The Importance of Politics

by Joshua Foust on 7/28/2011 · 6 comments

In 2008, I came across the story of some potato farmers in Khost province. They had approached their local U.S. military commander to complain about an issue they were having. It was in January or February, and all the border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan were still closed off because of the murder of Benazir Bhutto.

After hearing them complain about how they couldn’t make any money selling potatoes, the local U.S. military commander asked them if they needed seed. “No, that’s not the problem,” one said back. “We have no problem growing the potatoes. But we cannot sell them.”

“Well,” the local U.S. military commander responded, clearly puzzled. “What if we paved you a road to the nearest market? Would that help you sell your potatoes?”

“No,” the Afghan farmer said back. “We don’t need any more roads. We don’t sell much to the local markets. Most of our customers are in Waziristan. We can’t get our potatoes to the main bazaar to sell them with these closures.”

The local U.S. military commander had an idea. “Well, can’t you sell them in Khost?”

“No, the farmer said back, clearly frustrated. “This waiting has rotten one crop of potatoes already. We will starve if we cannot move our potatoes to the bazaar and sell them.”

“I wish I could help you,” the local U.S. military commander responded, clearly concerned. “But I do not have the authority to re-open the border. That is a decision the governments in Kabul and Islamabad must make.”

The Afghan farmers gathered their potatoes they had brought as evidence they grow quality food and left, looking dejected.

This story is adapted from a real situation I encountered while still working with the Human Terrain System. The HTT member who recorded this situation was asking us researchers if there was any way to track the economic effects of border closures, or how one could go about asking Kabul and Islamabad to open them so local businessmen don’t get harmed. We never were able to come up with a good answer—there are estimations of cost, but they’re not grounded in much data.

There has been very little research about the economic costs of expensive cross-border commerce and how the unresolved political issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan contribute to a moribund local economy. From anecdotal evidence, the effects can be severe, but that doesn’t mean they’re severe everywhere.

What we do know is the difficulties of transporting commercial goods into Pakistan is such a hassle it’s causing traders to publicly complain to the government:

Hundreds of trucks laden with dried and fresh fruits, herbals, carpets, precious and semi-precious stones have been stranded on both sides of the border due to technical problems in the recently-signed Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), said Khan Jan Alakozay, the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries chairman.

This is a major problem in helping Afghanistan to develop economically. It is not a problem of infrastructure: Even before the U.S. military’s ginormous paving campaign there was a lot of commerce between Afghanistan and Pakistan (in fact, many analysts argue that it was the Taliban’s informal alliance with the so-called “trucking mafia” of Quetta that enabled them to be so effective at mobilizing their forces and maintaining some control of the roads). This is not a problem of security, either: The trucks are not being destroyed or attacked, they are literally sitting at the border waiting to deliver their goods.

The biggest barriers to Afghanistan developing economically are political, institutional, and regulatory—not physical or security or investment. Yet, most of the U.S. government’s efforts to improve Afghanistan’s security focus on physical solutions (like expanding the airport in Kandahar to export things like fruit and cement), security solutions (like the Village Security Operations the special operations forces are so enamored with), or foreign direct investment (as the TFBSO is so focused on). They focus on the wrong solutions to the wrong problem.

The U.S. government is not very active in resolving the political issues plaguing Afghanistan’s government, or its relationships with Iran and Pakistan, two absolutely crucial prerequisites to it ever becoming a stable country again. We should not expect a particularly successful outcome so long as the politics of the region are relegated to secondary concerns, if they are concerns at all.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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keith July 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm

I suggest the military invest heavily in pot stills and mashing equipment, then teach the locals to distill vodka. Then they can sell the vodka to the soldiers. It’s a win for everyone.

Johnny Matrix July 28, 2011 at 4:55 pm

You would also benefit from looking into the local capacity of food storage. As you and I know, it is common knowledge that most every farmer has a surplus and this surplus wastes away not only due to inability to sell in proximity, but due to simple rot. Without having to touch the dangerous AfPak border opening argument, one might have success developing cold storage capabilities in order to carry over revenue. There are many complexities within broadening cold storage techniques in such arid environments, but some have had success.

Also, and I know it sounds stupid, crop rotation is extremely lacking. Wheat in the winter and corn in the summer does not a sustainable revenue make.

Joshua Foust July 29, 2011 at 7:58 am


I think cold storage would help some. In 2009 one of the PRTs I advised was obsessed with building out cold storage. The problem is, they couldn’t figure out how to import one (I know, there is a process but it’s not always easy to figure out), the Afghans didn’t know how to requisition one, and no one could say one way or another if the local village had the money or resources to run it once the U.S. stopped paying for its operation and upkeep.

