Left Behind

12 minute read
Krista Mahr / Kabul

There is something ineffably odd about seeing 400,000 pairs of new boots that may never be worn. In a shuttered wing of the Milli Factory in Kabul, a vast stockpile of tan military footwear sits mothballed in dusty plastic bags, waiting to be shipped off to the soldiers for whom it was made. But after a change in a contract with the U.S. government to provide boots to Afghan security forces, that day may never come. Fawad Saffi, whose father started this factory in 1979, surveys a hulking piece of machinery the family imported from Germany in 2011. “They kept on asking us to improve the quality, so we did,” Saffi says. “But then they disappeared.”

Three years ago, the Milli Factory was heralded as a symbol of the positive impact NATO troops and their war in Afghanistan were having on the local economy. Now it’s a symbol of what’s happening as those troops leave. Last year, the U.S. handed much of the responsibility of supplying Afghan forces — along with so many other things — over to Kabul. As contracts changed hands, Milli’s shoe production lines ground to a halt. (They still make PVC piping and mattresses.) Hundreds of workers lost their jobs, and the Saffis were left feeling cheated when their contract ended earlier than they’d expected. “In Afghanistan, we have a different way of doing things,” says Saffi. “If you make a deal, you make a deal.”

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Everyone knew it wouldn’t last forever. But as foreigners and dollars have begun to make their exit ahead of the withdrawal of international troops next year, a palpable sense of unease has settled over the low-slung Afghan capital. Lucrative contracts that fueled war-dependent businesses like logistics firms and private-security outfits are drying up. As international aid shrinks, thousands of Afghans face losing their jobs — in a country that already has a nearly 50% underemployment rate. The Afghan government recently estimated it would need half a million new jobs to fill the growing gap, but more and more Afghans don’t believe those jobs will come in time for them and their families. Many of those who can afford it are packing up and leaving. “One thing everyone is certain about is that there is a massive economic collapse about to happen,” says Heather Barr, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan. “Everybody is working on their exit strategies.”

Not everyone subscribes to that doomsday scenario. Afghanistan’s economy has been on an upward trajectory: real gross domestic product has grown an average of about 10% over the past decade, according to the World Bank. And though the billions of aid and military dollars that have been pumped into the country since the U.S.-led coalition forces invaded it in 2001 are beginning to taper off, the cash flow won’t dry up overnight. International donors have pledged to give Afghanistan $16 billion through 2016 that will help the government transition to a peacetime economy, a process Kabul estimates will take about 10 years. There are plenty of people who think that process is less a looming crisis than a return to normality. Afghanistan, they say, has never been a rich country, and the tens of billions of dollars in development aid and military money that has flowed in over the past decade simply created unrealistic expectations. “We should have never expected that the aid would continue,” Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance Omar Zakhilwal tells TIME. “But the way it was delivered … created a sense of dependency in the government and among the people. We must break that sense of dependency. And the way to do it is to start to live within our means.”

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The Great Unknown
Nobody really knows what that means, exactly, or what will happen next year when most of the foreign troops go home. Depending on who’s talking, Kabulis refer to 2014 with either a sense of dread or teeth-clenched optimism. One thing everyone agrees on, however, is that things are not going to be the same, and you don’t have to look hard to see how. HOUSE FOR RENT notices are already ubiquitous throughout the capital. In the center of town, a gated 35-room compound — replete with a sauna, whirlpool and safe room — that a foreign security firm used to rent for $50,000 a month has been empty for a year. (Afghan forces have taken over much private security, so foreign guns are shipping out.) The landlord has dropped the asking price to $20,000 — not exactly a steal, but then again, there is a squash court.

“Three years ago, we were searching for houses,” says Naqibullah Sherani, sitting in the customer-free office of Afghanistan Naween Real Estate in Kabul. Sherani helped start the business in 2005 when the city was flush with cash. Now, he says, sales are down by about 40%. International clients aren’t renting, and the Afghans who can afford to buy homes — even modest homes, without the facilities to rival a small hotel — aren’t investing until they see what happens next year. “We aren’t making any money now,” Sherani says, “but we’ll try to survive.”

Real estate is not the only business that’s taken a hit. “Investment is down. Private construction is down. Trade is down,” says Zakhilwal, the Finance Minister. “In the past year, the morale of the private sector has been severely damaged.” In 2012 the number of newly registered firms in Afghanistan dropped by 8%, according to the World Bank. Zakhilwal chalks up the foul mood to fearmongering by politicians and warlords who stand to benefit from seeing Afghanistan return to chaos. But investors and citizens have concerns that are very much grounded in reality. Despite the billions spent in the country, the government still struggles to govern effectively outside Kabul and provide basic services to its citizens, let alone build robust industries and create the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are desperately needed. “There’s been such an influx of foreign money, but not enough has been built to soften the blow of that money disappearing,” says Barr of Human Rights Watch. Many, including Zakhilwal, complain that most aid money was spent as international donors saw fit and not used to bolster the government’s budget. Then again, if aid had been administered by the government, it is unclear how much more of it would have ended up lining officials’ pockets.

