Geopolitical crisis to continue if focus stays on resource exploitation

Natural resources are the property of those who own them; they have the right to enjoy economic gains.

Jazib Nelson September 11, 2017

ISLAMABAD: During his presidential election campaign, US President Donald Trump labelled Afghan war a mess and promised to end American military presence in the country.

Now in the Oval Office, Trump has completely reversed his earlier stance. According to his official policy, America will increase military involvement in Afghanistan because “a hasty withdrawal would create vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda.”

Much like his predecessors, George W Bush and Barack Obama, Trump made similar excuses of supporting the Afghan government and Afghan security forces.

However, the change in his position has not come out of America’s concerns over peace and security in the region as he claimed in his speech.

As with almost every major global conflict, economics can better explain Trump’s swift reversal on Afghanistan than geopolitics. He himself provided a subtle indication of this.

According to him, “America is going to participate in Afghanistan’s economic development to help defray the cost of war to the US.” He called for “the integration of all instruments of American power – diplomatic, economic and military – towards a successful outcome.”

So, how is America’s economic power supposed to defray the cost of Afghan war?

It is when Trump learnt about Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits that he actually decided to participate in the war-stricken country’s economic development.

In 2010, a price tag of $1 trillion was attached to Afghanistan’s mineral resources. This figure was highly speculative given the nature of commodities’ prices. According to a news report in The New York Times, this figure caught the attention of Trump. Naturally, we can expect that Trump must have incorporated this information into his new Afghan policy.

He isn’t the first US president to be interested in Afghanistan’s minerals. Bush and Obama before him were also attracted by these resources. Trump has even got a financier lined up who is interested in exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral resources. Stephen Feinberg, a billionaire financier, is interested in Afghanistan’s mineral resources which are used in making products from wind turbines to computer chips.

He runs a large military contracting firm. America naturally has an incentive to rid Afghanistan of Taliban since the areas that are the richest in mineral resources are currently in the hands of Taliban. Feinberg’s military firm can guard those mines as well.

War for resources

Judging from these developments, it appears that the Afghan war has become more of a resource war for the US.

For Afghanistan, its natural resources have turned into a resource curse. America is adamant not to withdraw from Afghanistan until there are sufficient economic gains to justify its 16 long years of military engagement.

A war-like situation in which the government of the country is all but dysfunctional provides a ready ground for resource exploitation. We have seen in the past that resource-rich countries were more prone to armed conflict.

The civil war in Sierra Leone, which lasted 11 years, had illegal diamonds trade at the centre of the armed conflict between insurgent groups and the government. Economic development was scattered in the country due to this conflict. Much like Afghanistan’s mineral resources, for Sierra Leone, its rich diamond deposits were more of a curse.

Pakistan’s case

Pakistan can also relate to this situation. Balochistan’s natural resources remain untapped and the province has faced armed conflict for decades. The Baloch have made repeated claims that they are denied economic gains of their natural resources.

While the majority of Pakistan has benefited from Sui’s natural gas, the people of Sui are deprived of it. More than half of Balochistan is still without gas. The Reko Diq project of gold, copper and zinc mines in Chagai district of Balochistan is suffering from a legal conflict of its own.

Geopolitical crisis will remain commonplace as long as foreign policy stance is based on resource exploitation.

The Sierra Leone civil war ended when a United Nations resolution demanded that the Liberian government stop financial support for the insurgents and halt illicit diamond trade. Its diamond reserves have increased almost tenfold since the conflict ended.

Similarly, a permanent end to the Afghan war can become a reality only when resource exploitation is set aside. Based on current trends, we can safely predict that Trump’s Afghan policy will bite the dust.

Even if Taliban disappear, resource exploitation will remain a rallying point for new insurgent groups, which will surface in order to secure economic gains from natural resources.

America can truly contribute to Afghanistan’s economic development only when it puts aside its exploitative designs.

Even for Pakistan, there are clear lessons here. Natural resources are the property of those who own it and they have the right to enjoy the economic gains. The government on the pretext of knowledge can never fully transfer economic gains.

The writer is a researcher and works in the development sector of Gilgit

Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2017.

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