June 14, 2010

Why $1 Trillion in Untapped Mineral Deposits Has Me Depressed

A host of readers sent me this article about Afghanistan's vast natural resource find, but Erin "Charlie" Simpson was the only one whose pessimism about the find matched my own. I have been reading Paul Collier's The Bottom Billionir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0195373383 in between editing chapters of my dissertation (which is tough enough to do when my local coffee shop has the World Cup on all its televisions), and Collier describes the characteristics that "trap" countries in cycles of civil conflict: low income, slow growth, and dependence on primary commodity exports. I don't need to tell you Afghanistan has the first and third characteristics in spades, and you may have noticed that Afghanistan has already been in a pretty miserable cycle of civil conflict since the PDPA coup in 1978. Does this resource find make civil war more or less likely? The statistics, I'm afraid, suggest the former.

The presence of civil war is not reason alone to give up on Afghanistan and bring the boys home. I have previously argued that yes, Afghanistan is in a civil war, and that we should take sides in that civil war to advance U.S. and allied interests. That's basically what we are doing today. But counterinsurgency strategies rest on the assumption that you can eventually weaken anti-government forces and reduce levels of violence to the point where a political process can take place in more peaceful circumstances. We now have one trillion fresh reasons why this assumption might not be valid for Afghanistan. I am not yet sure what this means for either U.S. and allied interests or the current strategy. I more or less agree with today's editorial in the New York Times that our current strategy "still seems like the best chance to stabilize Afghanistan and get American troops home." But as the editorial noted, the news last week from Afghanistan was terrible. And I'm not sure this week's news is any better.