The supposed treasure trove of minerals in Afghanistan may be more trouble for the Afghan people than it’s worth.
A recent New York Times front-page lead story breathlessly reveals that there could possibly be $1 trillion worth of various minerals (such as cobalt, iron, gold, copper and lithium) there. A Pentagon memo hails Afghanistan’s potential to become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
Is this even for real? Some commentators are casting their doubts.
Katie Drummond of Wired.com, for instance, urges caution.
“The $1 trillion figure is—at best—a guesstimate,” Drummond writes. “None of the earlier U.S military reports on Afghan’s mineral riches cite that amount. And it might be prudent to be wary of any data coming out of Afghanistan’s own Mines Ministry, which ‘has long been considered one of the country’s most corrupt government departments,’ The Wall Street Journal reports.”
Certainly, the timing of the story is fishy in light of how badly the whole Afghanistan effort is going.
But let’s take the $1 trillion amount at face value. Even then, Afghan citizens are not quite assured of a pot of gold at the end of the bloody rainbow.
They just have to consult with the long-suffering residents of Equatorial Guinea to learn of their possible fate. That tiny African nation has been in the news recently because its vile dictator, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has funded a UNESCO award that the international community is having second thoughts about. Obiang, who has been in power for three decades, has enriched himself beyond imagination on his country’s most valuable resource—oil—but his people have fared slightly less well. “He is charged by human rights and anticorruption activists with embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from his tiny oil-rich state, while most of his people—77 percent, according to one measure—live in abject poverty,” the New York Times editorializes.
Of course, Equatorial Guinea is not the only such example. Nigeria and the Congo are two larger countries containing extensive mineral resources that have enabled a kleptocracy to perpetuate its rule. In academic parlance, this is called the “resource curse.” Given the state of the ruling elite in Afghanistan, it’s not hard to imagine a repeat.
“It’s easy to tick off the ways in which what political scientists call the ‘resource curse’ applies to Afghanistan: a tenuous legal structure; warlordism; war; foreign interventionism; corruption throughout the political system; an uneasy and unstable relationship between provincial and national authorities; and an uneasy and unstable relationship in provinces and districts with instruments of local governance as well as national governance,” writes Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent.
Multinational corporations love such countries because they can then enter into no-holds-barred agreements with their rulers, not having to worry about the people.
“Because Afghanistan lacks a functioning democracy and an indigenous mining capacity, it would be reliant on foreign firms for technical services, which in turn would be beholden to local officials—read warlords—for the necessary authorizations and protection,” states Professor Michael Klare of Hampshire College. “The result would be a classic case of the 'resource curse'—the development of resources not for the good of the masses but for privileged elites, leading to ingrained corruption, authoritarianism, and violence."
The suffering of Afghanistan’s population is likely to continue, $1 trillion worth of minerals or not.
Amitabh Pal is the Managing Editor of The Progressive.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "U.S. Reaches Awful Milestone in Afghanistan."