Afghanistan's Dangerous New Wealth

An Afghan coal miner rests at a mine in Karkar, Afghanistan, in 2004. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Afghanistan has struck gold. And iron. And copper, cobalt, and lithium. A U.S. survey discovered almost $1 trillion of mineral deposits there, reports The New York Times. But it may not be good news.

The report, by James Risen, describes an internal Pentagon memo that states Afghanistan could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium." Officials are hopeful that the wealth will help stabilize the country. 

Afghanistan, it hardly needs be said, is war-torn, has little infrastructure and has an economy dominated by the cultivation and export of opium poppies. The US (which will soon have 100,000 troops on the ground as part of a surge to bring peace to the country) and a shaky and corrupt central government battle with canny Taliban guerillas who have fought insurgent campaigns since they could walk. A patchwork of loosely affiliated warlords complicate matters further. 

Meanwhile America is just one of many nations caught in a torrent of geopolitical interests. Already vertigo-inducing relations with Pakistan, Russia and China on the country will not get any easier now the four nations are tacitly competing for trillions in untapped wealth. Indeed, the Times article points out that last year "Afghanistan’s minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine."

In such circumstances, the mineral wealth could be a curse. The Times is understated on the matter. "Instead of bringing peace, the newfound mineral wealth could lead the Taliban to battle even more fiercely to regain control of the country," says Risen.  

The analogues are not promising. As lottery winners and rap stars will tell you, mo' money often means mo' problems. Saudi Arabia itself, though currently somewhat stable, has not been politically transformed since oil was first discovered there in the 1930s. As recently as 2008 the country was described as an "authoritarian regime," in The Economist's Democracy Index, which it placed 161st of 167 countries. 

It is not alone. At a conservative estimate, 13 of the top 50 countries by oil reserves are unstable, and many of those—like Yemen, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—are among the most oppressive, dangerous and violent places in the world. 

The latter was the birthplace for the phrase 'blood diamond'. We sincerely hope there is no gruesome prefix added to Afghan lithium in the near future.