Strategic Competition in Afghanistan: Why Leveraging Kabul’s Food and Water Security Situation Must be Earned, not Expected

21 March 2017 Benjamin Walsh, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Corruption, property rights and climate change are three challenges that contribute to Afghanistan’s food and water woes out to 2030.
  • Afghanistan’s food and water security situation is bleak because Kabul must rebuild a “failed state” as well as address newer threats like climate change.
  • India and Pakistan are looking to take advantage of Kabul’s development drive.
  • Their ability to leverage Afghanistan’s food and water security will first depend on their ability to earn a diplomatic “opening”; Kabul must be able to trust them first if future food and water agreements are to eventuate.
  • India has gained Afghanistan’s trust by keeping its word on development projects and foreign aid, whereas Pakistan, unwilling to work with Kabul on military matters, has not gained the trust necessary to advance food and water policies.


Afghanistan, a small landlocked country recovering from decades of war, occupies a strategic positon in the South Asian region that states past and present have aimed to exploit for their own geopolitical reasons. Ranked the 31st most water scarce country in the world and a country whose people lack sufficient dietary diversity and depth, Afghanistan is on the brink of a food and water crisis. The first section of the paper examines some of the main challenges to Afghanistan’s food and water security out to 2030: corruption, property rights and climate change. The second section of the paper analyses India and Pakistan’s attempts to leverage Afghanistan’s situation for their own national interest. Vital to said leveraging is that countries that meet Afghanistan’s national desires, like security and development, stand a better chance of gaining a strategic place in Kabul to influence, for themselves, one of Afghanistan’s greatest security threats: food and water security. Readers will see that India does this well compared to Pakistan.


 Challenges to Food and Water Security in Afghanistan

Afghanistan faces many challenges that serve to hinder the country’s food and water future. In his book, Colossus, the historian Niall Ferguson argues that a state can achieve good economic success if the right political, economic and legal institutions are put in place. In this section I will attempt to argue that Afghanistan’s food and water security outlook to 2030 is bleak because the country has to firstly deal with older institutional problems, such as good government and the formation of legal institutions and norms, on top of emerging challenges like climate change. For Afghanistan to achieve food and water security, the country must first secure a developed institutional base that eliminates corruption, makes infrastructure projects easier to implement and improves land tenure for farmers. Improved institutions make for a more effective economy that can then reflect Afghanistan’s ability to work with other states in the fight against climate change. Kabul, unfortunately, after years of war is still working on this base, which in turn makes addressing food and water security all the more problematic.


Corruption does much to inhibit food and water security. It distorts markets and it prevents international institutions from attending to economic and social development. Institutionally weak countries like Afghanistan lack the necessary resources to strengthen their institutions, which leaves the door open for corrupt officials. According to the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, corruption remains the biggest hindrance to development projects and stable good government. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2016, ranked Afghanistan 169 out of 176 countries, making it one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Afghanistan’s water, and by extension, food, security is paying the price.

Afghanistan corruption rank

Afghanistan’s water infrastructure is either non-existent, outdated or just not doing enough to meet present demand. The country has the worst statistics in the region for sanitation facilities. Around 32 per cent of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities (compared to 40 per cent in India, 46 per cent in Nepal and 64 per cent in Pakistan) and around 59 per cent of Kabul’s water supply is contaminated. Afghanistan faces huge contamination issues that can be tackled by canalisation, proper waste disposal methods and treatment plants. Furthermore, supply issues plague Afghanistan’s thirsty communities. Experts argue that international donors must do more to supply the funds and infrastructural support to get these facilities operational. A lack of effective infrastructure may be linked back to corruption. A former advisor to the Afghan Government wrote in The Guardian that at times it was only possible to deliver water cleaning facilities if the contracts could be given to companies belonging to local strongmen, like members of parliament or police officials. The Kabul Bank scandal saw roughly US$850 million ($1.1 billion) disappear in one of the biggest fraud cases in history. The bank’s shareholders were mainly government cabinet members and warlords. On top of hampering development efforts, corruption can be a source of unnecessary resistance to the government. Citizens feel that officials are untouchable and so many join, or at least sympathise with, the Taliban because they appear willing to punish the country’s corrupt. There are, of course, many paths one can take to joining a terrorist organisation; however, this is just possibly one of them. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a country where the rule of law is abided by and is enshrined in legal and political institutions that aim to deal unbiased justice and social stability, and thus investment, is an absolute prerequisite for agricultural development and water management.

