A US survey has found that Afghanistan possesses immense mineral riches. Huge deposits of cobalt, copper, iron, gold, lithium, niobium and other critical metals, perennially in demand by industries worldwide, have been discovered in the country. The news has been greeted with elation in Kabul and elsewhere. Even assuming that news reports of the survey aren’t a convenient plant to convince people in the US that this was a fight worth fighting, the discovery spells trouble.
The announcement could not have come at a worse time. The US is planning a military exit from Afghanistan in the next one year. The Afghan government is in no position to defend its territory against the depredations of the Taliban and the machinations of Pakistan. Governance structures needed to extract these riches in an orderly manner and ensure that proceeds from their sale are used wisely are non-existent. The situation has the makings of a violent and ruthless gold rush. India should be concerned.
Historically, Afghanistan is ill-prepared to meet the challenge. Central authority, for the better part of the country’s history, has at the best of times been symbolic. The idea of a powerful government in Kabul is something new, dating only to Soviet times. In any case, this new-found idea has always required the backing of a foreign army, then Soviet, now American. This is not to argue that Afghanistan should not have an effective central government, just that circumstances are not propitious for it.
In this situation, the danger is that Afghanistan will be gripped by what is called a resource curse. This is a phenomenon observed in resource-rich regions of Africa, South America and the Arab world. The countries in question are not able to utilize their natural wealth to power their economies. Often they are gripped by “resource wars” whereby warlords take control of a territory, mine its wealth without any accountability.
A look at a map of Afghanistan that shows the distribution of ethnic groups, superimposed with the map that shows these anticipated riches, only fills one with a sense of foreboding. It is hard to imagine the Durrani Pashtuns of south central Afghanistan and the Ghilzai Pashtuns of east Afghanistan sitting across a table and discussing royalty proceeds from the sale of minerals. The Uzbeks and Tajiks of the north are no better. This is a recipe for chaos.
If that situation materializes, India would have to take a big part of the blame. When there was time to contribute to Afghan security and bolstering a fledgling central government in Kabul, India chose not to send badly needed troops there. Now, after the US departs, one can be sure that Pakistan and China will move in for the kill. That will complete India’s encirclement by hostile powers.
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