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Foreign aid has, of course, done some good. The past decade has seen dramatic improvements in health care and girls’ education in particular, and Afghan forces are now leading security operations in about 90% of the country, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. But security is getting steadily worse as the Taliban have ramped up their attacks ahead of 2014. Parts of the country that used to be safe are now no-go zones.

That leaves the Finance Ministry, and other groups in Kabul that are trying to attract investors, in a quagmire. Less than 20% of the government’s total public spending comes from domestic revenue, according to a recent World Bank report. To change that, Afghanistan needs to attract more investment to create the jobs that will help keep frustrated young men from joining up with the Taliban and other militants. But it can’t get investors to stay as violence worsens. “You want to establish a sense of personal and economic security so you don’t have an instantaneous brain drain, a dramatic loss of middle managers and hence a repeat of what happened under the Taliban,” says Ken Yamashita, the mission director for USAID in Afghanistan. “It’s one of the things that keeps a lot of us up at night.”

Some people have already left — and returned. In the parking lot of an apartment complex in Kabul, Samir Sharefy sits in his dusty Toyota Corolla and looks glumly at a shuttered grocery kiosk. Last year, the 22-year-old sold the small shop when sales started slowing in the increasingly uncertain times. He paid thousands of dollars to a smuggling ring to get him to France, but he got stuck in Greece, where his handlers demanded another $10,000 to take him the rest of the way. Out of cash, Sharefy spent three months in a windowless hotel room before he walked out the door and handed himself over to the police to be deported. “I just wasted everything,” Sharefy says. “Every day I keep looking for work, but I can’t find anything.”

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The Long Game
Prospects are even worse outside Kabul. De Naw is only about 30 km from the capital; the sprawling hulk of Bagram Air Base can be seen from the road that leads into the village. On a warm Friday afternoon in May, little girls in their best frilly dresses and glitter eye shadow hang around De Naw’s main drag, while their parents eat in separate rooms at a wedding feast. Before long, figs and cherries will be falling off the trees, but those aren’t enough to feed the hundreds of families who live there. For years, men have been leaving their homes and crossing illegally into Iran to find work. “A lot of our friends and family have already left, come back and then gone back again,” says Aslam, who was 15 when he first went to Iran. He was deported after a few years. Now, at 22, he is unemployed, like most men in De Naw. “It’s the same situation all over Afghanistan,” says Aslam, who like many Afghans only uses one name. “Nobody has a job.”

Next year, the combat troops will leave, and life in De Naw will go on as it has been for years. The same will be true in many other parts of the country — because the real economic impact that tens of billions of aid and military dollars have had in Afghanistan is depressingly small. More than a third of the country still lives beneath the poverty line. Life expectancy — 50 years in 2013 — has improved only marginally in the past decade. About three-quarters of the population can’t read or write.

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A 2009 study conducted by the nonprofit foundation Peace Dividend Trust (since renamed Building Markets) concluded that, excluding security and military spending, less than 40 of every development-aid dollar spent in Afghanistan reached the local economy through, for instance, salaries. But the loss of even that contribution will be sorely felt in Kabul and more so in violence-prone areas that have had a larger military presence and thus been the recipients of more resources. The challenge for the Afghan government will be to figure out how to make enough money — and distribute it transparently — so that villages like De Naw do not get left behind and descend into violence.

Where will that money come from? The development of Afghanistan’s mineral, oil and gas resources is being pushed aggressively by the U.S., which is still by far Afghanistan’s largest single-country donor: USAID funding will total about $1.6 billion in 2013. (The Asian Development Bank, by comparison, is slated to donate $527.4 million this year.) Mineral, oil and gas extraction have the potential to generate much needed revenue and, to a lesser extent, jobs. But few expect to see any significant returns from mining for decades, and the extraction and transport of any natural resource will need substantially more outside investment for it to get started in earnest. Focusing more money on improving agriculture, which already contributes either a third or a quarter of annual GDP, depending on the harvest, could have a more immediate impact. But as public support dwindles in the West for sending aid to Afghanistan, the government will have to lead the charge in developing both sectors. “We need to show progress to justify the resources we are providing,” says Yamashita of USAID, whose budget is already dropping from $3.5 billion during the 2010 surge to $1.6 billion this year. “We have to show there is political will.”

In the end, it is the Afghans who remain — more than the politicians, or the soldiers, or the international donors — who will define what lies beyond 2014. Many are leaving, but many more, of course, can’t. Or won’t. Fawad Saffi slumps on a large sofa in the Milli Factory compound, toggling through YouTube videos of the factory during its heyday. Since his father was kidnapped and held for ransom, the Saffis have been working and living behind the tall walls and barbed wire of the factory grounds. Saffi, who was shot in the stomach during a kidnapping attempt when he was 18, doesn’t travel without armed guards. It’s hardly a normal life for a well-to-do 21-year-old, and his friends from Kabul’s international school who have moved to the U.S. or to Europe think he’s crazy for not joining them. “Their goal is to have fun,” Saffi says. “My goal is to stay and help the country.” He pulls up another old video of the factory in full swing, with women hunched over their sewing machines and men gluing soles on thousands of pairs of clean, tan boots. “This is my place,” he insists. When the deal is no longer a deal, only hope remains.

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