Afghanistan’s great game-changer

Marco Vicenzino Contributor
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The competition for influence in central Asia has long been referred to as the Great Game. The region may witness its greatest game should the discovery in Afghanistan of an estimated $1 trillion in unexploited minerals bear fruit. For Afghanistan, it would represent its most definitive game-changer. For the region, it would trigger a reconfiguration of the geopolitical landscape and mark a dramatic shift in the balance of power. The mineral discovery will also open opportunities for either greater economic cooperation and integration or intensified conflict and competition. The stakes in central Asia increase exponentially unlike any other time in its modern history.

Historically valued for its strategic importance as a regional conduit for resources, Afghanistan has now itself become a prized source for valued commodities. Tales from recent decades teach that resource-rich developing countries are more often cursed than blessed. Furthermore, where endemic corruption and conflict prevail, the chances for progress diminish. If anything, mineral discoveries usually exacerbate an existing vicious cycle. Congo may provide the worst-case scenario. Decades of oppressive rule and violence culminated in a five-year regional war involving neighboring states that claimed over four million lives. Although the odds are stacked against a pre-emerging state like Afghanistan, they are not insurmountable.

At this early stage, ambiguity clearly dominates. Several volatile factors are at play that can lead to dramatically different outcomes. The mineral deposits’ full potential will never materialize without internal stability in Afghanistan, regional cooperation and international assistance. Prospects remain bleak if resources are not managed responsibly and not exploited for collective benefit. If personal and tribal enrichment prevail, the status quo will increasingly deteriorate and hostilities intensify.

This further underscores the need for more mature leadership across the political and ethno-sectarian spectrum. In Afghanistan, power and influence does not emanate from top-down but bottom-up. The central government’s authority and reach does not extend much beyond Kabul and major urban centers. A new social compact involving all levels is necessary. Without it, little will be achieved

The equitable distribution of opportunity and benefits can also incentivize greater national unity and encourage insurgents and other aggrieved parties to the negotiating table. A substantive national dialogue designed to achieve broader internal consensus on the new-found wealth must develop. Despite its shortcomings, a recent gathering of Afghan tribal elders convened by President Karzai in Kabul can serve as a precursor.

An inclusive approach to the mineral discovery can help contribute to a new national narrative that Afghans have been struggling to find in building a new state. The fact that discoveries are scattered throughout the country gives no single ethno-sectarian group monopoly on resources. Furthermore, the fact that Afghanistan is landlocked makes it logistically dependent upon neighbors for transportation routes to get minerals to market. Those vying for competition do not only include Pakistan and India, but extends to Iran, China, neighboring central Asian states and Russia. Greater destabilization will result if any single player perceives its interests are being undermined. Furthermore, the lack of sufficient technical expertise makes Afghanistan reliant upon international involvement for effective exploitation of resources. Therefore, no one can afford to go it alone. Widespread instability and division will prevent all from benefiting. This further underscores the need for greater national unity, regional participation and international coordination.

A major advantage for Afghanistan is the existing international presence which consists not only of armed forces but development agencies and related entities. Technocrats must play a key role. Their experience and knowledge must be drawn upon. The contribution of Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan presidential candidate and World Bank official, must be sought. Despite his differences with President Karzai and relative political inexperience, his expertise and compelling track record in international development is indispensable. Furthermore, an independent body of Afghan and international technocrats, free of political influence and interference, must be created to ensure transparency and accountability. It must be given supervision of the mineral discoveries. It must provide clarity and devise a road-map that impartially assesses full potential and produces the best possible infrastructure and practices. The objective is to guarantee a system that will benefit the Afghan people and ensure the responsible long-term exploitation of their resources. Ultimately, without serious political will and international support, a neutral managing entity will amount to nothing.

Proper mineral exploitation can also incentivize a more enduring international commitment. After all, remaining engaged and helping to provide the stability necessary for the development of a self-sustaining Afghanistan provides the best possible exit strategy. With respect to foreign investment, the best option may be signing long-term exclusive agreements with a select group of multinationals. Aside from royalty benefits, they must commit to building desperately needed infrastructure and contribute to projects vital to local communities. The mineral discovery’s potential alone can begin attracting foreign direct investment and generate initial benefits.

Over the past decade, China’s deep pockets, insatiable appetite for resources and willingness to invest enormous capital for extraction have been evident throughout the developing world. Throughout the global recession, many emerging markets have prospered due to Chinese capital injections. However, an accompanying increase in corruption has simultaneously undermined their futures. Afghan public officials involved in concessions to Chinese copper mine investments have been prosecuted. This provides a potential glimpse into prospects of unfettered Chinese investments and the absence of proper international supervision. In corruption and conflict-ridden Afghanistan, such practices will only accelerate a dreadful downward cycle.

Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. He provides global political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary on foreign affairs for publications/media outlets worldwide. He can be reached at msv@globalsp.org.