Skip to main content

Afghan minerals could turn war's tide

By Patrick Doherty, Special to CNN
An aerial view of part of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan.
An aerial view of part of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan has an estimated $1 trillion trove of minerals
  • Patrick Doherty says the mineral wealth could be crucial in changing the war's direction
  • Doherty says Afghans could borrow against their minerals to fund jobs program
  • Economic development is the key to winning against the Taliban, he says

Editor's note: Patrick Doherty is the director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation, a think tank that seeks innovative solutions across the political spectrum.

(CNN) -- The news that Afghanistan's mineral wealth could exceed $1 trillion is an important opportunity for both Kabul and Washington to change the narrative from counterinsurgency to locally controlled sustainable development.

By doing so, the government of Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration can leverage a range of converging interests in South and Central Asia to put Afghanistan and the region finally on the only viable path to security -- rising economic prosperity in the larger region.

Natural resources are both a blessing and a curse. For some countries strong government and civil society can manage them so the larger society benefits and profits are invested in the human resources of the country. The BP oil spill notwithstanding, this has been the case for the United States, Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom.

For many other countries, natural resource wealth has been a curse. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been at war over its resources for more than 15 years. Angola's oil wealth fueled a multidecade civil war, and Iraq's strategic position at the heart of the Persian Gulf oil patch led to a dictatorship that was both sponsored by the United States and then destroyed by it.

Video: Afghanistan's mineral wealth
Video: $1 trillion of minerals in Afghanistan

So the question is, how can the Afghans exploit this impressive inheritance while laying the foundation for a peaceful future? The first step is to not wait for the mining companies to start operating. This large a reserve estimate creates an immediate opportunity to use the mineral wealth as collateral to secure funding for key development activities that need to happen today.

For the latest on the region, read Afghanistan Crossroads blog

Done properly, borrowing against the nation's mineral wealth provides a mechanism that helps Afghanistan avoid the unsustainable mining practices that in the long term might leave it worse off or ecologically damaged.

Where the money comes from is important. Instead of the traditional development agencies providing the funds and putting a counterproductive American face on development efforts, the Afghan government has the opportunity to seek loans backed by tangible mineral assets.

Instead of U.S. Agency for International Development or Defense Department funding and all the contractors and consultants that come with it, the Afghan government can to go to the Export-Import Bank or the Overseas Private Investment Corp. for funding.

To avoid corruption, Kabul should place those funds in a transparent national escrow account to be used for critical development programs.

Here too, the timing is good. In an annex to the Afghan government's peace and reintegration program, released in April, the Karzai government proposed a major program that needs exactly this kind of stable, long-term funding. Called the Public Works and Agricultural Conservation Corps, the "Corps," reminiscent of our own Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, would build on successful, locally focused and Afghan-owned efforts such as the National Solidarity Program and the Community Development Councils.

It would recruit, train, educate and pay insurgent-age young men to participate in small-to-medium scale civil engineering and agricultural development projects. By taking large numbers of young men, providing them with meals, pay, literacy and basic vocational training, the program would provide a powerful, Afghan-led alternative to the Taliban while thinning their ranks and improving the productivity of the Afghan nation as a whole.

The saying in Afghanistan is that the Taliban starts where the roads -- the police pay -- end. By focusing on the two core challenges facing the largely agrarian nation, roads and jobs, the Public Works and Agricultural Conservation Corps can turn the tide against the insurgents by demonstrating that the Afghan government is capable of meeting the short-, medium- and long-term needs of its people without endless American intervention.

In the medium term, using this advance on the nation's mineral wealth can create the missing link in Afghan development: reducing dependence on donor funding while unifying the development agenda under the leadership of the Afghan government.

Today, the Provisional Reconstruction Teams and the military's Commanders' Emergency Response Program are providing the bulk of development funding in the country. The problem is that they are also creating a parallel government that only exacerbates corruption and confusion. By transitioning to a unified program using the Engineering and Agricultural Corps as the human resource foundation, the Afghan government can solve a number of problems with one design.

Ultimately, a sustainable, Afghan-centric approach to mineral development is also in the interest of the United States. Success in Afghanistan will be dependent on a growing Afghan economy being situated in and contributing to a prosperous South and Central Asia.

By Kabul tapping Afghanistan's mineral wealth to fund its own economic development, the future of Afghanistan can be returned to the hands of Afghans -- a condition that will only expedite the safe return of American troops.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Doherty.

Part of complete coverage on
Afghanistan Crossroads
Afghanistan Crossroads is where CNN's reporting converges, bringing you a diversity of voices, stunning images and video and global perspectives
Photo spotlight
Stunning images from on the ground in Afghanistan, from military maneuvers to every day life of Afghans
Crossroads of history
Explore the different historic events that have made Afghanistan a crossroads of history
Life and culture
Go inside every day life and the culture of the people who live in Afghanistan