By Christina Bartzokis
All but 10,000 US troops will have withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Meanwhile, newly elected Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has promised to implement sweeping political reform to fight corruption. These dramatic changes have left Afghanistan’s political and military future unclear – but more gradual changes occurring in Afghanistan’s economic development may have equally important repercussions. Afghan journalist Mujib Mashal elaborated on many of these developments during his talk, “Afghanistan: Stories from a Country at a Crossroads.”
The United States has spent $1.6 trillion dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, and the influx of revenue into the poor country has created a new elite class in the Afghan social structure, Mashal explained. This new elite class can be divided into two factions: the “oligarchs,” powerful figures in Afghanistan who secured large cuts of American investment, and young entrepreneurs, who were able to capitalize on their new access to American resources. Many of the new economic “oligarchs” had political connections, which combined with the lack of regulation in the Afghan economy, allowed them to monopolize the industry for certain American demands. The young entrepreneurs also conducted business with Americans, but on a smaller scale: many of them started their own businesses after being sub-contracted by American military contractors.
However, the emergence of these new economic forces has led to fundamental changes in Afghanistan’s political environment. Many members of the new economic elite, both oligarchs and entrepreneurs, have used their wealth to buy influence in governmental policies. “Corruption has become so pervasive that you can’t tell anymore what is corrupt and what is not,” Mashal explained, “Corruption has become the norm.” Although President Ghani delivered a strong speech on reform upon his inauguration, his recent policies have called his promises into question. For example, one of his first moves was to promote former Minister of Finance Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal to national finance advisor, despite the allegations of corruption and mismanagement that have plagued Zakhilwal’s career. Mashal hopes that this move is part of a period of transition that will ultimately lead to greater institutional and administrative reform.
Nevertheless, America’s exit from the country has increased the pace of economic change. Anticipation of an abrupt diminishment of American capital has led many oligarchs and entrepreneurs to double down on their efforts to build political connections. Since fewer resources will be available to them following the American withdrawal, Mashal says that many are looking to their political connections to provide them with new government contracts. Some in Afghanistan are also looking to new foreign capital, including from China, which has been investing heavily along the former Silk Road. Afghanistan’s economic landscape is evolving, and the tangled political connections of its new financial power holders may force Afghan politics to change equally quickly.
Christina Bartzokis is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org