Afghanistan has had perhaps the most violent history of any nation in the last 30 years. Following the 1979 communist coup, a 10-year war with occupying Soviet forces cost an average of 240 Afghan lives daily. The civil war that followed culminated in eight years of repressive Taliban rule. The last four years have been dedicated to destroying and mopping up after the Muslim fanatics.
During this time every vestige of effective national government was destroyed. What had been an operating bureaucracy devolved into tribal systems of governance, incapable of maintaining both infrastructure and institutions, which descended into disuse and decay. Afghanistan's fate has been sadly similar to 14th-century France when the English decapitated the government and marauding bands of criminals and ex-soldiers led by warlord leaders pushed the country into lawlessness and chaos.
In Afghanistan, millions of families have been reduced to subsistence levels, as has President Hamid Karzai's nascent national government. Governments, in fact, are much like families, as both must have resources to survive and function. However, government can only take a part of its citizens' remaining income, once basic necessities are secured, and this source does not exist in Afghanistan today.
The U.S.-led coalition and their Afghan allies have gone far to further the Jeffersonian side of the democratic equation. The Hamiltonian aspect of providing ongoing funding for government has received scant attention with current services largely underwritten by the U.S. plus many nongovernmental organizations with decidedly nondemocratic goals.
Abraham Maslow wrote 60 years ago it is impossible to escape the hierarchy of needs. People need food and shelter before societal services like government can be supported. In this context, government is a luxury for the Afghan economy.
Fortunately, a solution is at hand: a modest but crucial program to rebuild sickly livestock, while providing viable alternative livelihoods for farmers cultivating poppies, the source of opium and heroin, Afghanistan's largest economic activity.
Currently, 82 percent of all Afghan families own livestock, an asset that, properly managed, can boost family diet and income, and simultaneously provide the fastest route to national economic solvency. War and drought have shrunk the Afghan grazing herds to about 20 million head, two-thirds the size in 1979. During the same period, the population has grown a third, resulting in sharply reduced and very expensive "protein on the hoof." Rampant disease, particularly Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), and unevenly distributed herd health resources ruthlessly restrict growth. Despite all the problems, raising livestock remains Afghanistan's largest legal industry.
Most of the short-fall in animal protein is imported from neighboring Pakistan at premium prices. Estimates are that more than $1 billion annually is exported to import cattle for slaughter and consumption -- in a country whose gross national income totals just $5.5 billion. Afghans "export" a crucial 18 percent of the country's national income to Pakistan. Eighteen percent is the same portion of national income Americans pay in taxes to Washington. Sufficient domestic availability would not only stop this drain but provide a colossal boost to the national income.
One billion dollars lost to the domestic economy is effectively a tax that destroys Afghanistan's ability to rise out of poverty. In percentage terms, this is comparable to the U.S. economy paying a staggering $2.2 trillion of its $12.2 trillion gross national income (GNI), 11 times greater than the projected $200 billion cost of hurricane Katrina -- every year.
This situation will exist until the Afghan herd reaches a size capable of feeding the population. Current growth estimates project herd self-sufficiency beyond 17 years. An inexpensive health program, however, could achieve similar herd expansion in less than seven years.
Recently completed research on the Foot and Mouth Disease virus will allow proper vaccine selection to control the FMD scourge. This is a necessity for a commercially viable livestock industry. Widespread vaccine distribution is possible through establishment of reliable refrigeration facilities at Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) run by U.S. and other coalition teams in 24 Afghan provinces.
The plan is simple:
(1) Establish a countrywide cold storage system utilizing provincial PRT sites for secure, refrigerated vaccine distribution.
(2) Stock the distribution network with a custom FMD vaccine, plus other livestock now in limited distribution.
(3) Launch a countrywide vaccination campaign, wherein Afghan veterinarians buy vaccines at subsidized prices, and herdsmen pay veterinarians to inject their animals.
(4) Eliminate vaccine subsidies over five years, progressively making the program self-sufficient.
The program is accessible, affordable agricultural free enterprise -- not another farmer welfare program. The estimated $40 million cost over five years to radically upgrade the Afghan herd's health and national nutritional levels is a fraction of existing alternative livelihood strategies.
Such a sharp fiscal upturn can go far toward stabilizing Afghanistan's bankrupt economy and is a necessity before critical infrastructure and services can be rebuilt and other economic sectors including mining and manufacturing developed. A major added benefit: replacing deadly poppy cultivation with an equally remunerative alternative animal crop.
The foregoing free enterprise solution will do more to fix Afghanistan's problems than divisions of soldiers and numberless NGOs. After three decades, Afghans will afford life's necessities and the expanded economy will sustain the government. The $1 billion going to Pakistan, when recirculated through the Afghan economy will add the equivalent of two month's salary to the average family.
Not a bad result for a five-year investment costing approximately 25 cents per Afghan citizen yearly.
John R. Thomson, a long-time resident of the Near East, visited Afghanistan before September's parliamentary elections. Lyle R. Jackson is a veterinarian and colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who has devoted the last three years to studying the plight of livestock farmers in Afghanistan.