By Nathan William Meyer
It feels like Hollywood’s latest box office hit. Deep in the archives of a war torn country, a team of intrepid scientists discover forgotten maps leading to a buried treasure. Fantastical as it seems, such a scene played out in 2004 when American geologists found a cache of charts in the Afghan Geological Survey’s library dating from the days of Soviet occupation. Returned to the library after the NATO invasion, these Russian charts were protected in the geologists’ homes through the tumultuous 1990s since the data indicated that under Afghanistan’s mountains and dry plains, lay vast mineral deposits.
Guided by Soviet charts, aerial surveys in 2006 and 2007 covered 70 percent of the country and produced the most comprehensive geologic study in Afghan history, estimating the nation’s untapped mineral wealth at $1 trillion. In June 2010, the Pentagon confirmed reports that Afghanistan’s massive deposits could make it a major world producer of iron and copper. In fact, the lithium deposits in Ghanzi Province may rival Bolivia’s for the world’s largest title. Additionally, the country’s Samti gold deposit is estimated to hold 20-24 metric tons and according to the U.S. Geological Survey, a single million-ton deposit of rare earth elements (REE) in Helmand Province makes Afghanistan the holder of the world’s sixth largest REE reserves.
Today the Afghan government believes this mineral wealth could exceed $3 trillion. But, as one should always ask about buried treasure, is it cursed? Whether the potential wealth raises generations out of poverty or plunges them into exploitation and civil war is the real question here.
“I wish we had discovered water,” the former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmad Yamani grimly stated. He offers a sober reminder that like so many resource-rich countries, Afghanistan’s patrimony could irrevocably damage this fragile state. Landlocked, underdeveloped, undereducated, ethnically fractious, insanely rich, and surrounded by powerful neighbors, Afghanistan is a prime candidate for the resource curse—that paradox wherein resource-rich countries at best, suffer poor development and economic growth, and at worst, are torn apart by brutal governments and civil war.
Considering Afghanistan’s social infrastructure, ethnic tensions, and rampant corruption, it seems inevitable that they will fall victim to the resource curse. Indeed, they seem to have already taken the first steps down that precipitous path. While the Aynak copper mine is expected to bring in $1 billion in annual government revenues, the culture of bribery has already embedded itself in Afghanistan’s newly discovered mineral wealth. The minister of mines accepted a roughly $30 million bribe from the China Metallurgical Group for control of the Aynak copper deposits. According to Craif Steffensen, the Afghanistan country director for Asian Development Bank, the Hajigak iron ore deposit is estimated to rake up to $3 billion in government revenues for centuries to come. Should Afghanistan develop its mining potential, these are just two of the many pipelines that will fill government’s coffers with money. With natural resources guaranteeing a secure national income, governments are no longer reliant on their citizen’s tax money or public approval. This frequently leads to corruption, misappropriation, and embezzlement with devastating social consequences.
A typical case of such governmental abuse is Angola, the world’s 7th largest oil producer and fifth largest diamond producer. Despite this, 77 percent of its population lives in poverty and roughly half of the country’s 18 million people survive on less than $1.25 per day. The Confederation of African Football estimates the Angolan government spent $1 billion to host 2010’s African Cup of Nations soccer tournament. Unfortunately, this is not atypical of oil wealth appropriation. More government money is wasted on projects like the recent building of 24 new hospitals, without physicians to staff them, or buying 3,000 new buses with only 1,500 available drivers. However inept these expenditures, they cannot compare to the outright theft which has turned Angola into an unabashed kleptocracy.
From 1996-2001, over $1 billion a year went missing and in 2002, NGO Global Witness found $1.1 billion of Angolan oil revenue held in a single private bank account in the British Virgin Islands. Recently the International Monetary Fund reported $32 billion of public funds disappeared from 2007-2010, close to one third of national revenues. Angola is a grim example of what may be Afghanistan’s future, but certainly not the darkest.
The Second Congo War is not well known, but from 1998-2003 it directly engulfed eight African nations and some 25 armed groups, earning the distinction of the world’s bloodiest conflict since World War II. Mineral wealth like Afghanistan’s was one of the prime motivators of the conflict, which resulted in 5.4 million deaths.
