, but in the past decade farm hens have become almost a national preoccupation."
Photograph by Adam Dickerson/Big Dutchman USA, courtesy Vande Bunte Farms
Article
Paradise Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men."
Illustration by Anthony Lister
Article
Off the Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Nearly half the reservation lives below the poverty line, with unemployment as high as 60 percent, little to no infrastructure, few entitlements, a safety net that never was, no industry to speak of, and a housing crisis that has been dire not for five years but since the reservation’s founding in 1855."
Illustration by Stan Fellows

Jobs created by every billion dollars of U.S. government defense spending:

21,000

Artists tend to have twice as many sexual partners as noncreative people.

Swiss retailer Migros cut off ties with a collectible-creamer company following the distribution of 2,000 creamers whose lids bore images of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. “You cannot put Pol Pot or a terrorist on a milk creamer,” said a Migros spokesman.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today