To be clear, the reason I described the discovery of untold mineral wealth in Afghanistan as hopeful is because it has been the glaring lack of natural resources that has made the future look so hopeless for that country. Their level of need so exceeds the capacity of the international community to provide that it has seemed as if Afghanistan is doomed to endure grinding poverty in perpetuity. It’s hard to be in a worse situation than relying on illegal narcotics for the bulk of your foreign trade.
If Afghanistan becomes one of the largest exporters of iron, copper, and lithium, they will have the amount of wealth they need to actually fund a national government and provide security. They’ll have a lot of new jobs that should pay significantly more than what the average Afghani makes now. And the very existence of all this wealth is a powerful incentive for tribal leaders to work out their differences and create the kind of conditions where foreign investment is attractive.
I’m not naive. I know there is a global competition for access to natural resources. I know that mining corporations have an abysmal record in the Third World. I know that there will be more pressure for the US to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan. But, despite all that, the discovery is hopeful because it could convince Afghanis to unite. It could provide the resources that Afghanistan needs to govern itself. And it could raise the standard of living of the people. And, really, if you think about it, this is what happened in Saudi Arabia after the discovery of oil there. For all the flaws with the Saudi Royal Family and the society they’ve created, they have raised the standard of living and education and health of their people dramatically since the 1930’s.
For thousands of years, the economy of the Arabian Peninsula was determined by autonomous clusters of people living near wells and oases. Most of the population was engaged in agriculture, including nomads who raised livestock by moving their animals to the limited forage produced by infrequent rains. However, the inability of pastoral nomads to provide for their communities solely on the basis of pastoral activities forced them to create multiple resource systems. Such systems took the form of protection services for merchant caravans and pilgrims, control over small oases, and, to a lesser extent, direct cultivation. In the settled areas, local craftsmen produced a few items needed by those living near or visiting the scattered sources of water. Production was limited to serve very small markets and existed essentially on a subsistence level. Trade was limited primarily to camel caravans and the annual influx of pilgrims visiting the holy places in the Hijaz. In the principal cities, such as Jiddah and Mecca, several large merchant families settled permanently and prospered, especially after the late nineteenth-century development of the Hejaz Railway. The growth in international trade associated with European colonial expansion also benefited these merchants and attracted numerous families from as far away as the Eastern Province of Arabia, Iran, the Levant, and Turkey.
Oil changed everything.
The most profound agent of change for the economy of Saudi Arabia was the discovery of huge reserves of oil by a United States company in 1938. Initially, the newly established oil industry had only an indirect impact on this primitive economy. The establishment of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco, predecessor of Saudi Aramco) and the oil towns around the oil fields triggered major changes in the economy of the kingdom, especially in the Eastern Province. Development of the oil fields required ancillary construction of modern ports, roads, housing, power plants, and water systems. Saudi workers had to be trained in new skills. In addition, the concentration of oil field employees and the range of services the oil company and employees needed opened new economic opportunities on a scale previously unseen by local merchants, contractors, and others. Aramco provided technical, financial, and logistical support to local entrepreneurs to shed the many support activities it had initially assumed. The discovery of oil ended the kingdom’s isolation and introduced new ways to organize the production and distribution of goods and services.
That’s the type of change that Afghanistan would like to see. There is a new potential there now. The level of cynicism expressed in the last thread is breathtaking. It shows how devastatingly delegitimizing the Iraqi War has become for any role for American power in the world. The poorest country on earth finding trillions of dollars of wealth is now bad news because American corporations might make some money in the deal. Afghanistan can’t catch a break like winning the lottery is not catching a break.
If I have a bias, I tend towards optimism. And I know that this discovery could cause more fighting and more international interference in Afghanistan. But it could be just what Afghanistan needed and the motivation to end a very long civil war.