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Islam and Politics ( 16 Apr 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Did Pakistan Cause Afghanistan's Lack of Economic Development?



By Murtaza Haider

April 16, 2014

Carlotta Gall's recent book squarely blames Pakistan for Afghanistan's and Pakistan's misfortunes. Pakistan, at least since the late 70s, has been instrumental in the wars waged in and on Afghanistan. An important question to ask though, is how Afghanistan was performing before that.

The post-Soviet invasion Afghanistan has been the subject of extensive scholarship and academic curiosity. Ms. Gall’s The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 is the latest in a rich and productive series of books on the region that started to appear after the attacks in the US in 2001.While thousands of academic articles, professional reports, and books have been published on Afghans, Afghanistan, and its neighbours, yet little, if any, details are available in the current discourse about the economy of pre-war Afghanistan. More importantly, one is hard-pressed to find any discourse on the economic indicators and trends for Afghanistan from the 50s and the mid-to late 70s.

The poor state of Afghanistan's economic development in the past four decades could very much be attributed to violence and wars that have killed several hundred thousand and forced millions more into refuge across the world. Pakistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Jihad-infatuated Arabs share the blame with the Afghans who took part in the destruction of their homeland. But how did Afghanistan's economy fare before the foreigners extended their unwelcome reach? Was Afghanistan on a road to socio-economic salvation that got interrupted by Pakistan-based jihadis?

The answers to the above-mentioned questions are hard to find. The academic and professional literature is rather sparse on the economic and human development of pre-Soviet Afghanistan. While many an anthropologist and social scientist studied the land and people, Afghanistan’s economy, however, failed to attract local or global scholarship. Academic literature and data covering Afghanistan's economy in the 50s and 60s is riddled with holes and gaps making it difficult to knit a complete portrait of the socio-economy.

The Land Of Insolence

It is true that Afghanistan as a State and an entity existed for longer than Pakistan has. Still, its current geography and the heterogeneous mix of ethnicities is not the result of deliberate state building, but rather an outcome of successful conquests by the British backed Amir Abdur Rahman, who ruled parts of present day Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901.

The British helped him set up the Emirate of Kabul (not Afghanistan) and supported him with an annual stipend (Lieberman, 1980). Over the years, Abdur Rahman subdued Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others, and founded ‘Yaghestan’, the land of insolence. Abdur Rahman also agreed, rather reluctantly, with the British in 1893 to have Durand Line as the de facto border with British India.

But cobbling together a country with diverse ethnic groups – who shared neither culture nor history, and who only had age-old mutual contempt for each other in common – meant that these groups were bound to struggle in sharing geography. Lieberman (1980) rightly points out to the historic origins of the Afghan crisis when he states:

… [T]he tensions [were] built into the Afghan state from its inception; the divisive geographic and ethno-demographic features; the demographic regime of exceptionally high fertility and mortality and rapid population growth; and the limited gains resulting from a strategy of ‘guided’ development and reform that was adopted in the 1950s.

By April 1980, the Afghan crisis forced 680,000 refugees into Pakistan. The number of refugees over the years swelled to almost 4 million. However, the origins of this crisis were hidden in the painful creation of Afghanistan and in the rule by subsequent regimes who transitioned only with blood-stained coups staged by palace insiders. Habibullah (1901-1919), Abdur Rahman’s younger son, who succeeded him, also failed in finding a narrative that would keep various tribes and ethnicities from staging rebellions. Amanullah (1919-1929), who succeeded Habibullah, faced rebellions from Pakhtuns and Tajiks. His reign ended up in anarchy until Nadir Khan (1929-1933), a former army commander, took over and restored order. Nader Khan (Shah) called himself the king, but was soon assassinated in 1933.

Nadir Shah’s brothers, Hashim Khan (1933-46) and Shah Mahmud (1946-1953), acted as regents for his son, Zahir Shah, whose reign lasted from 1933 to 1973. Zahir Shah, however, remained overshadowed by regents and other proxies who ruled on his behalf. One of the key players who enjoyed two stints during that period was Mohammed Daud Khan who first became the prime minister of Afghanistan from 1953 to 1963, and later served as President of Afghanistan in 1973 after he overthrew the monarchy of Zahir Shah, his first cousin and brother-in-law.

Daud Khan was the most entrepreneurial of the Afghan leaders. He succeeded in getting both the US and USSR in offering aid and support to Afghanistan. Despite his international success, Daud remained a staunch Pakhtun nationalist who dreamt of amalgamating Pakhtun populations scattered along the Durand Line. However, his misadventure in 1955 to mobilise Afghan forces against Pakistan on a dispute over transit trade sowed the seeds of mistrust betweenthe two countries. At the same time, the non-Pakhtuns in Afghanistan were alarmed by Daud’s attempt to tilt the demographic balance in Afghanistan in the Pakhtun's favour.

