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A Mineral-Rich Uncertain Future

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo of mining in Afghanistan

The Taliban will need to shore up regional support if they wish to see Afghanistan prosper and avail its mineral resources

The Afghan Taliban tread the path to their uncertain future carefully. Their message to neighboring states are friendly; even India, which expected toughness, is getting inviting signals. The reason is simple: economic realism of the Taliban shura that worries about the future of Afghanistan now that they want the world to believe that they would rule like a normal regime. They have ongoing projects with India that need to finish; and they have a contract with China on the mining of copper of which Afghanistan has the world’s second largest deposit.

Indian projects in Afghanistan

One may repeat here a quote from V. Balachandran published by the Atlantic Council on Aug. 19, describing Indian projects in Afghanistan: “India invested heavily in a peaceful Afghanistan. No part of Afghanistan today is untouched by the 400-plus projects that India has undertaken in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Over 20 years, India spent more than $3 billion on projects—from roads, dams, and electricity-transmission capacity to schools and hospitals—in Afghanistan.”

He continues: “The highway from Zaranj to Delaram was inaugurated by President Hamid Karzai and India’s then-external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee in January 2009. (The only ‘contribution’ the Taliban made was by killing six Indian workers and 129 Afghans in terrorist attacks while they worked on the highway project.) Afghanistan’s new parliament building, built by India, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.”

It remains to be seen how India responds to the Taliban’s overtures. New Delhi is bound to be wary of getting into an Afghanistan ruled by a government that includes Sirajuddin Haqqani, who carries a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, and whose father Jalaluddin Haqqani had built a madrassa in North Waziristan in Pakistan, which is still functional. Islamabad, meanwhile, wants the TTP [Tehreek Taliban Pakistan]—who make up 60 percent of the “foreign” terrorists in Afghanistan—surrendered to Pakistan; but the Kabul government is unwilling to discuss the subject.

Afghanistan’s future and natural resources

Afghanistan’s economy is floundering after years of drought that might actually become permanent as the process of global warming proceeds. Its future, therefore, is undoubtedly bound to the use of its natural resources. Everyone talks about the riches Afghanistan possesses underground but doesn’t have the capacity to extract. Afghan destiny is still in doubt because of the Taliban’s inability to change with the times and relate normally with the outside world, and Afghanistan’s neighbors in particular. Everyone says Afghanistan is rich in minerals but not much is known about the size of the underground deposits it possesses, which the Taliban can’t even pronounce.

Let us look at the oft-repeated reference to Afghanistan’s copper deposits. The largest copper deposit, which also contains significant amounts of cobalt, is the Aynak ore body, located about 30 kilometers southeast of Kabul. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviets began development of the mine, but it was suspended in 1989 following Soviet withdrawal from the country. But what we know about the underground riches of Afghanistan is made available from a Soviet survey.

The Soviet survey

The Soviet survey reveals: “The high-grade portion of the total Aynak deposit is estimated at 11.3 million metric tons of copper, worth $102 billion at current market prices. Afghanistan also has world-class iron ore resources, concentrated in the Haji Gak deposit of Bamiyan Province. Haji Gak has an estimated 2,100 million metric tons of high-grade ore that is 61%-69% iron by weight. At current price levels, this represents a value of $336.8 billion, placing Afghanistan among the top 10 nations worldwide in extractable iron.

“Lithium resources in Nuristan Province, which occur as veins, are impressive with the amount of hard rock ore (lithium is also mined from brine). Based on USGS estimates, it is a significant but modest resource in today’s terms, as exploration for such deposits has increased around the world in the past decade.

“Finally, rare earth elements exist in southern Helmand Province. These deposits mainly contain cerium, with smaller amounts of more valuable lanthanum, praseodymium and neodymium, totaling perhaps 1.4 million metric tons. Two of these, praseodymium and neodymium, are at high price levels—more than $45,000 per metric ton—and make exceptional magnets used in motors for hybrid and electric cars, but the abundance of these elements is not large relative to how much other countries have.”

