October 18, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Afghanistan’s Long-Term Stability

War is hell. And many Afghans are reminded of this every day. That was my take away from this report in The New York Times on Sunday, “In Afghan South, U.S. Faces Frustrated Residents.”

The report comes amidst U.S. and NATO military operations in Kandahar province, what experts have described as the Taliban stronghold. According to the Times’ Carlotta Gall, “As American troops mount a critical operation this weekend in the campaign to regain control in Kandahar, they face not only the Taliban but also a frustrated and disillusioned population whose land has been devastated by five years of fighting.”

Many Afghan farmers have had their land destroyed, homes demolished and lives turned upside down – forced to flee the countryside where they have spent their lives earning a living off the land, whether it’s from grapes, wheat or other valuable crops. And despite a compensation system for farmers and villagers set up by coalition forces, many Afghan farmers are left without reclamation. As Gall wrote:

Yet Afghan officials and rural residents say many farmers have fallen through the cracks, partly because of the continuing war and because many areas remain under Taliban control, but also because of the corruption and carelessness of local officials. That means that many of the poorest villagers — whether through bad luck, ignorance or fear of retaliation by the Taliban — have missed out on compensation payments and assistance programs. Mr. Hamid, the grape farmer, said his wheat harvest was burned in the fighting. He and other villagers filed for compensation through the district administration. He was told the foreigners had accepted the claim, but said he never got any money.

The Times report is another reminder that Afghanistan’s future is inextricably linked to how well Afghans fair long after U.S. and coalition troops leave the country. And as Christine and I have written in the past, natural resources will play a critical role in sustaining Afghanistan’s long-term stability and security. “Fifty percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is derived from agriculture and ranching. However, frequent droughts, in combination with unsustainable land use and deforestation, have put 75 percent of Afghanistan’s land area at risk of desertification,” we wrote in our June 2010 report, Sustaining Security: How Natural Resources Influence National Security. “President Obama’s March 2009 strategic review of Afghanistan identified ‘sustainable economic development’ – specifically ‘restor[ing] Afghanistan’s once vibrant agriculture sector’ – as a major ingredient in America’s overall effort to sap the strength of the insurgency. Indeed, as the president noted, ‘It’s cheaper…to help a farmer seed his crops than it is to send our troops to fight.’ However, the effects of environmental degradation have been devastating for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan – and will confound long-term U.S. goals in the region unless addressed.”  

Ridding the Taliban from the land will be critical to be sure, especially in the near term. As Gall reported in her piece on Sunday, “Part of the problem is that in areas where the Taliban presence is strong, villagers cannot take compensation openly. ‘When the Taliban know you went to the district, or to the city, they come and see you and say, ‘What is this?’ Then they take the money and beat you,’ said one farmer, asking not to be named.”  But the Taliban may not be the long-term challenge for all Afghan farmers. Indeed, for many of them, sustainable resource management and adapting to a changing environment may be the greatest challenge. Only time will tell. But as the years pass by and many farmers continue to fall through the cracks, time is running short.

This Week’s Events

Today at noon, head over to SAIS for an event on China's Role in Water Management in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.

Then tomorrow at 12 PM, check out the Asia Society’s Asia's Growing Crisis: Floods, Droughts, and the Melting Himalayan Glaciers. At 4:30 PM, the Wilson Center will host another geoengineering event, this time a debate among high school students in Tinkering With the Temperature of Planet Earth.

On Wednesday at 7:30 PM, head to Georgetown for Pakistan's Floods: The Challenge Ahead.

On Thursday at 12:30 PM, the George Washington Institute for Sustainability will discuss Global Climate Solutions. Then at 2 PM, the Atlantic Council will host an event on Pakistan's Energy Sector: Arresting the Decline. At 3:30 PM, Brookings will assess Transatlantic Energy Strategies and Resource Nationalism: The New European Energy Landscape.

Finally, on Friday, Brookings will host another energy discussion at 9 AM, this time on Cuba’s Energy Future: Strategic Approaches to Cooperation . At noon, the Asia Society will discuss State Capitalism and Foreign Direct Investment: Are China and India Buying Up the World's Oil? Then at 12:30 PM, said will host a conversation about The Future of Electric Vehicles: A Perspective From the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

Have a great week everyone!