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Meanwhile in Afghanistan

What does Afghanistan’s development point out about Iraq’s reconstruction?

April 15, 2003

What does Afghanistan's development point out about Iraq's reconstruction?

Despite the spectacular defeat of the Taliban, the U.S. record in Afghanistan so far is not encouraging. If anything, the Bush Administration's reluctance to enforce security outside Kabul has led to continued low-intensity fighting throughout the country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai dodges bullets when he ventures beyond the capital at all. Even efforts to reconstruct the country's main highways — which are essential if economic development is to take place — are wrapped up in controversy.

To make matters worse, heroin production is back up as well. That industry certainly does not promote the kind of sustained growth the war-torn country needs to pull itself up.

In the meantime, the White House — now occupied with Iraq — lacks resolve in terms of what blueprint to follow to turn Afghanistan into a viable economic and political entity.

Counterintuitive though it may seem, 50 years of development failures yield the most valuable lessons — if U.S. policymakers are willing to heed them.

Bill Easterly — the former World Bank economist — has developed relevant insights in his book "The Elusive Quest for Growth." He argues that the combination of income inequality and ethnic diversity is disastrous for development.

He zeroes in on a perplexing issue: Why do people work harder to expropriate others' wealth than to create their own? The answer: The focus on stealing and looting — in short, a breakdown in basic economic activity — occurs when some readily distinguishable group enjoys a huge disparity in income.

Under those conditions, people in the poorer group are open to the types of propaganda that steer them to view the wealthier community as an enemy. And not without reason: If a distinct minority is wealthy enough, everyone else will be tempted to benefit by seizing that wealth — rather than working to create their own.

The end result is often communal violence. As long as poor majorities believe the solution to their problems is attacking others, there is no hope for peace in Iraq or Afghanistan.

These conditions are not as widespread as it might seem. It is not just a question of wide differences between poor and rich. Income differences alone will not by themselves light a match to society. But income differences, if combined with ethnic or religious differences, can create the potential for violent confrontation.

This precisely describes the situation of the impoverished Afghan Pashtuns who were the ones to give rise to the Taliban. From a development perspective, the Taliban were a classic case of a large group rising against wealthier minorities.

Iranian-related groups to the west, Turkmen and Uzbek traders to the northwest and Tajiks to the northeast all enjoyed more wealth than Afghanistan’s majority group, the Pashtuns.

In Afghanistan, murderous warlords accentuated the effects of poverty. The logic was straightforward. Warlords had guns. And the Pashtuns did the work they were bid to do.

Quite simply, the folks in charge of Afghanistan once the Soviets left not only failed to establish order in the countryside. They exploited disorder. That maltreatment only sharpened Pashtun resentment of the wealthier ethnic groups that wielded power.

Unsurprisingly, a strict punitive code accompanied Taliban egalitarianism. An economist might be tempted to call it increasing returns to fratricide.

Against that clear-cut background, it is hard to comprehend why U.S. policymakers seem incapable of interpreting what they see on the ground in Afghanistan. They seem to hope that the entire country will simply throw off all those bitter inter-ethnic rivalries now that the United States has come to the country's rescue.

The trials and tribulations of Afghanistan are bad enough. However, of more immediate concern is the fact that Iraq represents an even more extreme case of deep ethnic divisions and stark inequality.

Majority Shiites in Iraq’s south have not had access to power or oil wealth in generations. Some Kurds in the north still live in a nomadic, pre-agrarian economy. But the United States is faced with a dilemma. A U.S.-led interim administration will require the support of Iraq's technocrats to get the country moving again.

Those are the folks who helped run things under Saddam. After all, they are the only ones with the expertise and experience to get basic services back on track. And they come almost entirely from that same wealthy Sunni group in central Iraq that has long suppressed the Kurds in the North and the Shiites in the South.

Worse, these central Iraq Sunnis have long used the political and military power of Saddam's regime to control the vast oil wealth that lies mostly in Shiite and Kurdish territory.

This is a potential land mine for the U.S. occupation, since it risks placing the United States on the side of the hated — because wealthy and repressive — minority.

That, in turn, would focus the Shiites and Kurds not on their own economic development — but on expropriating wealth built up by generations of Sunni dominance in Baghdad. It hardly sounds like a recipe for the successful recovery of the Iraqi economy.

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