Land Rights

An underreported challenge is the conflict and insecurity related to property rights and how this in turn weakens Afghanistan’s food and water security. Afghanistan has one of the worst records for land tenure in the world. More than 80 per cent of the population depends on agriculture. Agriculture is the main source of income for a third of households and about 40 per cent of the labour force is involved in the agricultural sector. While making strides towards reforming its land ownership policy, much of the existing land rights and the bodies set up to administer them are broken. Land administration, the judiciary and Kabul’s central control of land ownership has splintered and will remain so because of how entrenched local power brokers like warlords are in the patronage systems that control the land today. The winding down of American troops contributed to a rise in violence in and beyond 2014. Added insecurity led many Afghans to move to rural and city jobs, mainly low paying, where tenure and employment is tenuous at best. Competition for resources has thus increased. Corrupt officials benefit in both the cities and on the farms because of unenforced and/or non-existent land laws whereas the majority of poor households fall behind because of the lack of institutional safety nets. Without strong institutions that protect farmers’ tenure and punish law breakers many people’s access to food remains unstable, ushering in future sources of tension and conflict. The conflict with the Taliban and political corruption dilute government efforts to build legitimate land policy, back up constitutional rule and implement economic equality. Land rights have become a forgotten issue that has the potential to cause instability, with very little effort going into securing land rights and food security. The main priority has been using donor money to build large, flashy development projects that have benefits, but do not fix the problem from the bottom up; fixing property rights is not what donors want their money going into.

Climate Change

According to the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), mean annual temperatures across Afghanistan are set to rise by about 1.4 degrees Celsius by 2020 where all their projections leading up to this date and beyond it predict that the country is likely to see a decrease in the days classed as “cold” in their current climate and an increase in the days marked as “hot”. Researchers at the SEI found that Afghanistan faces large climate related hazards, mainly related to droughts. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conducted a study ranging from 1960-2014 on climate change patterns. Since 1960, the mean annual temperature has increased by 0.20 degrees Celsius. The number of hot nights and hot days increased with every decade since 1960 with the main average temperature to increase to around 1.4-4.0 degrees Celsius by the 2060s and 2.0-6.2 degrees Celsius by the 2090s. These hikes in temperature are indicative of the deforestation and desertification of large swathes of Afghan territory. Rising temperatures, droughts and land degradation are likely to destabilise Afghanistan further. Land degradation leads to the destruction of ecosystems and plots of land used to grow crops. The loss of the land in a country where 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture to survive will have devastating effects as these people move off the land into the cities. Such a move will further destabilise Afghanistan as populations grow in city centres and public infrastructure struggles to stay abreast of increased demand. Such a mobile population could push its way out to countries like Iran, Pakistan or even India. Iran and Pakistan already house large numbers of refugees, with Pakistan holding around three million already. Climate change is likely to be a force multiplier, meaning it will magnify existing clear and present dangers, like poor infrastructure, conflict and, food and water security.

Outlook to 2030

Overall, it can be predicated that Afghanistan’s food and water security outlook to 2030 will be increasingly difficult to manage as years pass. Though the country has made great strides in water infrastructure, particularly hydroelectric dams, it still lacks decent city-based infrastructure like canalisation works, waste disposal facilities and water management infrastructure. Levels of water contamination continue to rise. Despite the construction of 40,000 water posts between 1983 and-2013, only 28 per cent of Afghan urbanites have access to clean water and 20 per cent in rural areas. The removal of the Taliban may help efforts to clean up corruption and attend to land rights policy, while the implementation of water management facilities and the education of farmers on food and water management in a changing climate would be added improvements. Achieving such goals looks difficult, simply because of the lengths Afghanistan has to go to clean up corruption, guarantee the rule of law, ensure property rights for farmers, resolve the war with the Taliban, restore infrastructure ravaged by war, kick the addiction to foreign aid and fully overhaul cities to deal with internally displaced peoples as well as people coming back to Afghanistan. A monumental development load may prove deleterious.         

India and Pakistan: Earning a Seat in Kabul

“In international politics, trust, reliability and keeping your commitments — that’s a big part of how other countries view our country”

R Nicholas Burns, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the George W Bush Administration

India and Pakistan will both be looking to involve themselves more in the development of Afghanistan’s food and water sectors. It is important, however, to realise that neither country will be able to immediately leverage the food and water security of Afghanistan without first gaining Kabul’s trust (a diplomatic “opening”) earned from policy areas Kabul wants attended to. Pakistan may well have a future with Kabul on water diplomacy, but is presently unable to effectively tend to that policy area because of its inability to quell Taliban attacks on Afghan territory originating from Pakistani territory. Pakistan must gain Kabul’s trust before effective food and water moves are to be made. India, on the other hand, has secured its “opening” by completing infrastructure development projects and trade policy, gaining Kabul’s trust that may grant New Delhi not only greater access to Kabul’s food and water needs but greater influence in other spheres like Central Asia, to the possible detriment of Pakistan.


‘Repositories of good will are scarce in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.’ The Afghan-Pak relationship is a perfect example for those looking to put some meat on the theoretical bones of scholarly arguments that say states inherently distrust each other. Specifically, Pakistan has failed in two areas that could provide reasons for Kabul to accept Islamabad more openly:  the eradication of the Pakistani Taliban and Haqqani Network’s sanctuaries and the construction of trusting, state-to-state co-operation on regional issues, mainly security related. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has for years requested Islamabad do something about the Taliban fighters using Pakistan as a sanctuary from which it can launch attacks. In an interview last year, Ghani believed the biggest challenge to the security of Afghanistan and to the lives of its people was state-to-state relations with Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan and Afghanistan have not reached an understanding on sovereignty issues, particularly over the disputed Durand Line, and state-to-state co-ordination on terrorist networks, may mean that further co-operation on food and water is not possible. In response, Afghanistan has little incentive to crack down on the Pakistani Taliban and Baloch insurgents, especially when Pakistan breaches Afghan sovereignty. Likewise, Pakistan has little reason to eradicate groups opposed to Afghanistan, given that Pakistan believes they are India-Afghan proxies.