Self-reflective realism and IS-K

The Taliban shura has decided to dumb down its well-known warlike rhetoric, which made the world laugh. It has embraced realism at last after time spent talking to the U.S. at Doha and coming into contact with friends in Qatar who have survived through foreign policy realism. But not all of Afghanistan has gone through this process of intellectual overhaul. There is the IS-K or Islamic State Khorasan which is funded from Iraq-Syria-Lebanon where the Sunni Arabs are fighting the Shia and the West. IS-K wants to conquer the whole regions of Iran, Central and South Asia and introduce Sunni Islam there. Encapsulated in realism, it simply means the endless killing of Shia Muslims till Afghanistan becomes the ideal khilafat all “proper” Muslims want.

Aqil Shah, writing for the Carnegie Endowment website on Aug. 31, notes: “In the first four months of 2021 alone, IS-K carried out 77 attacks in Afghanistan, representing a significant uptick from 2020. The group’s deadliest attack to date was the Aug. 26 suicide blast amid the U.S. evacuation operation at Kabul airport, which killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 170 Afghan civilians.

“The group’s purest claim to the mantle of global jihad, extreme tactics (such as mass public executions) and lethal attacks have helped it lure a variety of extremist militants to its ranks. The militant landscape in Afghanistan is complicated to say the least. The three main groups—the Taliban, HQN [Haqqani Network], and Al Qaeda—are closely aligned. They have multi-generational ties between them that date back to the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and that have been reinforced over time by the experience of fighting U.S. and NATO troops and by family bonds, including intermarriages.”

China as deus ex machina?

Clearly, the shura in Kabul thinks of China as the “deus ex machina” that will join Afghanistan in the east to Pakistan and to Iran in the west and give them the state infrastructure plus a lot of money in the kitty to live in the 21st century. What kind of Afghanistan is in the offing one may ask? The marginally “modern” and “capable” Afghans—fashioned over 20 years of economic and social change—have either left Afghanistan or are trying to leave, as semi-literate Taliban rank-and-file walk the streets triumphantly firing their guns into the air.

If the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is what Kabul wants to emulate, it has to look very closely at how far Pakistan has gotten with it. A very “tribal” Imran Khan—the only way you can be a pious Muslim these days—is trying very hard to get an overwhelmingly tribal Balochistan to allow the Chinese to develop Gwadar into a modern port joined to the rest of Pakistan through a road network that may pass through areas without any writ of the state. But given this state of affairs in Pakistan, how far can the Chinese go in advising Pakistan to normalize its relations with India in order to facilitate the big change the Taliban expect through the agency of China and India?

Can India and Pakistan cooperate?

Former Pakistan foreign secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan, writing in daily Dawn, muses on the possibility of a regional normalization: “Given the historical distrust, Pakistan will be uneasy and suspicious of the Indian outreach in Afghanistan. Yet India’s role as a regional player cannot be wished away. Kabul will have an interest in accommodating any Indian push to rebuild relations. Of course, Pakistan cannot countenance the use of Afghan territory for subversion. On the other hand, there can be no exception to salutary Indo-Afghan cooperation based on the accepted norms of interstate relations. As for Pakistan, the unique assets of population overlap, contiguity, common geography and culture should enable it to proceed with a certain confidence in its relations with Afghanistan.”

Another ex-diplomat, this time from India, sees the peril of letting Taliban self-destruct and wants India and Pakistan to cooperate after recognizing the new Taliban state. M.K. Bhadrakumar, writing in Asia Times, says: “The self-interests of each of the regional states would lie in strengthening the new Afghan government and help it vanquish ISIS-K and other terror groups that have mushroomed during the period of U.S. occupation. Therefore, recognition of the new government in Kabul by the regional states is a vital necessity. There is an imperative need to ensure that the Taliban fulfill their commitment to crack down on terrorist groups operating on Afghan soil. The regional states cannot and should not outsource their task ahead to Washington.”

The U.S. has already made it clear that while it is willing to engage with the Taliban, it would adopt a “wait-and-see” approach to observe how the new government established normalcy. In this scenario, waiting on Washington to make the first move is ripe for disaster, as an economic crisis looms in Afghanistan due to the West freezing Kabul’s assets following the Taliban takeover.

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