Bring on the Coalition of the Digging
Why are we so focused on the problems Afghanistan's vast mineral deposits could bring?
The breathtaking news of the latest estimate of the latent mineral wealth of Afghanistan, already partly understood but now confirmed by two systematic aerial surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007, has already been downplayed as a possible force-multiplier of the country's existing miseries. Huge deposits of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and lithium (a key ingredient in the manufacture of laptop batteries) could not only intensify the determination of the Taliban and their allies to retake the country and enrich themselves into the bargain; it could also give an incentive to the country's other enemies: its warlords and its parasitic oligarchs and those among its neighbors who are less choosy about what kind of government the nation ends up having. Indeed, it was only a short while ago that the Afghan minister of mines was removed, under U.S. pressure, for allegedly taking a $30 million bribe to steer an enormous copper-extraction deal to China, a country whose resource imperialism is already a disgrace everywhere from North Korea to Darfur.
The story of countries that are poor because they are rich is an old one: The Congo has been a scandalous example since the time of its private ownership by the Belgian royal family in the 19th century, and to the list of nations subject to depredation by resource exploitation one could also add Haiti, Angola, India, and (to be fair) China. Afghanistan has no infrastructure or professional civil service, no tradition of extractive industry, and no mechanism for sharing resources among its wildly discrepant provinces and regions. A Klondike beyond the Khyber could be the last thing it needs.
Still. This is at least a trillion-dollar national-resource treasure in a country that so far has had a GDP with scarcely any pulse. The governments of NATO—which include countries with vast experience in mining, from Germany to Canada and from Britain to the United States—have had almost no real work to do on the economic front except to distribute aid, itself often a cause of resentment, and waste time trying to "interdict" Afghanistan's only other existing resource, which is opium. Is it conceivable that such an alliance of earth-moving and digging powers could not at last find something genuinely constructive to do in a country where they already have a U.N. mandate for rebuilding and reconstruction? It is true that the Afghan parliament and government have no tradition of oversight, but the parliaments and press and NGOs of the alliance can be pushed to ensure that this is not a mere gouging exercise of the sort in which China likes to engage and that the Afghan people are the main beneficiaries. It seems too good an opportunity to pass up. It also seems like an opportunity far too important to be left in the tender hands of the Taliban.
It would be important to know, as with the vast new discoveries of oil in Iraq, how these deposits are distributed among the regions and ethnicities. There are many successful and well-organized Afghan groups—the Tajiks, for example, and the Hazara—who truly hate the Taliban and would leap at the chance to develop and enrich their areas and strengthen their peoples. There are also many Pashtuns who see the Taliban as the stealth agents of Pakistani colonization that they actually are. The idea of a dignified and economically staunch Afghanistan also possesses huge appeal to the large number of qualified but underemployed Afghan professionals, many of whom returned home after decades of war and barbarism.
It was also encouraging to see, a few days after the new surveys were announced, that the new Afghan minister of mines, Wahidullah Shahrani, issued an invitation to his Indian counterpart B.K. Handique. India already trains Afghan geologists in Hyderabad and supports and finances a wide range of infrastructural projects in Afghanistan; a closer tie between the two countries' geological surveys could do nothing but good. As I never cease to point out, India was fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida before we were and will continue to fight them even if we ever make the cowardly decision to withdraw. India is also a huge, prosperous, secular, and multiethnic democracy with very sophisticated armed forces; it is the natural ally of the United States in the region—as opposed to the ever- protean Pakistanis—and also the natural counterweight to the ambitions of China. It additionally has a renowned mining sector. The planned development of Afghanistan's mineral resources provides an almost ideal occasion for deepening and extending this alliance.
It will, of course, be a long time until any of the benefits of this discovery can be tangibly experienced. But it does in the meantime offer the somewhat rare commodity of hope and gives some sense of direction to an engagement that often seems to be foundering. Can any serious Afghan, however suspicious of the West, wish to see his country's patrimony put into the trust of a gang of medieval hand-loppers and blinders of women? Can any serious non-Afghan not hope to see the country emancipated, not just from local theocrats and imported jihadists, but from the centuries of poverty and stagnation that have afflicted and underdeveloped it? President Barack Obama could make an excellent and reasoned geopolitical speech on this, appealing to the Congress and to the United Nations. I wonder if he will decide to do so. Meanwhile the peaceniks can have themselves a new slogan: "No Blood for Lithium."
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Afghanistan's Mining Minister Waheedullah Shahrani by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images.