Afghanistan's Economic Hope
The key to Afghanistan’s long-term stability is economic prosperity and development anchored in a secure and sound society. Sitting at the heart of the Eurasian continent, its prospects are important to the UK, China and India. Harnessing a common interest in Afghanistan’s economic future into an agenda could provide the foundations for a long-term solution to that nation’s intractable problems.
Fellow BRICS members China and India do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. Longstanding border disputes plague the relationship and both have different views of Islamabad as a partner. Nevertheless, both share concerns about Afghanistan’s future and recognize the importance of stability in the country for broader regional peace. As a NATO power exiting militarily alongside the United States, the United Kingdom is eager to continue its aid program and other work with regional partners to develop a stable structure that guarantees Afghanistan does not return to its former state as a haven for terrorism and extremism.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Afghanistan may be sitting on mineral wealth worth around $1 trillion. Its potential lithium deposits have been described as having the potential to turn the country into the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’ while it is estimated to have some $421 billion’s worth of iron ore, and a further $273 billion in copper. In the north, Afghanistan sits atop the lower end of the hydrocarbon rich Amu Darya basin. But the ongoing security and governance problems mean that this untapped prosperity remains stuck underground.
The threat of attack and uncertainty about post-2014 have meant that companies have been hesitant to proceed with investments. Security issues aside, problems with a lack of local-government capacity and a difficult business environment mean that while it is easy to get into Afghanistan, setting up shop is only the first hurdle. The result is an Afghanistan that cries out for investment and is unable to profit from its natural wealth. It is here that China and India could play a greater role.
As regional powers with booming economies hungry for raw materials, they are exactly the consumer that would benefit from this mineral wealth. Currently, foreign direct investment into Afghanistan is dominated by Chinese and Indian state-owned enterprises (SOEs). There is MCC, Jiangxi Copper (owners of the Mes Aynak copper mine) and CNPC (responsible for an oil project in Amu Darya), all Chinese SOEs, and SAIL-AFISCO (majority owner of the Hajigak iron ore mine), an Indian firm.
As SOEs, the firms are better able to take on large projects: governments have greater ability to influence company direction and harness it for Afghanistan’s long-term benefit. The key is to get firms to invest in both the project and the country.
This can happen in a number of ways. First, there is the tool of providing jobs for locals around the sites. But projects should also aim to develop infrastructure around the site to connect the mines with the rest of the country and region, efforts that should be prioritized and coordinated in future bids. An additional benefit could be created if firms investing in the country were to assume responsibility for training local engineers and mining professionals. This training could take place at the sites or abroad. One possibility is for Chinese and Indian firms to offer scholarships to Afghan students to attend top universities in China or India to learn skills that could then be deployed on the mining sites. It is here also that the United Kingdom could play a role. British foreign policy has a long history of facilitating training programs, and some of the lessons learned may be helpful to China and India.
The capacity problem is one that exists not only at an operational level, but also at a governmental level. British, Chinese and Indian governments could offer training courses for technocrats in the Ministry of Mines and other civil servants to help them develop the skills needed to effectively manage their country’s national wealth. Investing in local capacity should not stop at training people. Given that the companies in question are state-owned entities, their home governments have greater influence to ensure standards in compliance and corporate practice.
Beijing and New Delhi should push their own SOEs to ensure that certain minimum standards of behavior are undertaken, focused on ensuring that their firms will not indulge in corrupt behavior in pursuit of contracts. A common standard of practice should be established to ensure that deals cut in Afghanistan are clean, and all sides should agree to not undercut each other. Naturally, a pragmatic approach needs to be taken but establishing good practices early will save trouble in the long run. The United Kingdom already works with the Afghan government to support the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and the lessons being applied here could provide the foundation for a strong anticorruption program in Afghanistan.