By: Elizabeth B. Hessami
Potential water wars due to plans for multiple dams, violent opium cartels supporting world heroin markets, and many conflict-financing minerals including everyday talc used for baby powder. These are the types of natural resources stories that usually make front page news about Afghanistan. But natural resources have a significant role to play in stabilizing Afghanistan. Instead of being a source of conflict, they may help with peacebuilding by creating livelihoods and creating opportunities for ex-combatants.
The recent Doha talks succeeded in creating an exit strategy for the United States, and potentially intra-Afghan talks which may lead to peace, but still raise many questions. What will happen once U.S. troops exit Afghanistan after a dismal 18-year battle with the Taliban? Could judicious use of natural resources be the key to a brighter future if some sort of peace is achieved?
Internal Fighting Persists Despite Doha Deal
The recent Doha talks have not ended armed conflict in Afghanistan for the Afghans. In fact, the ink was barely dry on the February 29 “Doha Deal” between U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban movement in the 1990’s, when hostilities broke out as Taliban forces attacked multiple Afghan forces’ locations and the United States retaliated.
The Doha talk’s objective was clearly to help the United States exit Afghanistan and encourage intra-Afghan talks to follow. These talks are now in serious jeopardy due to a squabble over who is President. On March 9, there were two separate Presidential swearing-in ceremonies for Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and the sitting president and a confusing prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government that current President Ghani rejected.
From Pine Nuts to Figs, Demand for Afghan Products is Growing
In spite of political uncertainties and continued sporadic violence over the past several years, Afghanistan’s economy has been growing at an impressive clip. This growth is largely due to the agricultural sector and trade deals President Ghani set in place over the past few years. They have greatly expanded markets for Afghan products, particularly agricultural products. The Afghan economy grew 2.9 percent in 2019 and is expected to grow 3.3 percent in 2020, according to a recent World Bank Report.
Afghanistan’s exports include products as varied as saffron to carpets, talc to gemstones, marble, and fresh and dried fruit. And demand for these exports is increasing.
Figs are another product that Afghanistan is becoming increasingly well-known for. There are 2,500 hectares (6,178 acres) of fig fields in Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan. “According to our calculations, this year we will produce 50,000 tons of figs in the province,” Hafizullah Saeedi, head of Kandahar’s Agricultural and Irrigation Department, told Tolo News. I have personally bought Afghan figs in Los Angeles health food stores and can attest to how delicious they are.
Afghan Agricultural Products Flying to New Markets
Policies President Ghani established to encourage agricultural trade with several nations have worked well. For example, Air Corridors (pre-planned routes for commercial flights to facilitate trade between two nations) have been hugely successful. The trade routes helped achieve a major Afghan goal of reaching new markets across the region despite Afghanistan’s challenge of being landlocked.
Two of Afghanistan’s biggest partners in these new trade deals are China and India. A major Air Corridor from Afghanistan to China was established. The new air corridor is expected to export an estimated $700 million and $800 million of Afghanistan’s pine nuts to China annually, according to a statement from the Presidential Palace. Other Air Corridor routes include: Kabul to Delhi; Kabul to Mumbai; Kabul to Riyadh; Kabul to Istanbul; Kabul to Dubai (U.A.E.); Kabul to Almaty (Kazakhstan); and routes from Afghanistan to Russia, Europe, and China.
India has emerged as one of Afghanistan’s most important trading partners. During talks between Indian Prime Minister Modhi and Afghan President Ghani a few years ago, the trade goal of US$5 billion was set. Currently, bilateral trade amounts to approximately US $900 million. When I spoke with Afghan Environmental Activist Asef Ghafoory, he was optimistic about the continued growth of the agricultural sector. “Due to the air corridor program, we can now export a lot of agricultural products to Europe and the United States. … China is one of Afghanistan’s most important trading partners as it is easy to export to China,” he said. And he noted that the increased use of solar water pumps has made irrigation much easier for the small Afghan farmer.
From Fighters to Farmers
In order to truly stabilize Afghanistan, livelihood creation is critical. If a peace deal is reached through intra-Afghan talks “a critical challenge will be the reintegration of tens of thousands of former fighters and their families into civilian life,” according to Reintegration of Ex-Combatants: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan, a recent report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Drawing a clear path away from insurgent groups and back to civil society for ex-combatants is imperative to stabilize Afghanistan. In my discussions with Asef, he noted that high-quality Afghan saffron can be as valuable as growing narcotics. Thus, it could supplant some of the opium trade controlled by insurgent groups and help to foster peace. Many insurgents have been fighting since they were children and would like a way out. Agriculture can offer this. Many came from farming families and a life in agriculture is a familiar one. Supporting the agricultural sector and economic development of Afghanistan could help foster peace after 40 years of armed conflict—perhaps more than any talks can.