Afghanistan’s Mineral Potential, Sustainability of Development Efforts Crucial Questions, Says Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman
Rich, untapped deposits of gold, iron, copper, lithium, and rare earth minerals have been known in Afghanistan for decades, but recently, extensive reports from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Geological Survey have shed new light on their potential value.
As President Obama and President Karzai met last week to discuss the role of the United States in the near future, the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman talked to The Washington Post and Foreign Policy about these minerals and what they might mean for struggling development efforts.
“You’re looking at something that could transform the entire development story of Afghanistan, that can provide revenue for everything from roads to schools – everything under the sun,” he told The Washington Post (video above).
“I fear that the flip side is the one we’re going to have to think about…and that’s really the fact that Afghanistan is a country with tremendous amounts of corruption, and when you’re dealing with so much money you’re easily going to risk aggravating corruption authority there.”
On Foreign Policy, Kugelman said that Afghanistan’s ability to successfully harness its natural resource wealth and maintain development efforts begun over the last decade were two of the most important questions about the country right now:
How can Afghanistan and the international community better harness the vast potential of the country’s natural resources?
Kabul estimates that Afghanistan boasts minerals worth up to $3 trillion. If successfully exploited, these assets could be an elixir for Afghanistan’s weak economy. Such prosperity would also go a long way toward helping consummate the “New Silk Road” initiative championed by the U.S. State Department – which calls for a more economically strong and integrated South and Central Asia. It’s a vision supported by most regional capitals.
For years, the chief obstacle has been access – insufficient security for engineers and scientists to explore and excavate Afghanistan’s unexploited wealth (though this hasn’t stopped China and India from inking separate extractive deals with Kabul). However, last year the U.S. Geological Survey mapped the locations of Afghanistan’s minerals by air – removing many of the headaches of exploration.
The main challenge now is not how to find the reserves, but how to extract and transport them. Security remains a problem in this regard – though it hasn’t stopped China’s extractive activities. Beyond the stability issue, Kabul, Washington, and other key capitals (and mineral investors) must develop mechanisms that ensure efficient, transparent, and equitable policies – so that mineral wealth extends not just to foreign investors and the Afghan government, but also to common Afghans. Given Afghanistan’s notorious corruption, it’s an admittedly tall order. Yet the potential dividends are immense.
How can the international community ensure the longevity of development projects in Afghanistan?
The international community has lavished reconstruction funds on Afghanistan, resulting in scores of new roads, dams, and schools. Some of the most consequential projects happen to be the most expensive – including a not-yet-completed $500 million dam renovation.
NATO and aid agencies hail these projects as success stories that can propel Afghanistan toward a more stable, prosperous future. In fact, they’ll only remain successful if they’re sufficiently maintained – and funded.
Plans should be formulated to ensure these sparkling projects aren’t eventually destroyed by militants, mismanaged by poorly trained workers, or neglected due to lack of funding. Development workers must focus as much on safeguarding existing projects as on generating new ones.
So, this week, when Obama and Karzai talk about transferring security to the Afghans, they should also talk about the equally daunting task of transferring development. Relevant Afghan ministries – rural rehabilitation and development, agriculture, water and energy – will need to step up, even as a considerable force of international aid groups and donors remains in place to provide resources and training. The key is to strike the right balance between Afghan responsibilities and international support.
Sources: ABC News, Daily Mail, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, U.S. Department of State, The Washington Post.
Video Credit: The Fold/The Washington Post.