I am about to head off for the annual meetings of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development (CASID), where an important subject for ongoing discussion will be Canada's position in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is, in the history of international development in the post-World War II period, perhaps unique: unfortunately, not because of its 25-plus years of conflict, and not because of its abysmal human development. Rather, Afghanistan is unique because, to my knowledge, no country that is in essence tribal has received so much development assistance. In 2005 Afghanistan received almost US$3 billion in official development assistance (and, of course, much, much more in military assistance). Yet these efforts are, without doubt, failing, for reasons that are entirely predictable.
The heart of the 'development issue' in Afghanistan is the agrarian question: the vast majority of the Afghan population lives in the countryside, practicing forms of subsistence and petty commodity-producing agriculture. Many Afghans, especially in the Pashtun regions of the country, live under a strict set of social and cultural norms, called Pakhtunwali, that generate sets of patron-client relations between relatively weak peasants and relatively more powerful khans. In order to 'develop' Afghanistan, these social relations must be transformed. Unfortunately, current trends in development and military co-operation make this highly unlikely.
Surveys in the south of the country suggest that 80% of rural Aghan men worry about feeding their families. In order to feed their families, many resort to the cultivation of poppies, which feed the international drugs trade. These peasants, of course, receive small shares of the final value added of the opiate. So too do their patrons. Nonetheless, these poppies represent the best livelihood opportunity for rural families. The response of the international community to this situation has been to promote diversification, to lower value added crops, and eradication, following the methodology used by the US in Colombia: chemical spraying. This is an illogical strategy, in that it asks poor peasants to either earn less or have their crops destroyed. Their response, not surprisingly, is to increase support for tribal leaders resisting the international community. The international community calls these leaders Taliban, and, no doubt, some of them support the previous regime. Many of these leaders, however, are not Taliban per se. Rather, they are local tribal patrons that have to maintain the support of their clients. The result, unfortunately, has been an increase in conflict between local leaders and NATO. NATO has increased military operations in the south, targeting the Taliban, but killing scores of civilians, and substantially increasing local resentment against the international community, who, of course, are opposed to the interventions of the international community in any event because of the poppy eradication campaign.
The only sensible solution to this impasse has been suggested by the Ottawa-based Senlis Council--the international community should start buying poppies and using them as inputs into medical opiates that can be sold in developing countries. That way, rural livelihoods in southern Afghanistan would be sustained, support for the international community might rise, and support for Taliban elements might, just might, fall, as families found themselves able to feed themselves.
The Afghan crisis is portrayed in the international media as a conflict between a resurgent Taliban and NATO. This is highly misleading. The international community has intervened in a livelihoods crisis in a way which many rural Afghans see as being one-sided--and not to their benefit. It is little wonder that, day by day, failure in Afghanistan becomes more and more likely.
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