The war in Afghanistan fundamentally changed last week when the United States discovered vast deposits of untapped minerals in the war-ravaged country. But how this stunning development will alter the course of the conflict depends on – and will likely define – the way that each side responds.
Afghanistan suffers from two basic problems. First, there’s the Afghan economy. The nation is dirt poor, with an annual Gross Domestic Product of about $24 billion. That’s less than the state of Illinois’ total pension fund debt. Most of that money comes from growing opium, a vital raw-material in the drug trade.
While the United States and our allies cannot officially approve of the opium trade, nor can we do anything to stop it. You can hardly tell a bunch of farmers living in primitive conditions, in a nation with no prospects, no wealth, no industry – no anything – that they have to give up their only conceivable source of income. So, by definition, we’re fighting a war in which we are trying to win the hearts and minds of people who are engaged in, as far as we are concerned, a criminal enterprise.
This situation is what makes Afghanistan such a great haven for the Taliban. The Muslim fanatics don’t give a damn what drugs the Afghans grow, so long as they sell them to us infidels. It’s easy for the Taliban to present themselves as the protectors of the biggest industry that Afghanistan actually has, while we have to deal with our conflicted priorities by pretending that the issue doesn’t exist.
Still, we’ve made remarkable progress with Afghanistan’s populace in every region of the country but one: along the southern border that it shares with Pakistan. This is the home to the roughly 30 million Pashtuns who live in both nations. The Pashtuns are overwhelmingly Sunnis, which is of course the branch of Islam that gives rise to most (but not all) fundamentalist, Islamic terrorists.
The vast majority of the violence in Afghanistan today occurs either: a) in the Pashtun region of the country, or b) in Kabul (the capital), as a result of Pashtun-led attacks. While it would be incorrect to say that every Pashtun is a member of, or supports, the Taliban, one may accurately observe that most all Afghani Taliban are Pashtun. Thus Afghanistan presents a complex, multi-faceted challenge involving economics, religion and tribalism. The Soviets couldn’t brute-force their way through these issues, and our attempts to combine finesse and strength have resulted in what can be described – at best – as a stalemate.
Establishing and maintaining stability in Afghanistan would require the long-term commitment of a great deal of money, in terms of economic aid, or in terms of paying for a strong military presence, or some combination of both. It’s clear that the United States and our allies don’t have the desire or will to expend those sorts of resources to support a nation half a world away.
The ideal answer would be to find a way for Afghanistan to stand on its own, without involving the power or pocketbook of the West at all. Such a circumstance would make our struggle to help the Afghans govern themselves moot, because with prosperity comes the factor that our Founding Fathers believed would always lead to peace and prosperity: enlightened self interest.
The people of a prosperous Afghanistan would have choice to make: to enjoy the fruits of their labor, or to support those divisive ethnic, religious and extra-legal pursuits that mean nothing but more misery. History tells us that people choose the former course, at least when they are given the freedom to choose, in overwhelming numbers.
Which brings us back to last week, when it was announced that United States’ researchers have found nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, in the form of huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium. Indeed, it was reported that Afghanistan may be the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” an element that is essential to the production of high-efficiency batteries that our green world demands.
These discoveries can change everything. If we do it right, Afghanistan will become a wealthy, reliable ally, a nation that will grow rich and that will help us increase our riches. If we don’t, some other nation like Russia or China will step in to help the Afghans cash in on this find, which would be a tragedy after all the work we’ve done there and after so many Americans who given their lives there.
The worst case, of course, would be for the Taliban to win the war and to control such riches. That would be a disaster, one that we cannot afford to let occur, but that result would also be representative of the ongoing struggle between the jihadists medieval world and the modern world.
The Taliban never could have found those riches, because twenty-first century mineral exploration techniques are not described in the Quran. We could and we did. Similarly, fundamentalist Muslims could never build an airplane, an oil refinery, a sewage treatment system, an x-ray machine or produce modern medicines. Yet, in nations like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and so many others, they are happy to use all of the modern contrivances that the west has developed, and then sneer at the system that developed them.
In Afghanistan, Barack Obama faces the question that confronted Jimmy Carter over thirty years ago in Iran. Do we abandon the fruits of our labor to a pack of murderous thugs hiding behind the robes of the “religion of peace,” or will we continue the fight to shed the light of freedom and prosperity on a nation on the brink that, for the first time, has a chance of crawling out of the dark ages?