Gambling on pomegranates
Government officials in Afghanistan joke that Hollywood should make a movie called “2014.” That’s the deadline for U.S. troops to depart. It’s also the year a presidential election will put someone other than Hamid Karzai in office. It’s a double-whammy of uncertainty in a country that already has lots of reasons to be anxious about the future.
“Some people have already transferred all their cash from Afghanistan to Dubai,” my friend Shoaib Barakzai, a wealthy businessman in Kandahar, told me on the phone yesterday. “Everybody is afraid of 2014.”
But there are good reasons to be hopeful about Afghanistan’s future. Barakzai is one of them.
He’s a young member of a powerful family that got rich off construction contracts at Kandahar Airfield. For the past decade, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed to companies owned by members of his tribe, which counts a governor and an influential Afghan general among its leaders.
People who made big money off the war are worried about what the end of the U.S. military presence will bring. The economy around the base has already taken a nosedive.
But Barakzai dreams of starting a new business for the era after 2014: a pomegranate juice factory. He wants to buy pomegranates from all the farmers in southern Afghanistan, where the fruit often rots for lack of a means of export. He wants to employ 5,000 people to turn the fruit into healthy juice to sell in America and Europe. He wants Kandahar to be covered with pomegranate gardens, not poppy fields. Not battlefields.
Of course, he needs partners — real experts on juice, to help him build a state-of-the-art facility. Such partners are hard to find, with 2014 around the corner.
But it’s his dream. He is working toward it.
“If we leave the country, all the poor people will stay,” he says. “What will happen to them? Afghanistan will go back 20 years.” America’s effort — in lives, in treasure — would be wasted.
Not everyone who made a fortune in Afghanistan is going to reinvest it there. But if there are enough people like Barakzai, Afghanistan will make it.
There is a second reason to be optimistic. The past 11 years have shaped a young generation that completely rejects the Taliban’s rules.
Indeed, in Afghan cities, technology has created a cultural shift that could turn out to be more powerful than anybody’s militia.
In 2006, there were 200,000 Internet users in Afghanistan. Today, there are about 1.3 million. There were 1.7 million cell phone users in 2006. Today, there are more than 16 million.
The changes have been so dramatic that Kai Eide, the former head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, has revised his most dire predictions about the country.
“I am more positive about Afghanistan’s future than I was a year or so ago,” he told Harvard’s “Future of Afghanistan” conference on Friday. Although Eide is still worried about 2014, he said “these changes have created a completely new awareness that will, in the medium-term, break up the existing political order in Afghanistan and create a different order.”
There is a third reason for hope. There is evidence that even the Taliban understands it can’t go back to the way things were. Some fighters are showing a willingness to moderate their positions and lay down their arms. A few months ago, female members of the Afghan parliament met with Taliban representatives in France. Afghan officials say the Taliban accepts girls’ education now, as long as it is not in co-ed schools.
Last week, Karzai traveled to Doha, where the Taliban finally seems to be ready to open an office for peace talks. Afghan officials hope that, once talks begin, the majority of the Taliban will give up their insurgency and participate in elections. The Taliban would still be dangerous if it morphs into a political party. But it would cease to be an existential threat.
Afghanistan still has a tough road ahead, even in the best-case scenario. It has to grapple with essential questions about the role of Islam in political life, and how tolerant a society it wants to be. We can’t decide that for them.
But, as we make our exit, we can support forward-thinking people who want to invest in peace. This is a great year to bet on pomegranates.
Farah Stockman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.