Looking to Afghanistan’s future

October 7, 2011

As the 10th anniversary of the start of the Afghan war is marked around the world, looking forward is more important than looking back. As I noted in an earlier post, staggering mistakes have been made over the last decade. While individual Americans and Afghans have performed heroically, the Afghan and American governments – particularly their civilian arms – have performed anemically. And Pakistan’s intelligence service – the ISI – is the single largest impediment to stability in the region.

Looking forward, the advocacy group Global Witness is on the right track. In a statement, it said that Afghanistan’s management of an estimated $3 trillion in copper, Iron, gold, oil, chromite, uranium and rare earths is the key to the country’s future stability.

“The stakes could not be higher,” said Juman Kubba, a Global Witness official. “Get it right and minerals could be the catalyst for peace and prosperity; get it wrong and there’s a massive risk they will be lost to corruption, or form a new axis of instability and conflict.”

After a decade of development efforts driven by short-term political needs in Washington and other western capitals, Afghans and Americans now have an opportunity to achieve the most important ingredient to success in Afghanistan: sustainability. If properly managed, the country’s untapped mineral wealth can fund a robust economy, a strong Afghan army and a viable government.

For decades, if not centuries, Afghans have yearned for one thing more than anything else: the ability to control their own affairs. The country’s strategic location has led great powers to battle for control of Afghanistan. Afghans, as a result, have developed a deep resentment of foreign meddling. The problem goes beyond the American, Russian and British invasions. Afghans are sick of Pakistan, Iran and India using their nation as battleground for their own proxy wars.

So far, the government of Hamid Karzai has handed the mineral wealth poorly. Hugely lucrative contracts for the extraction of copper have gone to Chinese companies. Many details of the agreements have not been made public. Global Witness is correctly calling on the government to disclose all payments by foreign mining companies to the Afghan government and implement the  Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative or EITI. Last month, President Obama announced that the United States will implement the EITI, a global standard designed to force energy companies and governments to publicly disclose how revenues from mineral wealth are used.

More contracts are expected to be rewarded between now and the departure of most American forces in 2014. It is vital that the Afghan government make those contracts as transparent as possible. Transparency will allow the country’s journalists, activists and citizens to investigate whether the new revenues are used to ensure the creation of a sustainable, licit economy.

The current Minister of Mines, Wahidullah Shahrani, has shown admirable support for transparency. President Karzai must do the same. Washington must insist on the transparency Global Witness is demanding. Otherwise, Afghanistan will fall to the “resource curse” that has led so many countries to squander precious minerals and opportunities.

According to a study by researchers at Brown University, an estimated 33,000 people – Afghan, American and NATO troops, as well as insurgents and Afghan civilians – have died in a largely squandered decade.

If corruption, mismanagement and political posturing in Kabul and Washington continue to fritter away Afghanistan’s mineral resources, instability will persist. When most U.S. troops withdraw in 2014, an even more intense civil war will engulf the country. And the death toll from the decade to come will be even higher.

PHOTO: U.S. military officer CPT Padraic Heiliger from Alpha Co, 2nd Battalion 35th Infantry, Task Force “Cacti” lifts a boy while on patrol in a village near Combat Outpost Penich in Khas Kunar district in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan October 7, 2011. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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