In Afghanistan, Focusing on Climate Change and the Civilian Surge

On day one of his visit to Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who reaffirmed America’s commitment to Afghanistan long after the last American soldier is brought home. “We will not abandon the Afghan People,” Clinton reassured the president. “Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future.”

As the United States begins to explore in greater detail the near- and long-term challenges that are likely to shape our longer-term civilian commitment to Afghanistan, climate change should top the list of concerns being factored into the decision-making calculus. Afghanistan’s agricultural sector – accounting for nearly a third of its gross domestic product (GDP) – is inextricably linked to long-term stability and security in the state, and the U.S. government, as a whole, is committed to diversifying and improving agricultural production. In his surprise visit to Afghanistan on March 28, 2010, President Obama told U.S. troops that investing in civilian areas such as agricultural production will increase Afghanistan’s prosperity, security and independence from extremists in the region. And as the United States begins to sculpt what its civilian commitment to Afghanistan looks like, agricultural development is likely to be a cornerstone of that effort. 

As we note in our recent report, Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces, “While it is not yet clear how climate change will directly affect Afghanistan, observations suggest that climate change could potentially disrupt agricultural development by exacerbating drought (i.e., a decline in surface or subsurface water resources, such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs and ground water) and increasing the severity and frequency of heat waves.” The near-term challenge for the U.S. government will be in developing a research effort to better understand the effects of climate change on Afghanistan broadly, and its agricultural productivity in particular, in order to bolster our civilian efforts moving forward so that the United States provides, beyond aid, a toolkit that the Afghan people can themselves use to adapt to climate change (shifting more from a “give a man a fish” to a “teach a man how to fish” model). While aid today will help stabilize many parts of Afghanistan, a broader strategy that shores up government institutions, capability and capacity needs to be developed to help ensure that Afghanistan can hold itself up without an overwhelming external commitment.

   This type of civilian-led climate change adaptation strategy that emphasis capacity and capability building over just direct aid could compliment what the Obama administration needs to do in Afghanistan, as well. In his recent report, Leverage: Designing a Political Campaign for Afghanistan, CNAS Fellow Andrew Exum writes:

What is needed with respect to a civilian strategy in Afghanistan, then, is less aid and more a coherent political strategy for the United States and its allies to assist the government of Afghanistan to govern in a way that both promotes its legitimacy and allows the United States and its allies to militarily leave Afghanistan within the next five years.

Climate change adaptation could very well be integrated into that political strategy – or at the very least be complimentary – as it would not only bolster resilience and stability among the Afghan civilian population, but would promote the Afghan government’s legitimacy while also enabling a handoff between the U.S. military and civilian effort in Afghanistan. As agricultural development is concerned, the U.S. military has shown its commitment to improving agricultural production by deploying several state National Guard agricultural development teams to assist Afghan civilians with improving agricultural systems and developing related commerce. And while those efforts are necessary, especially in areas where civilian teams are not safe to deploy just yet, the U.S. military understands that it will not play a long-term role in agricultural development, and will instead need to leverage a whole-of-government approach being developed to address these concerns long term. 

The bottom line: climate change will likely affect Afghanistan, including its agricultural development which is central to long-term stability. As the United States begins to sculpt a longer-term civilian strategy in Afghanistan, it will need to consider the best approach to ensuring that Afghanistan can adapt to climate changes in the long term – and to start, it would be helpful if we develop our own understanding of what tomorrow’s changes are likely to look like, today.