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.

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

More from Matthieu Aikins:

From the September 2015 issue

Gangs of Karachi

Meet the mobsters who run the show in one of the world’s deadliest cities

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

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