Tensions on the Durand line have hurt Pakistan’s chances of being a reliable supplier of food to Afghanistan. Pakistan accounts for almost half of the wheat flowing into Afghanistan (46 per cent in 2014) and carries huge influence, since Afghan food policy depends on Pakistani imports. Recent spats on the border, like the one at Torkham crossing, however, have made cross border trade erratic. Afghan citizens often boycott Pakistani wheat because of terrorist attacks and often turn to more trusted wheat sourced from Kazakhstan (54 per cent in 2014) and now India has blunted Pakistan’s food influence.

A general unwillingness to co-operate has led to a slight decline in Pakistan’s chances of organising a Kabul River Treaty that would govern the seven trans-boundary rivers that it shares with Afghanistan. The Kabul River, a tributary of the Indus, flows through Afghanistan, irrigates both Jalalabad and Kabul, two of Afghanistan’s largest cities, before flowing to north-west Pakistan. Kabul believes Pakistan consumes water flowing from Afghanistan into Pakistan without contributing financially or institutionally to flow management and supply control. Kabul has started building 12 dam projects on the Kabul River, a move likely to put water-strained Islamabad under greater stress.

Despite the possibility of a reduced flow of water into Pakistan from the Kabul River, which supports the country’s agriculture, agro-exports and 60 per cent of its people living in rural areas, Pakistan, according to a retired Pakistani diplomat, has done no work in carving out the makings of a water sharing treaty. Officials from both sides met in August 2013 and talked about constructing a hydropower dam on the Kunar River, but it was the only time water issues have been discussed officially. For Pakistan and Afghanistan to progress on a Kabul River Treaty, both states must be willing to admit to the role they play in the management of the waterway, but Pakistan must make the first move. Pakistan has a chance to extend an olive branch and show Afghanistan that it respects international water laws and is a responsible state that is willing to move on from previous misgivings. As long as mistrust stains the bilateral relationship, however, trust, and a Kabul River Treaty, will be hard come by.


Analysts argue that healthy Indian-Afghan relations over the years have been a result of worsening ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but India’s bilateral ascension can also be traced to tactful foreign policy. New Delhi has been successful in delivering what Kabul wants: investment in development projects.

Kabul and New Delhi have been working together on many economic and development initiatives. In mid-2016, India and Afghanistan inaugurated the Salma Dam which is designed to irrigate fields at around 640 homes in surrounding districts and provide power to Herat’s industrial sector. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the Afghan people ‘India will not forget you or turn away.’ In May 2016, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed an agreement to turn Iran’s Chabahar port into a hub designed to circumvent Pakistan, giving Kabul an alternative route to the Indian Ocean, and India a connection to Afghanistan. New Delhi has pledged to lend support to Afghanistan as it invests heavily in road, highways, power facilities as well as the recently constructed parliament building in Kabul. Furthermore, India has pledged support to improve the institutional capacity of Afghanistan’s democracy, supply money to fund small-scale development projects and assist in areas relating to food security like ensuring a steady supply of wheat. Thousands of Afghan students have ventured to India on scholarships, with many returning to fill jobs in agriculture, largely thanks to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Modi Ghani

Healthy relations: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ashraf Ghani both activate the Salma “Friendship” Dam with the push of a button. Middle East Press

New Delhi has been able to use the rift in Afghan-Pakistan relations to its advantage. As of December last year, land routes set aside for limited Afghan exports to India were not allowed to be used by India to export into Afghanistan. Indian wheat exports are looking to be uncompetitive with exports forecast to drop from 500,000 metric tonnes to 200,000 metric tonnes in 2016/17. Such a decline, however, can be explained by India’s limited access to land routes. India and Afghanistan have agreed on the use of an air route between the two states to bypass Pakistan and take advantage of India’s recovering wheat production. Combined with the Chabahar route, India is well primed to use its cordial relations with Afghanistan to become a leading future exporter of wheat.


Afghanistan, as previously noted, faces considerable food and water security challenges. Pakistan’s dealings with terrorists are blunting any chance Islamabad has of rapprochement with Kabul. Without the initial diplomatic opening India has managed to gain, Pakistan will find it difficult to use Afghanistan’s food and water woes to its advantage. Islamabad needs to make the first move by promising to fulfil its pledges to seriously tackle Taliban fighters attacking Afghanistan. While this is happening, a water treaty, similar to the Indus Water Commission, should be sought out by both parties to assist in the water security plans for the two at-risk countries. Fortunately for Pakistan, its border proximity and the common use of shared rivers could pull the two together if water, food and security worries grow. India, however, is showing the most geopolitical promise. It has addressed what Afghanistan wants and has promised to continue doing so. Afghanistan has thus allowed itself to be more trusting and open to India, meaning New Delhi will be better positioned to tackle one of the strategic issues limiting growth in Afghanistan: food and water security.

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