On Saturday, bloggers had a chance to chat live with Brigadier General Gary Patton, Deputy Commanding General (Programs) in Afghanistan. One of the problems with fighting the Afghan insurgency is that Afghanistan’s GDP is only $23.35 billion (2009 est.) with an unemployment rate of 40% (2008 est.), leaving few career opportunities for young Afghan men outside of the drug trade (Afghanistan’s number one export is opium) and fighting in the insurgency.
General Patton is leading the effort to develop the Afghan economy to the point of self-sufficiency, “what we’re trying to do [is] invest about $1.5 billion in the local economy this year in buying sustainment items for and equipment items for the Afghan army and the Afghan police, things like blankets, poncho liners, boots, socks, t-shirts, wet gear and that sort of thing. And we’re buying that [from] the local economy.”
He continued, “And what that does is create jobs. About three months ago, we found out, started looking at the contracts here. About six or seven boot contracts were imported from other countries. And our import office figured about two or three jobs as opposed to a factory making the same sort of products.”
General Patton is addressing a serious problem in Afghanistan: a massive trade deficit that leads to sky-high unemployment numbers, which in turn lead to more desperate young men that make up the Taliban’s recruiting pool. In 2008, Afghanistan’s total exports (including drugs) were only $603 million while its imports totaled over $8.27 billion.
As General Patton put it, “an Afghan with a job is more likely to side with the government and reject the insurgency. It’s all about winning the confidence of the population.” Taking this “Afghan-first” approach and investing $1.5 billion dollars in local acquisition will cut Afghanistan’s trade deficit by over 25%.
But General Patton acknowledged that the road to self-sufficiency is a long one, “Fiscally, self-sufficient is probably not achievable here in the near- foreseeable future…right now, we have objectives to grow the army and the police to a total of about 305,000 by the end of October 2011. But that force of 305,000 costs about $6 billion a year to
sustain. And so the Afghans cannot, in their current economy with their current revenues, cannot sustain their own security forces.”
He continued, “But again, the more that we can do to contribute to creating jobs and so forth, creating production and capacity within the Afghan economy, I mean, the nation ought to be able to sustain its own army in boots and blankets and that sort of thing.”
While boot and blanket factories obviously won’t solve Afghanistan’s problems in the near term, they’re an important step towards long-term stability in the region.