Monday, February 10, 2014


To understand Afghanistan, it helps to understand a little economics:

Consider these facts from a highly intelligent forthcoming book, War Front to Store Front, by Paul Brinkley: In 2009, Afghanistan had a nominal GDP of $10 billion. Of that number, 60% was foreign aid. The cultivation of poppy and the production and export of raw heroin--all of which is informal and underground--accounted for 30%. That leaves 10%, or $1 billion, of self-sustaining, legitimate economic activity. During the same year, the U.S. military spent $4 billion per month to protect a country with a real annual economic output of $1 billion.

"Kabul is a metaphor for the country," Brinkley said to me. "It is a city sized for 500,000 people. It has grown to 8 million, who have been drawn to the city by the massive influx of foreign money, military and nonmilitary. But that money is going to slow down very significantly soon. What happens then?"

Now let’s translate that to American terms: Imagine the entire population of the city of New York crammed into Harlem, because jobs are plentiful there and someone is paying $48 for every $1 you produce, and you get to keep the dollar.

Hell, who wouldn’t jump at that?

But what happens when the tap turns off? Now, you’re producing $1 for a population 16 times what your neighborhood can accommodate.

Most people will leave at that point, to be sure, but enough people will remain behind because, well, they can’t easily leave. Maybe they have a sick family member. Maybe that 12.5 cents is more than they’d make back in Bay Ridge. One thing is certain, people are going to get angry and people are going to get sick, and people are going to become desperate.

Hamid Karzai is doing his level best to decouple from the American occupation forces, because he understands that Afghanistan has a history of decoupling the puppets of foreign regimes from their heads. This is why he’s made sucking up to the Taliban a priority and the US security deal a stage upon which he may demonstrate his intransigence.

Worse yet, he’ll need the support of Pakistan, which is a little like saying a mayor needs the support of Al Capone. It won’t end well for anyone except Capone.

We went into Afghanistan to root out Osama bin Laden (and failed: he was killed in Pakistan) who was being protected by the Taliban. We spent tens of trillions of dollars that could have been spent here on real problems for Americans.

And we’re leaving it in as bad a shape as we found it.