Afghanistan’s Future, Written in Latin America’s History: Updated

Posted on June 14, 2010

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An article from today’s New York Times gushes about Afghaninstan’s supposed mineral wealth and the possibilities it may present of bringing an end to an economy based almost exclusively on the drug trade:

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe

The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.

But, funnily enough, another article in the same day’s paper about Peru’s return to narco-prominence, highlights a valuable allegory that should dampen enthusiasm for Afghan mineral wealth:

Coca cultivation is surging once again in this country’s remote tropical valleys, part of a major repositioning of the Andean drug trade that is making Peru a contender to surpass Colombia as the world’s largest exporter of cocaine.

Indeed, Peru is the most mineral rich country in the western hemisphere, and yet has somehow managed to once again become the central node in the world’s cocaine production. A rather bland statement in a Council on Foreign Affairs report, lays out the reality:

Many resource-rich developing countries that should benefit from high commodities prices are victims of the so-called resource curse, developing slower than countries with fewer mineral resources. Development in these countries is impeded by a number of factors (PDF), including government corruption, unequal redistribution of revenues, mismanagement of funds and a lack of transparency in cash flows, and a general lack of governing capacity.

No amount of mineral wealth can save the economies of Peru, Afghanistan and its cousins, Congo, Colombia and others. The source of wealth was never the problem to begin with. The honey pot of mineral wealth attracts rapacious investors from the developed world, who take advantage of undeveloped economies and governments, forcing them into a never-ending cycle of poor governance and corruption, all to make sure that the country itself never prospers from the mineral wealth it has found under its feet.

The drug trade is a clearly logical and inevitable response to this exploitation. The vast multitude of Peruvians and Afghans will see very little of this wealth, and their own governments will fight tooth and nail to make sure that the majority of its profits benefit Peruvian and Afghan elites and those of other countries. Given that reality, its no surprise that alternative industries are instituted that can operate outside the parameters of the government, and outside the greedy hands of corporate/governmental interests. That the drug trade is as inherently exploitative—and more so, though only arguably–as the minerals industry is a given. There can be no persuasive argument that the Sendero Luminoso and the Taliban have the best interests of the poor at heart. But the poor of such countries are able to gain far more from it in any case, which is more an indictment of the current “prosperity” brought by mineral development than a celebration of narco-trafficking.

This is why its almost hilarious that anyone would think of Afghan mineral wealth as an alternative to a drug based economy. Indeed, like Peru, the minerals industry may instead trigger an unprecedented growth of the Afghan drug trade.

Update:

Another example of the curse of resource wealth and the criminal enterprises it inevitably facilitates in the NYT today.

Perhaps no place on earth has been as battered by oil, experts say, leaving residents here astonished at the nonstop attention paid to the gusher half a world away in the Gulf of Mexico. It was only a few weeks ago, they say, that a burst pipe belonging to Royal Dutch Shell in the mangroves was finally shut after flowing for two months: now nothing living moves in a black-and-brown world once teeming with shrimp and crab.

Not far away, there is still black crude on Gio Creek from an April spill, and just across the state line in Akwa Ibom the fishermen curse their oil-blackened nets, doubly useless in a barren sea buffeted by a spill from an offshore Exxon Mobil pipe in May that lasted for weeks.

The oil spews from rusted and aging pipes, unchecked by what analysts say is ineffectual or collusive regulation, and abetted by deficient maintenance and sabotage. In the face of this black tide is an infrequent protest — soldiers guarding an Exxon Mobil site beat women who were demonstrating last month, according to witnesses — but mostly resentful resignation.

There is, in fact, much more than just “resentful resignation”. Nigeria has been, and continues to be, a hotbed of various income producing terror activities, such as kidnapping and oil theft:

A group of ex-rebels are believed to be responsible for a “major attack” on an oil pipeline in Brass River that forced Italian oil firm Agip to declare a force majeure — freedom from contractual obligations — on its exports on Wednesday, industry and security sources said.

“They were former militants looking for an easy way to make money,” said a security source working in the oil industry.

Nigeria’s plan to rehabilitate, educate and employ thousands of former rebels has stalled since ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua left last November for treatment for a heart ailment. He has since returned, but remains too sick to rule.

Like Peru, a thriving parallel industry and rival government has risen up in the vacuum created by astounding poverty and environmental degradation. All this facilitated by a corrupt government intent on giving away its country’s wealth to the West for a pittance. Does Afghanistan even stand a chance?

The New York Times article is also a depressing look into our disinterest in the destruction we wreak on the rest of the world in order to maintain our way of life.