Published on: 11:41AM Aug 06, 2009
We’ve just concluded America’s bloodiest month in Afghanistan since the war against the Taliban started eight years ago. Forty-two U.S. service members died in July. Casualties among allied forces and Afghan civilians have spiked as well.
This burst of violence has several sources. The most important may be an upcoming event: On August 20, for only the second time in its history, Afghanistan will hold a presidential election. The Taliban objects to this democratic idea. Instead of offering a candidate for voters to accept or reject, it runs a campaign of murder and mayhem.
The immediate goal is to make sure that the Taliban fails--and the election is a success. Over time, the hope is to bring peace and stability to a troubled nation.
That will require an ongoing commitment from the United States and NATO. It also demands a lot of creative thinking. Thankfully, Democratic congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland has put forward a modest proposal to increase the flow of trade. It would allow the Afghan people do more to help themselves.
I’ve never traveled to Afghanistan, but I’ve worked from a distance on a project to build its agricultural infrastructure. I have colleagues who have been there for extended stays and I leverage off their first hand insights. After more than a generation of constant warfare, the country has few of the basic resources that farmers in the developed world take for granted. The roads are not reliable. The lack of processing and warehousing equipment makes it almost impossible for growers to sell perishable goods to consumers who don’t live close by or to extend the marketing season.
It’s easy to imagine Afghanistan developing a vibrant trade in several commodities, such as pistachios. Right now, Iran is the world’s leading pistachio producer. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a democratic Afghanistan cut into the market share of the ayatollahs? It can happen--but only if farmers in Afghanistan gain access to the proper cleaning, sorting, and packaging tools. The same would be true for many types of fruit and citrus as well as other nut crops. The country is diverse in natural resources, but the market infrastructure is lacking.
If we don’t improve the ability of farmers in Afghanistan to move their products from field to market, they will continue to resort to what is already their region’s best cash crop: heroin poppies. Moreover, many of them will remain in a state of economic desperation--the very plight that Taliban recruiters have found so helpful to their foul cause.
The bottom line is that the people of Afghanistan, whether they work on farms or in factories, need more economic opportunities--and Americans can take small steps to help them.
Van Hollen’s proposed legislation, which has bipartisan support, would create “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones” in Afghanistan (as well as neighboring Pakistan). A limited number of textiles produced in these areas would enter the United States without having to pay tariffs for the next 15 years.
A similar effort in Jordan spurred a boom in light manufacturing. The theory is that these trade advantages would stimulate the Afghan economy and create the conditions for foreign investment. Several strong and dedicated NGO's are working there now but conditions must be improved to support sustainable investment and long term commitments of expertise.
Unfortunately, Big Labor is flying its protectionist flag. Van Hollen has tried to appease the union bosses by demanding that the opportunity zones meet certain labor standards. This could become a fool’s errand: Enforcing labor standards in Afghanistan is like trying to grow a vegetable garden on the moon. Republican senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has raised sensible questions about whether the bill’s restrictions go too far, and whether they will set a poor precedent for future agreements with other nations.
The good news is that Van Hollen and Grassley agree on the principle that trade is better than aid--and that export opportunities hold great promise for ordinary workers in Afghanistan. If they can work out their differences, they may deliver a small boost to a distressed nation in a challenging period of transition.
Americans would benefit as well. On the national-security front, a more prosperous Afghanistan makes for a safer world. In addition, a growing economy requires goods and services of the type that Americans routinely make and sell abroad. The project I worked on included bids and spec sheets from US equipment manufacturers to compete for substantial business. Over time, opportunity zones could give birth to two-way trade.
The people of Afghanistan are trying to replace bullets with ballots. In Congress, our lawmakers should support them--and vote for trade.
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a Truth About Trade and Technology board member (www.truthabouttrrade.org)