The United States spent five years trying to help Afghanistan tap what U.S. officials believe is a $1 trillion mother lode of minerals. In the end, U.S. taxpayers threw away half a billion dollars with almost nothing to show for it.
According to a new report by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), efforts to help Afghanistan develop some sort of economy floundered thanks to a combination of corruption, incompetence, lack of infrastructure, and a deteriorating security environment.
Afghanistan’s ability to tap what could be vast wealth from deposits of iron, copper, and lithium is so hamstrung by lack of government oversight and a dearth of basic infrastructure that the country’s war-torn security situation is actually the least of its problems.
“Sustainable growth of extractive industries is hampered by the need for additional legal reforms, a lack of transparency, corruption, a lack of infrastructure, and inadequate security,” the new SIGAR audit concludes.
That’s a problem for Afghanistan, which needs to find some way to earn revenue once the influx of foreign assistance tapers off. Pentagon planners initially saw Afghanistan’s underground riches as one way to stabilize the country. “Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, [U.S.] officials believe,” the New York Times reported in 2010.
Another gambit to provide Afghanistan with hard-currency income and to help it forge better ties with its neighbors — a hugely ambitious natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and over to India — is just getting off the ground but faces a spate of economic, political, and security hurdles.
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