Wars and Empire



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II. Agriculture

Afghanistan is not a monolithic entity. It is a mountainous and desert territory (c. 251,000 sq. miles in size, less than 10% of it cultivated). Administratively and politically, it is reminiscent of Somalia. The Taliban government - now recognized only by Pakistan - rules the majority of the country as a series of tribal fiefdoms. The country - ruined by a decade of warfare between majority Pushtuns and minority Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north - lacks all institutions, or infrastructure. In an economy of subsistence agriculture and trading, millions (up to one third of a population of 27 million) have been internally displaced or rendered refugees. One third of all farms have been vacated. Close to 70% of all villages are demolished. Unemployment - in a mostly unskilled workforce of 11 million - may well exceed 50%. Poverty is rampant, food scarce, population growth unsustainable. The traditional social safety net - the family - has unraveled, leading to widespread and recurrent famine and malnutrition. The mainstays of grazing and cattle herding have been hampered by mines and deforestation.

The Taliban regime has been good to the economy. It restored the semblance of law and order. Agricultural production recovered to pre-Soviet invasion (1978) levels. Friendly Pakistan provided 80% of the shortfall in grain (international aid agencies provided the rest). The number of heads of livestock - the only form of savings in devastated Afghanistan - increased. Many refugees came back.

Urban workers - mostly rural labourers displaced by war - fared worse, though. As industries and services vanished and army recruitment stabilized with the Taliban's victories, salaries decreased by up to 40% while inflation picked up (to an annual average of 20-25%, as reflected in the devaluation of the currency and in the price of bread). More than 50% of the average $1 a day wage of the casual, unskilled, worker, are spent on bread alone!

But this discrepancy between a recovering agricultural sector and the dilapidated and depleted cities led to reverse migration back to the villages. In the long term it was a healthy trend.

Paradoxically, the collapse of the central state led to the emergence of a thriving and vibrant private sector engaged in both legal and criminal activities. Foreign exchange dealing is conducted in thousands of small, privately owned, exchange offices. Rich Afghani traders have invested heavily in small scale and home industries (mainly in textiles and agri-business).






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