The United States has signed a peace deal with the Taliban, an armed insurgency promoting an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam of Afghanistan.
The Taliban has battled the Afghan government for power for three decades. Since the U.S. invasion of 2001 following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, it has also fought the United States – an 18-year war that killed 2,300 American soldiers and more than 43,000 Afghan citizens.
The accord, signed on Feb. 29 in Doha, Qatar, follows a week-long truce and 18 months of stop-and-go negotiations. It sets the terms for the withdrawal of the remaining roughly 13,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan over 14 months. In exchange, the Taliban must enter talks with Afghan government officials and cut ties with terrorist groups like al-Qaida.
But peace in Afghanistan will take more than an accord. History shows that economic growth and better job opportunities are necessary to rebuild stability after war. My work on armed conflict, the environment and peacebuilding indicates that careful and sustainable use of Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources could be one path toward recovery.
Building a lasting peace
Insurgent groups recruit people who desperately need an income. As Wired magazine reported back in 2007, the Taliban paid its soldiers far better than the Afghan government. Today, salaries for members of ISIS-KP, the Islamic State’s local branch, are reportedly even higher.
Creating well-paid alternatives to extremist groups, then, is a critical piece in solving Afghanistan’s national security puzzle.
And since many fighters for insurgent groups in Afghanistan come from a farming background – and agriculture accounts for 40% of total jobs in Afghanistan – rural development will be particularly important for peacebuilding.
“Strengthening natural resource-related livelihoods can [provide] a future for youth who might otherwise join rebel forces,” says Carl Bruch, president of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, a nonprofit organization that studies the relationship between armed conflict and natural resources.
The United States Agency for International Development, which also funds efforts to build the economy of post-conflict countries like Colombia and Democratic Republic of the Congo, sees sustainable economic growth as crucial for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.
Figs, saffron and pine nuts
The export market for coveted Afghan agricultural products like cashmere, pine nuts, figs and saffron is one potentially lucrative sector of the rural economy.
In November 2019, several Chinese importers finalized a deal with Afghan companies to buy US$2.2 billion in Afghan pine nuts over the next five years.
Other agricultural exports from Afghanistan are finding their place in the world market, too. Grape sales brought Afghanistan $143 million in 2017. Tropical fruits earned $101 million. Afghanistan’s economy grew 2.9% in 2019, largely driven by agriculture.
The Afghan government recognizes its potential as a global source of fine foods.
Eight months after Afghan president Ashraf Ghani created several new air corridors in 2018 – safe and direct flight paths created for trade and other purposes – exports from Afghanistan increased 32%. These air routes connect Afghanistan to India, Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, Europe, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan – commercial hubs that give Afghan products access to other trade destinations.
Recently, browsing in a local health food store in Los Angeles, I was surprised to come upon a bright red bag of Kandahar figs.
The distributor, Ziba Foods, told me that 80% of their workforce – both management and staff positions – is female, and that the company provides English lessons and other professional development to staff.
“We are committed to providing our Afghan staff with year-round employment despite the cyclical nature of the agricultural sector,” Ziba partner Raffi Vartanian said.
Emeralds are another Afghan product with the potential to drive economic growth. High up in the Hindu Kush mountains of Panjshir Province are buried vivid green emeralds of noted color and purity.
The inhabitants of Panjshir once sold these famous emeralds to finance their resistance to Soviet occupation. In a more stable future, these precious stones could provide substantial incomes for people in an area that’s too mountainous for farming or herding.
Afghanistan exported an estimated $100 million in emeralds in 2018, according to InColor Magazine, a publication of the International Colored Gemstone Association. In 2015, Christie’s auction house sold an Afghan emerald for $2,276,408, a record price for Christie’s.
Despite some recent road repairs, the mountainous and remote Panjshir region remains extremely difficult to get in and out of. With better access, improved technology and more training for miners, analysts estimate Panjshir could produce $300 to $400 million worth of emeralds each year.
Afghanistan’s peace deal comes just over 40 years after the 1979 Soviet Invasion that triggered a cycle of armed conflict that has destabilized this Central Asian nation since.
An estimated 2.5 million Afghans were killed or wounded during the decade-long Soviet occupation. The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 left the country in chaos, vulnerable to the eventual rise of militant groups like the Taliban, al-Qaida and, eventually, IS-KP.
Though the 27.5 million Afghans under the age of 25 have only known war, the population is eager for peace. A late 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation of 18,000 Afghans found that 90% of those surveyed strongly supported negotiations with the Taliban.
Older Afghans remember happier times. My husband, who left Afghanistan as a young man after the Soviet invasion, has photo albums showing his family grilling kebabs and lounging in the rose-filled Paghman Gardens, just outside the city. Back then, beautiful Kabul was known as “the Paris of Central Asia.”
Many of Paghman’s lawns and palaces are now in the process of careful restoration – a hopeful sign after decades of destruction.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan’s spectacular natural landscapes attracted thousands of tourists each year, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. Young travelers who took the famous “Hippie Trail” – a 4,660-mile journey from London to Goa, India – would pass through Afghanistan.
Ecotourism is another industry that could develop in Afghanistan if armed conflict there ends.
A Taliban accord ends America’s Afghanistan war. But only in creating meaningful jobs and sustainable economic development will a durable peace take root.
This is an updated version of an article originally published Dec. 10, 2019.