Digging for peace in Afghanistan?

05/22/2017 10:39 am ET Updated May 23, 2017

When United States president Donald Trump made a call to Afghanistan’s President Ghani in February 2017, one of the first issues they discussed was the country’s mineral wealth, estimated by the US Geological Survey at 1 $US trillion of world class deposits.

As Ghani explained in a TIME interview this week, Trump see’s Afghanistan’s mineral wealth as a significant opportunity to bring peace to the country. But actually extracting and then leveraging the mineral wealth for security and development goals is itself linked to a number of prerequisites. The first of these is to bring the 60% of the country currently under Taliban or contested control and the 80% of mines across the country that are under the control of non-state actors (including the Taliban and The Islamic State), under that of the government of Afghanistan.

If only things were that simple.

In reality, a political settlement represents the greatest hope for ending the conflict in Afghanistan, but putting the Taliban into a position where they are more likely to negotiate- within the dictates set by the Afghan constitution- is essential.

The US will decide in the coming days on the new Afghanistan Strategy, including a proposed increase in troop numbers from the current 8400, to close to 12,000. President Trump, it is expected, will also ask NATO countries on the 24th of May to add their own forces to join US troops in a renewed effort to end the conflict in Afghanistan.

Putting more boots on the ground however, is not going to be the silver bullet that pushes forward peace talks. Not only has the Taliban gained ground since the US transition in 2014 when troop numbers were significantly reduced, but support for professionalization of the Afghan security forces is still a much needed -and ongoing- project, one which is linked in part to a range of governance challenges. Skeptics also point out that even when US troop numbers were close to 10 times higher than now, the Taliban did not make concessions in the fragmented peace talks that have taken place since 2011.

The resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan will not be a slam-dunk even with regained US interest and more troops on the ground. So what could be a game-changer in the new US strategy?

Security and economic development- the main topics of the call between Trump and Ghani – are intimately linked in Afghanistan. Ramping up the legal extraction of minerals itself will only contribute so much within the current political economy – one that effectively directs wealth and power away from the government.

The US and Afghanistan’s other development partners will need to recommit and double-down on previous efforts to carefully and painstakingly assist the country and its many committed reformers in strengthening governance institutions- within both the state and civil society.

Scaling up military support needs to be matched with a financial commitment to assist with governance institutions- particularly in transparent and accountable revenue generation and spending to help divert finances away from the Taliban. Development partners will also need to return attention to supporting the provision of core services for Afghanistan’s citizens, developing local economies to provide livelihoods opportunities and strengthening confidence in the state to be responsive to the needs of all Afghans- regardless of ethnic group. Restoring confidence in the state will also channel away current support for the Taliban.

The trillion dollar mineral wealth of the country represents both a great opportunity to do this, but currently is also heavily implicated in the state’s governance weaknesses. The current political economy of extraction in Afghanistan continues to undermine the rule of law and supports the flow of the vast majority of the extracted wealth to illegal actors and their corrupt counterparts within Afghanistan’s ailing governance institutions.

Without investing heavily in good governance- appropriate regulations, strong oversight, social accountability and effective public finance management, for example- the wealth will continue to be a key factor in Afghanistan’s instability rather than its potential peace and development.

A version of this article appears on Economists on Peace. http://visionofhumanity.org/economists-on-peace/digging-peace-afghanistan/

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