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.