Today, this mineral wealth shapes Congolese lives, as the world’s manufacturers demand more cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and gold to produce laptops, smartphones, and hybrid vehicles. With such immediate wealth, little distinguishes kleptocratic government forces from brutal rebel militias. Both illegally tax, extort, and force local adults and children to work the mines in shifts lasting as long as 48 hours. The rebel militias and the Congolese National Army use rape and violence to intimidate and secure the flow of minerals. While exact numbers are impossible to come by, it is estimated that cassiterite alone—refined as tin and used to solder circuit boards—earns rebel groups $85 million a year. These revenues can buy arms and prolong conflicts indefinitely, especially when an AK-47 costs a modest $50 in the DRC.
A weak central government, rampant corruption, deep ethnic divisions coupled with immense mineral wealth and the ready supply of weapons are some of the similarities which indicate that the atrocities’ in the DRC could easily happen in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan’s fate is far from preordained, it is difficult to overstate how precarious its situation is. Their mineral resources could generate immense wealth and bring generations out of poverty, but the arc of history is bending towards a darker future.
Two years before the total withdrawal of American combat forces, rival political factions such as the non-Pashtun National Front for Afghanistan (NFA) hope to restructure the government as a parliamentary democracy to break the Pashtun majority’s hold on power. President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, anticipates a political reconciliation with the ethnic-Pashtun Taliban to shore-up his powerbase but cannot afford to alienate the anti-Taliban NFA. The Taliban show little interest in talking to President Karzai as they attempt to cut him out of peace negotiations with the U.S. government and believe the NFA’s policies are a drive to partition the country under the mask of devolved federalism. A disheartening but realistic possibility is that Karzai would seek a peace deal at the expense of the NFA, the non-Pashtuns revolt against the Karzai/Taliban bloc, and in due course the Taliban turn on both Karzai and the NFA. This leaves the nation’s half million soldiers and police split down ethnic lines and the country spiraling out of control into civil war. Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is widely distributed throughout the country and artisanal small-scale mines have the power to turn the country into a lawless conflict zone.
In this volatile situation the man most capable to either pull his country back from the ledge or throw it headlong into the abyss is Hamid Karzai—although his record as president leaves little optimism that Afghanistan will escape the resource curse.
According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is the fourth most corrupt country in the world. This is corroborated by UN findings that Afghan families pay $160 in bribes to police, judges, and government officials per year—a high price in a country where the per capita GNI is $410. In 2009, bribes made up almost 25 percent of Afghanistan’s $2.5 billion GDP, making bribery and the drug trade the country’s leading sources of income. And corruption is by no means confined to the local level. Prominent officials and Karzai’s own brother were implicated in the Kabul Bank scandal that cost the national government and western donors $900 million. NATO investigators uncovered evidence in 2009 that Afghan soldiers routinely died from infections and lack of treatment because they could not afford to bribe doctors and nurses.
Penalties are not an issue since President Karzai’s government has yet to prosecute a single high-level corruption case. Perhaps the words of Anthony H. Cordesman, defense expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it best: “If you find people who aren’t corrupt, it is largely because they haven’t had the opportunity.”
While the present does not equal the future, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will escape the resource curse. Its national government is thoroughly corrupt, holds little sway outside the capital, and though Karzai has said he will retire in 2014, Afghans widely believe he will remain in power unofficially or extra-constitutionally. And the deep ethnic and tribal divides continually threaten national unity, making it difficult to form legitimate opposition. Additionally, the Taliban continue to remain a threat to fragile national governments in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. According to a UN Security Council report, the country is awash in more than a million small arms, and many of these are in the hands of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), who are U.S.-backed militias formed to fight the Taliban. A recent Human Rights Watch report documents that in addition to land grabs and illegal taxation, these militias have terrorized civilians with abduction, rape, torture, and murder. Currently some 19,000 strong, the ALP is expected to grow to 30,000 by the time the NATO mission ends in 2014.
The resource curse can already be observed in Khost Province where chromite is illegally excavated in small artisanal mines and smuggled across the porous Pakistani border—costing Kabul $7.3 million a year in lost revenues, enriching organized crime, and arming insurgent groups. Though the country does not have to descend into generational civil war underwritten by a million mine holes, the evidence suggests that with the NATO withdrawal in sight, it may be time to prepare for the worst. Whether the country collectively prospers from its wealth or unravels before the world’s eyes into bloody chaos will depend more on Karzai’s corrupt government and major mineral buyers (India, Iran, China) than on those nations who tried to plant western ideals in the graveyard of empires.
Nathan William Meyer is a freelance writer and photojournalist.
(Photo courtesy of Jerome Starkey)