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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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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