Under Afghanistan’s mountains may be one of the largest untapped hoards of mineral deposits in the world, the New York Times reports, potentially transforming the country’s place in the world economy from poppy field to gold mine. The cited estimate of the size of deposits goes up to $1 trillion, which pales into comparison with the country’s existing GDP at $12 billion; the deposits revealed by geological surveys include not just gold, copper and cobalt, but rare earth minerals like lithium.
The deep involvement of the West in Afghanistan probably helps the reporting to tease out the more troubling consequence of what the transformation of the Afghan economy could mean: what happens when a poor, fragmented and ill-governed country with a history of ethnic divison is confronted by the prospect of wealth that at one stroke pushes everything else off the table. The prospects for democratic governance and economic stability, as a litany of examples around the world show, go haywire when an economy comes to depend on natural resource exports, and government no longer needs taxation to raise revenue and can pay off/buy in enemies and friends.
Throw in counter-extremist efforts against the Taliban (there’s some raised eyebrows at these revelations at their potential use to justify a continuing American presence in the country), the interests of Chinese patronage into the mix, and if these deposits prove to be anywhere near these initial estimates, things could get very messy indeed. Apparent blessings, all too easily, turn into curses.
For so long, Afghanistan’s poppies have been its most famous export. But while the narcotics that are its end product send individuals on a high, its newfound bounty could put the whole country on a far more distorting one.