Operation Enduring Freedom: A Problem of Economics, Not War

Shortly after 9/11, the United States, the British Armed Forces and the Afghan-based Northern Alliance launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The stated goals were the capture of Osama bin Laden, the destruction of Afghanistan as a safe-haven for Al Qaeda, the removal of the Taliban, and, finally, to create a viable democratic state.

With overwhelming military might, the U.S. and its allies moved swiftly into Kabul, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda – now seeming to be a singular entity – retreated to the hills and to safe havens across the border in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Yet despite the removal of key enemies, the war is in its tenth year and counting.

The tragedy of the U.S.-led effort is that it has failed to fully grasp that the real war being fought is not a military or even a political one. It is an economic one. Until Western forces adopt a more economic strategy, the war will continue to look more and more like a quagmire.

Re-framing the debate.

Afghanistan’s (nominal) GDP  is $14 billion – $7 billionn less than Apple’s fourth quarter revenues in 2010. Even adjusted for purchasing power parity, its GDP clocks in at $29 billion, or, IBM’s earnings in the quarter that ended Jan 2011.

This is not good news for democracy.

As a recent Financial Times article explains, “The wealth of a society matters a lot to the sustainability of democracy,” and countries with a per-capital income below $1,500 rarely survive. Couple this with a young population (Afghanistan’s median population age just squeaks up to 18) and the monocropping of the small, but high-potential agricultural industry, and you’ve got a country barely making ends meet. Sure, Freedom and Democracy are nice, but they aren’t necessarily things you think about much when your basic needs are barely (if at all) being met.

The only way out is through

There are few systems in place in Afghanistan that can make use of the skills of its population in productive ways, but no one seems to be talking about it. When we do talk about development, we end up talking about things like girls being able to go to school which is, of course, VERY important, but more high-level symbolism than immediate solution. That change will come, however, when more women are a part of a professional workforce – which will happen when there’s enough of an economy for it.

Instead of lofty and, quite frankly, unrealistic short-term goals, we need to figure out ways to engage the population with jobs that would help build up Afghanistan’s infrastructure backed up by an economic framework that makes new industries more attractive than selling opium. While there is some thrust from microfinance institutions in the country, where is the Afghan version of Kickstarter, or OpenIDEO, or other innovation engines that will harness the abilities of the people today to help build for tomorrow? Creative investment-banking economics would be helpful here in creating (for now) artificially high valuations that meet expectations. Banks and bankers, are you listening?

Nation building implies not only military and political building, but economic building as well. All the effort seems to have been focused on the former. We now need more of the latter if we’re to turn Afghanistan around over the next decade. And yes, it will probably take that long, if not longer.

Aditya Anupkumar Like many in our generation, I've grown up not really belonging to any one place, ideology or belief. I've lived in China, India, Europe and the US; studied engineering and the hardware of the world, and culture and the software of the world. The interplay between those two, across political borders is what fascinates me. In my day job, I'm a strategist with an advertising agency.

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