Money Won't Solve Problems in Afghanistan

07/02/2010 10:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The US government has announced mineral discoveries worth nearly a trillion dollars beneath Afghanistan's soil. That's $35,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. It is also enough to unleash horrors on the Afghan people that dwarf all those that they have so far endured.

Resource finds, in countries where money cannot be controlled, are usually bad news. Earlier this week, a House of Representatives subcommittee found that billions of dollars of US taxpayers' money has gone missing in Afghanistan: passed to subcontractors, used as bribes for protection from criminals and warlords, and sometimes ending up in the Taliban's pockets. The United States is literally funding its own enemy's war effort. In such an environment, where wealth gravitates inexorably toward the vicious, what hope can we have for the benefits of a resource bonanza? How is throwing another huge pot of money into the mix going to solve Afghanistan's problems?

The historical precedent is gloomy. Across Africa, and beyond, countries blessed with natural resources are waking up to the fact that they have instead been cursed. In the Niger Delta, oil wealth fueled first corruption and subsequently a brutal civil conflict, leaving its citizens profoundly worse off than their neighbors. This paradox looms over dozens of the world's poorest states -- wherever mineral wealth and weak governance converge.

Having served in Afghanistan as a British Army officer, I can vouch firsthand for Afghanistan's abundant reserves of the latter. It is likely that the discovery of mineral wealth will simply accelerate its collapse into a failed state.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Resources can be managed so that they don't end up in the hands of warlords. Global Witness, the campaigning organization for which I have hung up my rifle, realized this back in the 1990s when they began campaigning on blood diamonds.

So let's throw some ideas around. The Taliban is already doing well out of natural resources, in the form of opium poppy. Poppy works for them because it relies on a low-tech industry and a vast rural workforce. This makes it difficult for a counterinsurgency army to curtail without alienating the civilian population who, to quote Mao, are the sea in which the insurgent swims.

Minerals are different. Mines require technology, know-how and a smaller, more highly-skilled workforce. In countries where insurgents enjoy freedom of action, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they can run their own mines. In Afghanistan they cannot, because the coalition forces keep too tight a lid on them. So how else can the Taliban profit from mining in Afghanistan?

Well, if the mining companies steamroll local interests it could be a propaganda victory for the Taliban. But they'd probably run protection rackets on the mines, in the same way that they do with the coalition's supply routes. Then at least then they're being weaned off the poppy. Take the Taliban away from the poppy and you take them away from the rural population. As an insurgent force, they become fish out of water.

Or the Taliban could exchange their physical force for political power -- sensing the climate is right to rebalance their portfolio. If waging an insurgent war denies the Taliban a slice of the resource pie, their leadership might prefer to go into politics instead. A seat at the table and a share of the wealth, in exchange for a cessation of violence. Once the 4x4s start arriving in Taliban driveways, and the satellite televisions appear in their living rooms, they might rethink their fundamentalist values, as the Maoist Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia; bloated by materialism until the movement imploded. Maybe capitalism can pacify the Taliban, even after the might of capitalist armies has failed?

Speculation such as this will only get us so far. Ultimately, if resource wealth is to bring peace in Afghanistan it rests on one word. Transparency.

The resource curse is predicated on secrecy. At one end it relies on shady backroom deals and at the other it relies on illicit financial flows through which ill-gotten gains are spent. If Afghanistan's natural resource wealth is not to become an insurgent slush fund, it must be managed well. This is a tall order, but not impossible. Afghanistan's candidacy for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the EITI, is a valuable first step in this direction. If the country is validated it will show a commitment on behalf of the Afghan government, international companies and ordinary Afghans to talk to each other openly about resource exploitation.

This is of crucial importance for Afghanistan's future and our own. Transparency will tell us who is getting what, how much the government is receiving from mines, how fairly local communities are being treated and even how much each warlord is receiving. It would empower ordinary Afghans to hold their leaders, and even their tyrants, to account. And, through revealing the realities of power and politics in the country, and incentivizing good governance and accountability, it could even provide the coalition with the way out of Afghanistan for which it has been searching. The US and its allies have spent much blood and treasure in Afghanistan. To spend a little of their political capital on realizing the EITI would be a prudent investment.

Graham Lee is a campaigner for the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness, and has served in Afghanistan as a captain in the British Army.