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Undoing Afghanistan's resource curse

The resource curse could undermine everything the U.S. has invested in Afghanistan since 2001

Afghanistan is teetering on the edge. A little-known bill just passed the upper house of its parliament that could help counter threats to the country's stability and future development, but only if the U.S. government works with Afghanistan to ensure that it is fixed before it becomes law.

The United States hopes that Afghanistan's $1-trillion mineral wealth will kick-start the economy, reduce dependency on U.S. aid and ultimately fund Afghan security forces that can stand up to the Taliban. However, there is a serious risk this measure would instead fuel corruption and conflict, while generating little revenue for the government but a lot for insurgents and warlords.

A significant part of the last 30 years of conflict has been funded from the proceeds of natural resources, including emeralds and rubies. Initial research by Global Witness confirms that the Taliban and other armed groups are still taking a significant cut from mining in many parts of the country.

So the mining law matters. What the proposed law, which would replace an existing one, is supposed to do is set out how contracts for the vast mineral riches are granted, who is eligible to get them, what taxes they will pay and what protections there are for the environment and local communities. It should help determine whether the Afghan people receive their fair share of revenue from their natural wealth, or whether power brokers and corrupt officials will pocket the funds in dirty deals. It should spell out whether ordinary Afghans have any right to know who owns the contracts.

Yet as it stands, the proposed law has serious weaknesses. It does not require the publication of contracts or the real ownership of mining companies, has no clear criteria for bidding and does not even forbid informal militias from being involved in mining. These are fundamental transparency and accountability safeguards, increasingly accepted around the world. Despite some positive provisions, such as the requirement for companies to sign a development agreement to help communities around the mines, overall the law simply does not do the job.

Many people in the Afghan and U.S. governments recognize this. But that has not been translated into serious action. In practice, the driving concern behind the bill has been to fix a few provisions in the existing law that might deter investment by international mining companies, rather than create a law that would most effectively shield against abuses. Given the threats Afghanistan faces, this is an incredibly shortsighted approach.

The Obama administration should work with the Afghan government to encourage reform of the bill before it becomes law, and, more broadly, to build up effective oversight of the country's natural resources. If U.S. interests are not enough justification, Afghan interests surely are. With more than 1 in 3 people living below the poverty line, Afghanistan desperately needs its resources to drive growth and foster stability.

President Obama warned recently that the Al Qaeda-inspired militants who have seized territory in Iraq pose a serious threat to the United States. After the U.S. exited Iraq and Americans thought they had escaped the conflict, Washington has had to pledge sustained support to the Iraqi government. If the U.S. wants to avoid a similar outcome in Afghanistan, it has to treat management of natural resources as a core strategic priority — not an optional extra — and as a basic condition for stability.

The resource curse could undermine everything the U.S. has invested in Afghanistan since 2001: 14 years of fighting, hundreds of billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost. The law is one obvious tool that could help prevent that fate from becoming a reality. The Obama administration, and its Afghan partners, cannot claim to be blind to the risks if this is not done right. They must act now.

Jodi Vittori is the Afghan policy advisor at London-based Global Witness, an international NGO campaigning to prevent natural resource-related conflict and corruption. She retired this year from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years. Most recently, she served in the anti-corruption task force of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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