Soft Power, Smart Strategy Needed in Afghanistan

Experts at USF conference say lasting security is in sustainable water, economic development.

By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 15, 2012) – Afghanistan may be sitting on a trillion dollars worth of gold, copper and rare earths, but the war-torn country hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of what it would take to build a self-sufficient country that could resist extremist regimes, terrorist groups and international drug cartels.


For Afghanistan to stand on its own – and for the United States to make its next decade of committing billions of dollars in aid and security forces its last – the country needs a plan to build a functioning economy, said experts at a USF conference which has spent three days exploring the challenges in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. And that economic policy must start with the basic component of life: water.


Water is needed to support not only Afghanistan’s agricultural sector in large quantities, but also any future development of the mining and energy sector.


Workers excavate a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, Afghanistan (Foto vom 12.10.10). The archaeological dig is located at the world's second-biggest unexploited copper mine. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. (zu dapd-Text) Foto: Dusan Vranic/AP

“One of the few things apparent is we will be in much better position to achieve American goals if we focus on ‘soft power’,” said USF Professor Mohsen Milani, an internationally-recognized expert on the region. “Focusing on soft power is cheaper than force and a more durable and sustainable result for the U.S.”


Water: the Key to Regional Stability thru Sustainable Partnerships drew military, intelligence analysts, development and corporate leaders to USF’s Joint Military Leadership Center for three days of discussions on Afghanistan and its neighboring region. The event was organized by USF College of Public Health Professor Tom Mason as the latest in a series of high-level discussions on the challenges of Central Asia and the Middle East.


Participants agreed that settling Afghanistan’s security issues starts with human development, but cautioned that a development agenda must be mindful of the cultural, environmental and political realities of one of the poorest and most dangerous nations on the planet.


The 10-year pact signed by the White House and the Afghan government earlier this month which commits the U.S. to involvement in Afghanistan until 2024 specifically mentions water and energy infrastructure as an area of on-going cooperation between the two countries.


But what that means has not been well-defined. A former Karzai government official attending the conference – Adib Farhadi, the former Director of the Afghanistan Reconstruction and Development Services, told the gathering there is no water strategy for the country at either a local or ministerial level and it remains one of the country’s most difficult challenges.


The problem is that by ramping up Afghanistan’s agriculture or mining production as the U.S. troops draw down and the local Afghan economies lose a source of income from working with American fighting forces, economic development will be in competition with people for scarce water resources. For example, a world-class copper mine about 30 miles from Kabul is being developed by a Chinese mining company which will be drawing water from the same source needed for the booming city of more than 4 million. The development agreement holds the Chinese company to providing adequate water for the mining operations, but isn’t specific in how they would provide it, Farhadi said.


Afghan workers build a kiln to fire bricks on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2005. As Afghanistan struggles to rebuild itself, some brick factory owners say demand for their products has dropped in recent years because of the arrival of new building materials such as concrete.(AP Photo/Tomas Munita)

About 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population depends on agriculture for their employment, and 85 percent of the legal crops grown in Afghanistan – wheat and pomegranates rather than opium poppy – need active irrigation. Add to that the challenge of providing safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, and using water for economic development becomes exponentially more challenging.


Jack Medlin, who served as an Afghanistan project manager for the U.S. Geological Survey, said that not only is there very little technical capability in the country, the basic information needed to begin economic development doesn’t exist either.


“No one knows how much water is in this country,” said Medlin, who lead a project to survey the country for mineral mines as the first step in helping the nation develop its mining sector. “No one knows how much is used for the various demands. We know almost nothing, despite all the work we tried to do.”


How far does Afghanistan have to go? Medlin noted that there were no operating cement plants in Afghanistan when he was there around 2006, and instead Afghanistan was importing about $300 million in cement from Pakistan. Without cement they can’t build roads, and other experts noted that even if companies were interested in mining Afghanistan’s riches, there is no rail system to move the minerals out to where they could be sold on the international market.


Without a functioning economy, the fear is that Afghanistan becomes a permanent aid state for the world or becomes vulnerable to extremist takeovers as it did when the Taliban came to power.


Charles Mouzannar, executive vice president for growth regions and construction for engineering giant AMEC, which has a U.S. government contract to build security facilities and general infrastructure in Afghanistan, said security is a primary concern in trying to bring foreign investment into Afghanistan.  Others also shared concerns that building new damns and power plants also would make them targets in the continued struggle by the Taliban to regain control of the country.


Noor Agha, 15, counts his 200 afghani (4us dollars) he got paid for a day working in a brick kiln in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 3, 2005. Just four years ago, the open-air factories of Kabul bustled as builders bought up thousands bricks to supply a construction boom after the fall of the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001, but with international aid agencies, U.S. military reconstruction teams and private citizens now opting for concrete, business has waned and many ovens have gone cold. (AP Photo/Tomas Munita)

Another potential casualty: the already-stressed Afghan environment. Climate change has reduced the size of the mountain glaciers that provide the country with much of its water, presenting long-term concerns about what might happen to even its most basic economy in years to come.


“Water protection should be the highest priority and it sometimes should be at the expense of reduced mineral productivity,” Mouzannar said.


“We need to be able to make sure when the standards are put together, there are also sustainability standards.”


For more information on the conference, click here. Links to additional information, supporting documents and archived video of the conference will be posted when available.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.