Administration’s New Strategy for Afghanistan: Economic Development and Governance

The administration is signaling a new strategy for Afghanistan: “economic development and governance”. On the front page of the Washington Post last week, President Obama’s national security adviser, James L. Jones, told Bob Woodward:

“The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed.”

This is an appealing statement. But does it make any sense?

Providing people with the means to earn a decent standard of living is a good thing in itself, and better future prospects can encourage them not to fight. Economic stress often – but not always – encourages violence.

Still, there are three problems with the Jones Doctrine, as applied to modern Afghanistan.

1. Economic development generally requires a high level of physical security. You only make investments if you are reasonably confident that you will live to see the benefits of those investments. If setting up a store or planting more acreage raises your profile in the community and makes you more of a target, why not keep your head down? The Taliban knows this and acts accordingly. Economic development is something that follows – hopefully – from more physical security, rather than providing an alternative.

2. The U.S. can provide more resources to targeted communities, e.g., roads and other physical infrastructure, improved health, and more teachers. But none of this necessarily adds up to sustained increases in incomes. This may not be a problem, if we are willing to keep ploughing money in essentially without limit. But what is the budget for this activity and how much support does it have on Capitol Hill?

3. If you can achieve security and provide infrastructure, what exactly will the rural citizens of Afghanistan invest in? If it’s opium poppy production, doesn’t that create a whole other set of issues? If you try to prevent people from cultivating poppy, what exactly are their alternatives – and how much money can they make? If you try to eradicate poppy production, doesn’t that undermine the physical security goal? And if the poppy trade gains the upper hand, doesn’t that support illegality and mafia-type activity in both Afghanistan and its neighbors? How does that impact the Jones’ Doctrine sensible emphasis on improving governance?

All of these questions surely have answers, but none of these answers seem easy or should be assumed to have political support. If you really want to switch emphasis in Afghanistan, there needs to be a much more engaged and detailed conversation – led by the White House and very much involving Congress.

As it currently stands, the Jones Doctrine appears more as a slogan for an intra-military discussion about troop levels (68,000 vs. 100,000). Or perhaps it is just an exhortation to keep civilian casualties down – a sensible goal, but not by itself offering a way out of the quagmire.

About Simon Johnson 101 Articles

Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., a co-founder of BaselineScenario.com, a widely cited website on the global economy, and is a member of the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Johnson appears regularly on NPR's Planet Money podcast in the Economist House Calls feature, is a weekly contributor to NYT.com's Economix, and has a video blog feature on The New Republic's website. He is co-director of the NBER project on Africa and President of the Association for Comparative Economic Studies (term of office 2008-2009).

From March 2007 through the end of August 2008, Professor Johnson was the International Monetary Fund's Economic Counsellor (chief economist) and Director of its Research Department. At the IMF, Professor Johnson led the global economic outlook team, helped formulate innovative responses to worldwide financial turmoil, and was among the earliest to propose new forms of engagement for sovereign wealth funds. He was also the first IMF chief economist to have a blog.

His PhD is in economics from MIT, while his MA is from the University of Manchester and his BA is from the University of Oxford.

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