April 11, 2008

Oil, Food, and War

The NY Times yesterday ran an editorial suggesting US culpability in an impending world food crisis. The basic argument is that rising demand for grains has been increased beyond a sustainable level as a result of environmentally-suspect drives to increase ethanol use in the US and elsewhere.

In Afghanistan in particular, but also in Iraq, food prices became a major and predictable issue over the winter. As always, ISAF charged with Economic Development and Reconstruction as one of its Lines of Operation and the recipient of most of the money we spend in Afghanistan, did little to nothing to prepare for it. Meanwhile, all through the winter, Afghan newspapers and news shows drew attention to the issue. With children dying and starving in the streets in Ghazni (the focus of several Afghan television reports) and elsewhere, it is imperative that we do something. Unfortunately, while ISAF could have done much to prepare for the crisis, the challenges ahead are daunting and larger than ISAF.

In Afghanistan, the ongoing food crisis is related to several factors, many of which were predictable. Unrest and insurgency in Pakistan have made the transport of goods from Pakistan to Afghanistan more difficult. Increased insurgency in Afghanistan has resulted in more difficulty in transporting goods. Increases in world oil prices have further causes increased transportation prices for food. The worst winter in Afghanistan on record (admittedly, a very short record going back only a decade) exacerbated transportation issues. Meanwhile the droughts of the 1990s compounded by deforestation, erosion, and global warming essentially eradicated the herds that provided dairy and meat for Afghan nomads. Additionally, activists worldwide have highlighted for several months an impending food crisis driven by, among other things, increased ethanol demands and rising meat demands by a larger Chinese middle class. Finally, massive imports of food by the World Food Program have resulted in depressing food prices, which provides an incentive for growing narcotics and a disincentive for producing wheat and other cereals.

With marginal food supply already resulting in more starvation in Afghanistan, the possibility that food insecurity could exacerbate insurgency is real and growing. A low harvest yield this year followed by increasing food prices may well provide the last straw for national insurgency under a new narrative that emphasizes Coalition presence in Afghanistan and the starvation of Muslims under a regime that finally was supposed to bring stability, development, and peace.

Unfortunately, the two main areas to address the problem have little to do with Afghanistan. The first area that must be addressed is trade access to Afghanistan. This will mean increasing licit trade with Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan while developing a comprehensive Post-Musharraf approach for stabilizing Pakistan that admits errors and does not insist on continuing the same failed policies in the FATA. Obviously, Russia's help will be needed to assist with the other Stans. Frankly, road construction in Central and South Asia will be as important to establishing a stable Afghanistan as will internal road construction.

Second, and less likely, is the pressing need for the development of a sound energy policy. US energy consumption and irresponsible energy policy are having second and third order effects in our conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Venezuela and elsewhere). And, while gaining independence from Middle East oil is a nice campaign slogan, oil remains a fungible commodity while current worldwide supply meets worldwide demand. This is not something that can be solved by, say, more drilling in Alaska. Kip will save a rant on why global climate and environmental sustainability are pressing issues (if you're interested, Jared Diamond's Collapse, it is a must-read), but cynical energy policies aimed at large scale Mid-Western industrial farming conglomerates will in the long-run result in more dead Americans in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban's narrative that we are there not to help Afghans but as colonizers.

Kip most certainly does not have all the solutions. What he does know is this. To combat the emergence of a new insurgent narrative tied to hunger and to combat starvation itself in Afghanistan will require a comprehensive approach by the governments supporting the Afghan government. And, soon, it will require the American people to actually be asked to sacrifice something if they wish to prevent a terrorist haven from reemerging in Afghanistan and, possibly, bringing down nuclear-armed Pakistan in the process.