The XX Factor

Afghanistan Is Rich

On most days, there’s usually something I hear on NPR before 8 a.m. that confirms the hell-in-a-hand-basket feeling that lurks inside me: oil-slicked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, a suicide bombing in Pakistan, and lines like, “now from drug trafficking to human trafficking.” Today, it was NPR’s riff on the most e-mailed story on the New York Times Web site: “U.S Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan.”

Many folks might think it’s great news for Afghanistan and the United States that American geologists have found what could be nearly $1 trillion in untapped deposits of iron, copper, gold, and lithium, the key mineral used in batteries for cellphones, laptops, and, perhaps in the near future, electric cars. By mining the deposits, the Afghans could develop their economy and lift their country out of dire poverty. The United States, in turn, wouldn’t have to spend billions in taxpayer money to prop up Afghanistan and bribe its farmers to abandon poppy cultivation. Greater wealth could strengthen the country’s shaky central government, nurture a middle class, foster democracy.

Or it could mean that Afghanistan could grow up to be Congo . Time and again, when huge mineral wealth has been discovered in a troubled, developing country, it makes a bad situation worse. The complex, vicious war in eastern Congo has been fed in part by the struggle between armies to control the extraction and sale of coltan, or columbite-tantalite, a rare mineral used to make cell phones, laptops, and video-game consoles like the Sony Playstation. The best examples of the warping effect of mineral wealth, of winning the natural resource lottery then blowing the loot, come from global oil production. Oil wealth has fostered vast corruption. Little of it makes its way into helping a country’s average citizens. It props up regimes with atrocious human rights records. Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Angola, Venezuela: not the best role models for Afghanistan. The few countries where oil has actually contributed to the common good, like Norway and Britain, had developed economies and robust civil society before petroleum production began.

After 30 years of conflict that has destroyed industry, infrastructure, and education, Afghanistan is in no shape to start quickly exploiting the deposits. The United States government seems aware of the risks involved, but I’m not sure what they can do to ensure that the mineral wealth is developed in “an environmentally or socially conscious way,” as Paul Brinkley, the Pentagon’s point man on this discovery, put it today on Morning Edition . He used the words hope and hopefully a lot. That worries me, when policy-makers try to hope things better in forlorn, violent states. The World Bank tried about 10 years ago to get Chad to put the vast majority of its earnings from oil production to poverty relief and development. Instead, civil war flared once more, and Chad is still considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world . True, it is a few notches better than Afghanistan.

Photograph of Kandahari farmer and US Army Cavalry Patrol by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.