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Afghanistan’s mineral wealth won’t help Afghanistan or the U.S. -- but it might help China

ASK THIS | July 07, 2010

The Chinese won’t hesitate to pay off the people who need to get paid off in order to get access to Afghanistan's natural resources, says author and professor Michael Klare. But the Afghan people and the American people have nothing to celebrate.

By Dan Froomkin

In the midst of a growing chorus of news stories casting serious doubts on the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and the Karzai government in Kabul, the New York Times famously ran a story on June 14 headlined U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan.

Based in part on an internal Pentagon memo declaring that that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and a statement from Gen. David H. Petraeus about the “stunning potential” this represented, the story was widely (if suspiciously) seen as a tiny glimmer of “good” news for the benighted country.

But Afghanistan is in such terrible shape, and so far from any possible salvation, that even its vast mineral wealth, which is actually old news -- is bad news, too.

Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, argues that for countries as dysfunctional, impoverished and corrupt as Afghanistan, natural resources are a curse, not a blessing. They enrich the wealthy, sap the governing class of any interest in promoting development, increase violence between competing factions, and leave ordinary citizens actually worse off.

“The history of resource extraction from poor divided countries like Afghanistan is that people get poorer, not richer, from resource extraction,” Klare said in an interview. Klare, whose books include Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum and Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, cited Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as recent examples.

It was oil that made the people of those countries poorer. “The resource curse tends to lead to a national economy of oil parasitism,” he said. “The government lives off of oil revenues and there’s no incentive to promote development or agriculture. The elites get richer and richer and everyone else gets poorer.”

Afghanistan is particularly succeptible to the curse, Klare said, not simply because of its vast corruption, but because of the “relationship between corruption and the balkanization of the country into self-sufficient warlord zones.”

President Hamid Karzai may loosely control Kabul, and some of his allies rule other lucrative chunks of the country, but “various warlords of mixed persuasion” hold sway in other places, and of course the Taliban rule their parts of the country.

All of them are already “competing for whatever resources are available,” the most profitable areas currently involving U.S. aid and the opium trade. But the competition would only get more violent if the stakes were even greater.

What Afghanistan will look like in the future isn’t entirely clear. Will it be a loose confederation of semi-autonomous zones? Will it be like the former Yugoslavia? Will it be in a state of civil war? The least likely scenario, unfortunately, is that it will have a strong unified government in Kabul. And that means suspicion, jealousy, and competition when it comes to the allocation of natural resource.

“We’re not talking about a country that has a functioning bureau of mines that’s scrupulously honest and conducts its business transparently, and makes sure that the money is distributed in a fair and equitable manner” Klare said.

Klare does see one portentous augur of the future for Afghanistan -- in the form of a gigantic copper mining operation the Chinese are building in a Taliban stronghold in the mountains south of Kabul. As Jonathan S. Landay wrote for McClatchy Newspapers last March, the U.S. Army is providing the security that will enable China to “complete an ambitious set of infrastructure projects, including Afghanistan's first national railway, as part of the deal.” (China and Afghanistan share a 47-mile border.)

Klare suggested that reporters take a closer look at China’s role in Afghanistan generally, and at copper mining deal in particular. (As it happens, Tini Tran reported on July 3 for the Associated Press: “The Aynak copper-mine deal was shadowed by allegations that the Afghan mines minister, who has since been replaced, had collected huge bribes for steering the bid toward China.”)

That deal, Klare said, “demonstrates China’s unique ability to function in the kind of conflict-prone, balkanized Afghanistan of the future -- and our inability to do that.”

“Whose palm has been greased?” Klare asked. “Because that’s the way the Chinese operate. They will make those payments and not bat an eyelash.”

Meanwhile, he noted: “We’re the ones sending the troops.”

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