Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet its potential for growth is staggering. It possesses the resources for robust and sustained development for decades to come. In this semi-arid region, the country produces 80 billion cubic metres of water each year, but taps only 20 billion for irrigation, drinking and hydropower. Power being the critical driver of development, a regional partnership on energy initiatives could serve as the foundation of wider regional economic co-operation involving China, central Asia, Pakistan, Iran and India. Building oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan would increase speed and efficiency, and lower the cost of energy sources in Asia.
Unfortunately, the corruption of the current regime has allowed drug trafficking to flourish across borders instead. Yet rural farmers will turn away from poppy cultivation if their incomes from staple crops rise from the current level of $1 to $4 a day, and that is an achievable goal. In the short term, Nato forces, as buyers, could become the greatest friends of the Afghan farmers. As agriculture develops, regional importers of food – in the Gulf countries and particularly Iran – present huge opportunities. Were the EU to extend trade preferences to Afghan agriculture, as it has done to other countries, it would be a small chip in European agricultural policy, but a windfall here.
Afghanistan is also rich in copper, gold, gas, iron and barite, as well as gemstones such as emeralds and rubies. A mining-based economy is a real alternative, in the medium term, to the drug-based one. Both agriculture and mining depend on a reliable transport network, and so investing in the highways and railways is a priority.
A competitive national construction industry would put the country’s domestic resources to effective use, and be a potential powerhouse for creating jobs and wealth.
Afghan entrepreneurs are not short of money, but withering security and growing corruption are forcing them to take their capital abroad. In my time as finance minister, we completely modernised communications in Afghanistan, but refused to offer sweetheart deals to private companies. Instead, we insisted that they pay real fees through a transparent bidding process. This year, however, the ministry acknowledged that an estimated 70 per cent of potential domestic revenue is lost to corruption and mismanagement. It will take a government truly committed to transparency, accountability and the rule of law to create a stable, business-friendly environment in Afghanistan.
Though Afghanistan has suffered from its location for nearly two centuries, it could once again become part of a golden route of commerce, as in the days of the Silk Road, and its border provinces could be transformed into hubs of economic activity. The Afghan people are ready to do business with the world. The right government could help tap the country’s potential.
Ashraf Ghani, presidential candidate and former Afghan finance minister (2002-2004)