Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rubin: Taliban?- What's That Got to Do with the Price of Bread?

In the opening scene of Louis Malle's film My Dinner with Andre, the playwright/actor Wallace Shawn (memorably portrayed by playwright/actor Wallace Shawn) kvetches to himself as he goes about his New York daily errands:
I've lived in this city all my life. I grew up on the upper east side, and when I was ten years old I was rich! I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I'm thirty-six, and all I think about is money!
I thought of this scene after I returned from a trip to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1998. A few months later, during a discussion at the International Peace Academy, I summarized my findings as, "Outside of Afghanistan, all people think about about is Islam and extremism, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is money."

I often have flashbacks to this, most recently when a reporter who was gearing up for his first trip to the region by reading books on theology and political ideology asked me how it was possible for Hanafi Muslims like the Taliban to ally with Wahhabis like al-Qaida -- was it because the Deobandi school was closer to Wahhabism? I replied (with a pinch of exaggeration) that this had nothing to do with anything, and to understand the Taliban he would be better off looking into the price of bread.

Outside of Afghanistan people want to know if Deobandis are a type of Hanafis that are closer to Wahhabis, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is the price of bread. As I was leaving Kabul in January, the fixer who helps me get through lines and avoid bribes at the airport started complaining about the price of bread (as for bribes -- when one of the border police at the numerous airport checkpoints asked him for some money for tea, he pointed to me and said "mahman-i rais-i jamhur ast wa-farsi mifahmad" -- he's a guest of the President and understands Persian -- both clauses of which were exaggerated but effective). He complained that people in Afghanistan were concerned with only one thing: getting enough bread to eat, and so many were not able to do so. The prices of everything were so high! Under the Taliban the price of everything was much lower. I pointed out to him that we were driving to the airport (much improved, difficult though it is to believe for those seeing it for the first time) along a newly paved wide highway that could accommodate the increased traffic. He acknowledged all that, but said that many people were better off under the Taliban.

I paused a little bit to let that sink in, and then I asked him, So do people want the Taliban to come back? His eyes bugged out as if I had completely lost my mind, and he started waving his hands in the air and shouting, "No! No!" Of course this man had a secure job with the government, was about to leave for English-language training course in India, and had been able to go on hajj last year. I don't think that foreign soldiers had broken into and searched his house or killed, arrested, or abused any of his relatives (at least he never mentioned it, which others did). He was a hajji, but a clean shaven hajji. And by the looks of him, he was getting his daily bread, and then some.

But I had heard quite a bit about this bread. Someone told me that food prices had gone up 70 percent. After General Musharraf declared a state of Emergency during my visit in November, notes from Pakistani friends often spoke of a growing shortage of "atta" (whole wheat flour). On my flight to Delhi from Kabul I sat with a senior official of the Indian Customs Service who was advising the Afghan Customs Department. He told me that Afghanistan was importing only ten percent the amount of wheat that it had last year. U.S. Ambassador William Wood was trying to convince Afghan villagers that food shortages (like the insurgency) were due to poppy cultivation. (I always heard that food shortages led Afghans to cultivate poppy so they could buy wheat plus have some cash for other needs -- but that would require assuming that farmers earn money for their crop and can buy food on a market.)

What is going on? The Wall Street Journal (behind subscription firewall) answers the question this morning (hint -- it's not the scourge of narcotics or, to be fair, General Musharraf either):
The little known Minneapolis Grain Exchange is suddenly one of the hottest spots in the global financial markets.... Yesterday wheat closed at $22.40 a bushel on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, up from about $5 a year ago....Minneapolis has become ground zero for the global wheat shortage, which has been caused by drought in Australia and poor weather in other grain-producing countries. Global stocks are projected to reach 30-year lows this year, while U.S. stocks will reach 60-year lows.

The rise in agricultural prices, combined with high oil prices .. have contributed to higher food inflation in the U.S. and around the world....

Another byproduct of the rally by wheat and other grains is that food is becoming more politicized as countries dependent on food imports fear they will be left at the mercy of volatile markets and shrinking supplies. Such a development could exacerbate hunger while generating food riots or political problems at home.

To cope with high prices, countries have been rationing supplies by leveling tariffs or taxes on grain exports. [Kazakhstan and Syria have taxed or canceled exports, while Jordan and Egypt are short of food.] Pakistan recently stopped exporting some of its wheat flour to Afghanistan.
In addition, countries accounting for a third of global exports (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Argentina, and China) have taken some wheat off the market to address domestic shortages.

"Food riots or political problems...." Of course there were those riots in Kabul in May 2006 in which a few hundred angry young men paralyzed the capital for much of a day.... At several meetings I have heard former Minister of Finance of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani say that the most common definition of a "Talib" in southern Afghanistan is "an unemployed youth." Some Kandahari fruit traders I interviewed said that nearly all the fighting in Afghanistan was due to unemployment. Statistically, youth employment is one of the most robust correlates of civil violence.

Another thought -- this bad weather, drought, and so on leading to shortages not seen in decades.... Could it be related to climate change? I don't know. But I suspect that neither missile strikes, nor more NATO troops, nor a deeper study of Islamist political ideology will enable us to solve these problems.


Anonymous said...

Dear Rubin,

As always, well written and insightful.

Any suggustion you have? lol.

Anonymous said...

Related: Saudi Arabia has decided to stop producing wheat altogether, largely because of water shortage. A small but symbolic event.

Afghanistan Strategic Analysis & Debate Forum said...

Dear Rubin,

Undoubtedly, the unemployment can be one of the factors for Taliban recruitments but it has been more used as a tool to get more funds and attention of the donor community towards south. already great extent of development funds are being spent in the south to win hearts and mind, which has not been successful. The most oppressed and even now ignored parts of Afghanistan is central, where people are living with meagerer essentials but have neither became Talib nor cultivated poppy. Similar is the northern parts of Afghanistan, the unemployment is on its peak but people did not become Taliban. The people of central and northern parts of country are angry on having less attention by the donors and government in their development programmes but have never become insurgents. the slogan of unemployment in the south has been used more to get further development benefits and attention.

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