While Daud Khan was busy securing funds and support from international powers and posturing on Afghanistan’s Eastern border, he failed to build domestic support for his plans. He did not found a political party to support his plans. He, in fact is known to have made not a single speech to the Afghans during his tenure (Lieberman, 1980). Daud met an unfortunate end in 1978 when he was assassinated along with other members of his family. Their bodies were discovered decades later in the Pul-e-Charkhi area of Kabul. He was given a state burial in 2009.

The 100 years of discord, intrigue, and violent transitions lasting until the assassination of Daud Khan in 1978 are more of a result of Afghanistan’s internal schisms rather than caused by malfeasance of the Pakistani State or its agents. The same, however, cannot be said of Pakistan in the post-1978 events in the region where Pakistan became the launching pad first for the warring Afghan groups and later for Arab and other jihadis who have robbed the region of its potential and innocence.

Funding Development on Others’ Dime

Afghanistan has a long history of dependence on foreign aid. In fact, Afghanistan’s first five-year development plan for 1957/58 to 1961/62 relied on foreign sources for 75 per cent of the capital requirements. The reliance on foreign sources for capital declined to 64.4 per cent in the second five-year development plan and to 47.2 per cent in the third five-year development plan. Both United States and the Soviet Union competed to provide development loans on favourable terms and foreign aid to Afghanistan. During 1956 and 1967, Afghanistan was successful in securing an excess of $1 billion dollars in assistance with the US covering 35 per cent, and Soviet Union covering 52 per cent of foreign assistance (Noorzoy, 1976).

During the same time period, the state made little attempt to attract the private sector in development. The initial five-year development plans revealed that private investment constituted on average less than six per cent of the expenditures. At the same time, public ownership of the industries increased from 23 per cent in 1961/62 to 45 per cent in 1968/69. While successive governments blamed shortage of entrepreneurial talent in Afghanistan, it was though the reluctance of the public sector to share the stage with private sector players (Noorzoy, 1976).

Instead of modernising the economy, successive Afghan regimes perpetuated the reliance on traditional Afghan handicrafts to earn foreign exchange rather than developing a diverse export-based economy. In fact, 90 per cent of the export income was generated from trade in fruits, nuts, will, cotton, and hides (Eltezam, 1966). It is therefore no surprise that a review of the economic development of Afghanistan from 1929 to 1961 showed little or no tangible assets to bolster economy and the export base of the country. There were only 70 medium-sized and small factories in Afghanistan, three working coal mines, a fleet of only 6000 buses and trucks, approximately 40 electric stations, and 10 per cent literacy to boast for in 1961. The only major accomplishment was the development of the transport sector with new all-weather roads (Guha, 1965).

The lackluster economic progress in Afghanistan was blamed on its leadership and the poor state of planning. The five-year development plans failed to help build strong foundations for the country. In fact, the “five year plans were unimpressive documents drawn up with the assistance of foreign advisers and consisted of expensive ‘shopping lists’ of projects with little commentary on the need for a priority assigned to particular expenditures.” (Lieberman, 1980)

A look at the development statistics revealed that starting in 1960s, Afghanistan reported the worse statistics for human development. Afghanistan, when compared with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, reported the highest mortality rate for children under five. Other development indicators were no better.

Afghanistan had the lowest yield for cereals, lowest probability to reach the age of 65, and the lowest number of doctors per thousand populations. A quick look at the graph below reveals that the mortality rate for under-five years old in Afghanistan declined at a faster rate in the 80s than in the 60s or the 70s.

The drought in the early 70s was yet another major natural disaster that devastated Afghanistan, but had little to do with the Pakistani establishment. One could see from other civil wars that erupted in Africa after severe droughts that the Afghans were not prepared for the security fallout as an unintended consequence of the drought.

Poor economic planning, natural disasters, weak political institutions, and a polarised population with little in common were the reasons for Afghanistan’s lack of socio-economic progress in the past. The last four decades of violence and civil war has left the State and the people even weaker. It is high time for Afghanistan and its neighbours to learn from the past mistakes.

Pakistan should learn to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and refrain from any intervention by its agents. And Afghanistan should strive to address the internal rifts that have contributed to more than a century of violence and war in the country.


Lieberman, Samuel S. Afghanistan: Population and Development in the "Land of Insolence". Population and Development Review, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Jun., 1980), pp. 271-298.

Eltezam, Zabioullah A. Afghanistan's Foreign Trade. Middle East Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter, 1966), pp. 95-103.

Guha, Amalendu. Economic Development of Afghanistan – 1929-1961. (April, 1965). International Studies. Vol. 06, No. 4. pp. 421-439.

Noorzoy, M. S. Planning and Growth in Afghanistan. 1976. World Development. Vol. 4, No. 9, pp. 761-773.

Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of