That’s a problem, and it’s one that development can solve, but I think it’s a jumping the gun a bit. Right now, they have a market they just can’t get to. While I certainly don’t oppose figuring out how to make cold storage viable, in the short term they really just need to get their produce to market.

Crop rotation is… ah. Had a long conversation with the ADT in Khost about that in 2009. I don’t understand it much, but those professional American farmers were beside themselves at how the Afghans kept missing productive land uses.

Steve Magribi July 29, 2011 at 12:36 am

This scenario is a constant one. This is the kind of situation that Commanders deal with all the time, all over the country.

What Johnny Matrix just brought up was the basic solution via Ag. Support Teams over the past several years, and storage is probably what the Farmers were angling for, because this has been done in several provinces. The Commander should have checked with Ag Advisors and even looked at getting these Khost potatoes into another market in the mean time. The vagaries of problems like this can have a great impact especially if solved in some way or another. The farmers were looking for a short term and critical solution.

In the scenario, the Commanders “oh well, I can’t open the border, I am really sorry etc etc” is not a good solution, and certainly at least not imaginative enough to deal with the important issue at hand for the farmers.

Of course, we could also debate whether this is or not really in the purview of the shorterming US commander or the Afghan Government? What does this say about the roles being played here by all the “actors.” in this situation.? Khost is very critical to the Insurgents and appropriate focus has been on this Province for at least the last three years. Even more so than Kandahar, Khost is ground zero for the Emirate and the Taleban South Eastern Command War Zone. Any progress in Khost is a great help to ISAF and GiROA. Likewise any failures are of great benefit to the Insurgency.

The economic relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and especially the close border issues brought up here are fascinating and very much worth in depth study. Micro level focus like in this example would be a real boon of information for Commanders especially if this was recorded and followed up on from Commander to Commander. The elusive “sustainable” progress. Of course, we all know this has been ignored to a large extent in our Aid programs.

What you are going to hear from the Brain surgeons at the Embassy is that they HAVE been doing this for at least the past two years. They claim that there is interdisciplinary work being done in each Province. I would submit that there has been an honest effort to work in the direction in the past 36 months or so. Probably way to late to make a decisive impact in any one area now.

The two countries are truly like Twins born together and interlocked, with different personalities. When one hurts the other can feel it, when they are not communicating it affects their whole outlook. Unfortunately the Twins have been having huge problems over the past several years and one looks like he has evil intentions-

Reminiscent of Cain and Abel. from the Bible for those of us “People of the Book.

GSo July 29, 2011 at 5:44 am

The obvious fix for the potatos was for the officer to buy them at market price, and then sort out the practical problems afterwards.

This is a tangent to an idea that popped up in a conversation I had several years ago with an intelligence officer who have spent several tours in Afg:

The Taleban was to a large degree relying on the opium trade to finance itself. If the Afg government/ISAF/etc started a program buying unharmed poppies for top dollars, it would achieve several objectives in one operation. The Taleban would have a harder time to finance itself. Government officials would be welcomed since interaction with them meant business and money instead of extortion and violence. Less drugs on the international market. Economic growth in rural provinces creating an increased living standard as a result of hard work (you had to grow in order to sell).

The EU used the same fix for several decades in order to stimulate the largely agrarian perifery of Europe. Farming subsidies is a proven way to lift the economic situation in rural areas. The cost of doing this in Afg would be small compared to current military costs, and would stimulate the locals to make their own improvements of irrigation and other infrastructure.

Start with poppies and potatos and expand the program over time.

It will of course distort the market (like heroin becoming more expencive and more potatos than people want to eat), but this looks fairly trivial compared to the current prospects of Afg.

Johnny Matrix July 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm

(/my opinion) The point being made is that this example is actually more of a metaphor than an example of what the commander was doing wrong and I agree. We’re not talking only about potatoes, but opium from Kandahar/Helmand and timber / gems from Kunar / Nuristan. All of these are potential exports that are in some way shape or form illegal to transport and sell in Pakistan. Therefore the black market is regulated and ran by the TB and they profit greatly from this.

While opening key border crossing points would alleviate this in GIRoA’s favor, we need to be prepared to answer the security issues. This ultimately connects us to the recent intensification of indirect fire hostilities between the two countries. While one side of the spectrum this motivates the ANSF to take a more aggressive role in transitioning, the other side can prove that these actions simply make border openings much less likely.

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