If there is a road to a happy ending in Afghanistan, much of the path may run underground: in the trillion-dollar reservoir of natural resources — oil, gold, iron ore, copper, lithium and other minerals — that has brought hopes of a more self-sufficient country, if only the wealth can be wrested from blood-soaked soil.
But the wealth has inspired darker dreams as well. Officials and experts say the potential resource boom seems increasingly imperiled by corruption, violence and intrigue, and has put the Afghan government’s vulnerabilities on display.
It all comes at what is already a critically uncertain time here, with the impending departure of NATO troops in 2014 and old regional and ethnic rivalries resurfacing, raising concerns that the mineral wealth could become the fuel for civil conflict.
Powerful regional warlords and militant leaders are jockeying to widen their turf to include areas with mineral wealth, and the Taliban have begun to make murderous incursions into territory where development is planned. In the capital, Kabul, factional maneuvering is in full swing, including disputes over lucrative side contracts awarded to relatives of President Hamid Karzai.
Further, a proposed mining law vital to attracting foreign investment is up in the air, with the delay threatening several projects. The cabinet rejected it this summer, saying it was too generous to Western commercial interests. But some Western officials fear other motives are at work, too, including an internal fight for spoils, and perhaps an effort by some neighbouring countries to sway sympathetic officials to keep Indian and Chinese mining companies out.
“If you were to pick a country that involves high risk in developing a new mining sector, Afghanistan is it,” said Eleanor Nichol, campaign leader at Global Witness, a group that tries to break the link between natural resources, corruption and conflict. “But the genie is out of the bottle.”
Already this summer, the China National Petroleum Corporation, in partnership with a firm controlled by relatives of Karzai, began pumping oil from the Amu Darya field in the north. A consortium arranged by JPMorgan Chase is mining gold. Another Chinese firm is trying to develop a huge copper mine. Four copper and gold contracts are being tendered, and contracts for rare earth metals could be offered soon. NYT