Entrepreneurship Key to Sustaining Peace in Afghanistan

By Matiullah Rahmaty

As far as I remember – as a millennial Afghan – Afghanistan has been synonym with conflict. The conflict in my country has resulted in problems that continuously makes life harder for the population. Despite the efforts of the Afghan government and international community, peace in Afghanistan is still out of sight.

Ending the conflict and violence requires a good understanding of its root causes. Considering the relation between economic development and peacebuilding in Afghanistan, we can find out that unequal distribution of resources, unemployment, economic deprivation and most importantly lack of hope and a clear image for the future of a country have created a vicious cycle of violence, which is difficult to break through.

But instead of looking back, this time I want to look at the issue from the opposite side. I imagine a situation where peace is in place and people are happy. I believe many factors should be put together in order to have a peaceful country. The existence of economic opportunities is certainly one of the most important factors. A grown number of scholars and practitioners have come to acknowledge entrepreneurship as both a job creator and a peace incubator, particularly in post-conflict settings. Although the conflict in Afghanistan is ongoing, it is so with a reduced level with the current peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban. Entrepreneurs will contribute to economic growth and can lead Afghanistan towards peace. Entrepreneurship is a source for innovation, solutions to problems and thus a new image for the future of Afghanistan. It can be considered a solution to the tension brought by unemployment and lack of economic opportunity.

A growing number of entrepreneurs and a vibrant local private sector in conflict zones will contribute to peacebuilding. Entrepreneurs and businesses rely on good relationships with consumers and suppliers and also can be considered as brokers for peacebuilding. As such, they can be the link between the government and the opposite side of the conflict in order to ensure a stable economic environment. For example, a strong relationship between the government and entrepreneurs has supported peace in Tunisia and Columbia years ago.

Economic deprivation and unemployment can undermine peace and entrepreneurship can be a  source of employment and job opportunities. One of the reasons those who join terrorist groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan have lost a perspective for their future, often enhanced by long periods of unemployment. In a free market economy like Afghanistan, neither the government have the capacity to hire all the unemployed population nor it should, and the private sector and entrepreneurship, in particular, can and should fill the gap. The more entrepreneurs a community has, the more job opportunities will be created, the more innovation will be added to an economy and the more perspectives will be provided for individuals. This will lower incentives to join terrorist groups.

Notably, conflict is not only caused by lack of economic opportunities, but there are also many other factors, including political, as well as inequality among discrimination against one or other group of a population. Discrimination can take place to be based on many possible reasons and one of the reasons is economic discrimination. However, all Afghan ethnics have on thing in common and that is their desire to live in economically prosperous society. So, we can turn this problem into an opportunity. Entrepreneurship could also counter discrimination and unite all Afghan ethnicities.  So why not use this common ground and invest in it? I believe the Afghan government together with the established private sector can play an important role in fostering entrepreneurship by improving the business environment, including tackling corruption, provide access to resources, offer training and after all promote an entrepreneurial spirit. Innovation hubs as places where entrepreneurs can collaborate, learn and operate, could function as incubators for an entrepreneurial movement. Additionally, access to capital and funding is another essential factor for a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem.

There is a need for an entrepreneurial movement in Afghanistan so that these innovative personalities and companies can develop solutions to existing problems, including sustaining peace. Entrepreneurship can contribute to a peaceful Afghanistan that is economically stable and developed, where problems are seen as opportunities with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Photo credit: Ariana News.

Matiullah Rahmaty is the Founder/CEO of Bright Point Consulting Services. He contributes to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Afghanistan through his involvement in the national and international initiatives across the country. He advises the British Afghan Chamber of Commerce on important areas such as startup incubation, startup acceleration, venture capital, FinTech, co-working spaces and research into the role of entrepreneurship. 

Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Afghan Affairs does not take any institutional positions.

Can There Be A U.S.-Afghanistan Relation Beyond the Realm of Security?

