Yesterday the New York Times reported a stunner which was that the United States has discovered 1 Trillion dollars in untapped mineral wealth in Afghanistan. That news would seem to be a potential game changer and I went out this afternoon to downtown Jalalabad to conduct a couple man on the street interviews with local Afghans. What a shocker – not one guy I asked had any idea about the story which took up some much of the press cycle yesterday. Not one guy I asked had any idea what the number “trillion” represents. Yet all understood that there is mineral wealth in the country. What they don’t understand is how so much wealth could directly benefit them and their fellow citizens. The concept that a Saudi style money spigot could be turned on and spent on a nation wide program of modernization which would benefit them without their having to pay a penny is impossible for your average Afghan to contemplate.
As expected the Danger Room blog brought some perspective to the story. Katie Drummond added this post to the debate which jived with what Afghans told me today and that is the potential for mineral development is well known. What is not well known is what it takes to convert mineral potential into wealth. Educating the Afghan public about the requirement for all fighting to stop so that the infrastructure can be developed to not only mine but refine these minerals could be a game changer if done correctly. Imagine if every shura in every part of the country with ISAF stressed a sense of urgency about stopping all armed opposition so that the country can get the international investors in so they can start developing the resources which should make every man, woman and child in Afghanistan richer than a Saudi national. I wonder how much pressure from below that would generate?
Generating popular opinion from below to pressure the various factions from on high who could pocket vast fortunes from Afghanistan’s mineral wealth may be one of the most important things we could do for the people of Afghanistan. It seems that we are getting asses kicked by the Taliban (actually we are kicking our own asses) despite winning every firefight and there is little doubt that our feckless President will start pulling out next summer. How fast the military can do that and what will we consider an acceptable end-state remain the Trillion Dollar Question. The only man who can answer it is our Commander in Chief but he seems has absolutely no clue about anything is general and the art of leadership specifically. The military/State Department will have to muddle through for lord knows how long and it will not be long before a majority of our fellow Americans ask just what the hell is the point of being there for so long while accomplishing so little at such great cost.
Back to the Trillion dollars – how do you think this mineral wealth is going to play out for the average Afghan citizen? That may well depend on us and the rest of the international community who remain engaged with Afghanistan. The worst case example is happening right now with the recent announcement that Afghanistan would “delay” the award of iron ore and natural gas contracts in an effort to stamp out corruption. This “delay” sounds suspiciously like the last major award to two Chinese firms for the largest known copper deposits in the world. Firms from American, Canada and Europe were all finalists in that bid until there was a “delay” and the Chinese came out of nowhere to win the bid. Here is the money quote from the WSJ article liked above:
“Mining could be a major economic contributor. But the Mines Ministry has long been considered among Afghanistan’s most corrupt government departments, and Western officials have repeatedly expressed reservations about the Afghan government awarding concessions for the country’s major mineral deposits, fearful that corrupt officials would hand contracts to bidders who pay the biggest bribes — not who are best suited to actually do the work.”
Land disputes generate more killings around Nangarhar Province than Taliban attacks do. That’s because families who are fighting over land go at it toe to toe where you can’t miss with an AK rifle. Ten, twelve, fifteen people killed in one of these fights is rather routine. What if these people thought the land they owned had the potential to earn them riches beyond their wildest dreams? What if every-time any international talked to any group of Afghans The Message came out over and over and over – that message being “you have to stop the fighting and support development or your leaders will sell the future of your country away to the Chinese for pocket change and you’ll leave nothing for your children but death, disease, and a denuded country where no sane person would want to live.
Land disputes are a problem because the central government is not perceived as being honest in its dealings with ownership claims. There are many places in the country where people are squatting on land which is not theirs. The default position of the government seems to be that if you cannot prove ownership the land belongs to the Government. When the government moves to exert eminent domain over land it claims the results are always bloody.
When I talked with average Afghans about this supposed 1 Trillion dollars of mineral wealth I rapidly discovered that not one them could imagine how all that money could possibly benefit them. The thought that they had rights to minerals in land they owned or that the government would negotiate for tons of cash which would be dispersed to Afghans just like Saudis do with their oil wealth is beyond their comprehension.
This is an opportunity for us to attack a problem asymmetrically. Our problem is that we do not have a viable partner in Afghanistan, we do not have a competent Commander in Chief, we do not have military leadership which has the temperament or confidence required to unleash the superior problem solving and fighting skills of the junior leaders on the ground and we do not have anything remotely resembling professional or competent diplomats. What we do have is a compelling story line which would resonate with the Afghan people if it were messaged correctly. That story line is simple – if you do not force an end to the fighting, if you do not force accountability in your leaders, if you do not stand up for your rights and human dignity then a Trillion Dollars, which should belong to you is going to flow directly into the banks of Dubai and the coffers of the Peoples Republic of China.