Is there a future for Afghanistan in natural resources?

The nation sits atop about $1 trillion in natural resources — but that’s only part of the story

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Comparison of magnetic to gravitational anomalies over Afghanistan. 1, Magnetic anomaly high at Khanneshin on the lower Helmand indicating the presence of rare-earth metals; 2, Low magnetic anomaly that could indicate hydrocarbon potential (oil, gas, and coal); 3, Magnetic anomaly high indicating presence of copper in the Aynak region; 4, Gravity low that further supports the hydrocarbon possibility of item 2. After Aikins, 2010 (Source: Natural Resources in Afghanistan, Chapter 13)Under the ground of Afghanistan is a treasure trove: precious metals and stones, Asia's largest copper and iron deposits, world-class rare earths, lithium for high-tech batteries, and all sorts of other industrial materials. This natural resource bonanza — estimated at $1 trillion by the US Geological Service — augurs for some interesting changes for this once failed state.

Exactly what future occurs is the crux move for Afghanistan as it poises at the uphill overhang; will they fall into the pit of the resource curse or make it up over the edge to a safe future of successful resource extraction?   

The next few years look like a rather dicey rock climb but do offer hope for a better future.

The Afghanistan Ministry of Mines has developed a scheme of investment and development of what are called resource corridors. Mineral bidding contracts are for sale to the highest bidders, along with all the means for mining extraction, processing, and integrated transport. Because of the twin problems of environmental despoliation along with rampant corruption, the government has instituted strong new environmental laws along with some smart application of the Equator Principles by the World Bank to determine, assess and manage environmental and social risk in Afghanistan in future.

Unfortunately, as in any country where corruption is endemic, the prospects for development of the paradox of plenty in Afghanistan are all too real. The resource curse occurs in places where abundant resources have actually led to reduced economic growth. This can occur for many reasons, but chief among these is government mismanagement of resource extraction with excessive corruption and the diversion of revenue streams from the extractive activities.

One method to guard against Afghanistan becoming resource cursed is application of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) — a global coalition of governments, companies, and civil society working together to improve openness and accountable management of revenues from natural resources. The Afghanistan EITI application has been funded by the World Bank and seems a reasonable success, with two reports having been filed recently, and a third expected soon.

Natural Resources in AfghanistanThe EITI report of 2012 did, however, turn up a discrepancy of 45 percent ($5.5 million), which is a substantial amount that indicates required vigilance in future. Nonetheless, the fact that continued scrutiny of the government is being maintained does leave room for optimism that a deep resource curse might be avoided for a country long mired in what many consider to be abysmal corruption, incapable of ever rising from the swamp of greedy venality.

Umar Sheraz, PhDIn my new book, Natural Resources in Afghanistan, I present two possible scenarios for the immediate future as well as the next decade or two.  One chapter, long and pessimistic, discusses many historic reasons for seemingly incessant wars – and the fact that not much time is left to mine the resources before a resurgent Taliban reasserts its rule of ignorant and ruthless gunmen because the neighbors want the resources too. This obviously does not bode well for the country's future. A shorter, optimistic chapter takes the view that the resource corridors work like a charm, with the result that the country rises phoenix-like from the ashes of its long nightmare and rebuilds itself.

In all probability, however, something else may happen.

One of Pakistan's leading scholars would like to see things in Afghanistan go differently than a lot of people think or hope they will. Dr. Umar Sheraz is a Senior Policy Analyst in the COMSTECH Secretariat to the Pakistani Government, and a representative of the Standing Committee on Scientific & Technical Cooperation of the Organization of Islamic Countries in Islamabad, Pakistan. He has worked up some ideas about the Afghanistan minerals scenario that suggest other possibilities to consider as well.

The various scenarios that are possible as Afghanistan pursues mineral extraction (Source: Umar Sheraz, PhD)Because elements of all these possibilities are occurring at the present time, probably all will continue on to greater or lesser extents. Thus elements of a new Great Game seem afoot, along with some unrealistic expectations and an uneasy coexistence, perhaps on a road to regional peace and prosperity. Natural resources are a key not likely a panacea. It is up to us all to maintain vigilant scrutiny of resource events in Afghanistan to ensure a reasonable future for millions of people there.

The crux of their climb is at hand; whether they succeed will determine the fate of major parts of Southwest Asia – and with our global economy, the impact will likely be felt worldwide.


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The Author

John F. Shroder, PhDDr. John F. Shroder has pursued research on natural hazards and resources for over half a century. He is Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Afghanistan Studies at University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he is Emeritus Professor of Geography and Geology. He has written or edited 43 books and more than 150 professional papers. Recently he has served as the editor in chief of Elsevier's 14-volume Treatise on Geomorphology, and is currently editing their new book series on Hazards, Risks, and Disasters.In addition, he is the long-term Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier's book series on Developments in Earth Surface Processes.

His new book, which published in late July, is Natural Resources in Afghanistan: Geographic and Geologic Perspectives on Centuries of Conflict.  Dr. Shroder's website,, lists many of his other past and present projects to use geological knowledge to protect against hazards and improve people's wellbeing.

Dr. Shroder is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has received Distinguished Career awards from the Mountain and the Geomorphology Specialty Groups of the Association of American Geographers. He also serves as a Trustee of the Geological Society of America Foundation.

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