Said Sabir Ibrahimi

Pundits who urge the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan argue national security interests and point out to threats emanating from Afghanistan. Indeed, 17 years ago, it was national security that took the U.S. military to Afghanistan. To date, the presence of more than 20 transnational terrorist groups in the region continues to justify the American military involvement in the country. However, a broader question that is rarely asked is whether counterterrorism is the only issue that brings the two nations together?

The U.S. military has said that there are some 20 transnational terrorist groups operating in and around Afghanistan that can pose a serious threat to the U.S. national security interests. However, less emphasized is the fact that the majority of these terrorist groups are not based in Afghanistan or directed by the Afghans. Data from the U.S. intelligence and other sources show that an overwhelming majority of these jihadi groups, including what is left of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), have either originated from or have safe havens in Pakistan. Even the Afghan Taliban (and the Haqqani Network), arguably the only Afghan “nationalist” insurgency, is also based in Pakistan. Other insurgent groups from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (IMU), and East Turkmenistan’s Islamic Movement (ETIM), who are seeking autonomy from China for Xinjiang province, are all also foreign.

Nevertheless, some of the aforementioned groups, famously the Taliban and IS-K, are widely operating in Afghanistan. In addition to the insurgency, Afghanistan also has a warlord problem. The country has become the hub for insurgency and instability because of continuous external support for the insurgent groups from abroad, as well as a divided Afghan political elite and weak Afghan state institutions. Under these circumstances, pundits are right,  an abrupt U.S. withdrawal could lead to the dissolution of the system created post-2001. As such, the security issue requires a long-term U.S. counterterrorism engagement, however, security engagement is not all there is for the U.S. to engage.

It is hoped that peace negotiations underway between the U.S. and the Taliban could lead to a deal between the Taliban, the U.S., and the Afghan government. This way a major threat (the Taliban) could be defused by bringing them into the political fold. Such a solution would be the best-case scenario, about which many are skeptical. Worst would be the continuation of war with or without the U.S. that could lead to yet another Afghan civil war reinforced by Afghanistan neighbors and other regional powers. Assuming the U.S. is successful in convincing Pakistan and the Taliban to cease hostilities against Kabul, it is likely that there is a peace deal. For such a deal to become a success and become viable, the U.S. would engage with Afghanistan beyond the realm of security.

The U.S.-Afghanistan relations could be expanded to the areas of economic development and democracy. This is not to say that the U.S. has not been involved in these sectors before, but the issues have been that the American involvement in economic development and democratization has been in support of America’s counter-terrorism mission in the country. Now is the time that support for economic development and democratization is made a priority and given as much importance as counter-terrorism. 

Kabul is making great leaps in terms of economic connectivity. From a landlocked country often dependent on one neighbor, Afghanistan is now connected to Central Asian, India, Europe, and China. The Afghan mineral wealth is estimated at about $1 trillion that is untouched, which could be utilized to benefit both the local people and investors. Afghanistan can also offer human capital – 70% of the population is under the age of 40. The U.S. already supports some of these programs but more could be done. For instance, encouraging the U.S. private sector to invest in Afghanistan. 

The U.S. is advocating for the democratization of countries such as Iran and Venezuela while in Afghanistan the U.S. has remained less vocal about it. This is when Afghanistan has embraced democracy and has held three presidential and parliamentary elections, noting that all had transparency issues, but people participated in these elections with enthusiasm. The Asia Foundation and other surveys show that a majority of Afghans favor democracy. These studies also show that Afghan men and women do not want to go back to the era of the Taliban. The U.S. can help Afghanistan develop a stronger democracy, including creating a professional and unbiased election commission, decentralization of power and building on the gains of the last 17 years. In a region plagued with dictatorships, military rule, and theocracies, the U.S. has a golden chance to help Afghanistan become a flourishing democracy and an ally.

Photo credit: AP.

The article was simultaneously published on the Small War Journal.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this essay are personal.