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The ‘Resource Curse’ Comes to Afghanistan

After 30 years of war, Afghanistan’s economy is based around opium and foreign aid. But an important New York Times piece reports that geological data indicate that Afghanistan actually possesses an estimated trillion-with-a-T dollars’ worth of mineral wealth. And that’s most likely a bad thing.

Why? Because in emerging and underdeveloped states, weak legal systems and official corruption create incentives for powerful people to exploit those resources, rather than allow mineral wealth to fuel national renewal. Think Congo or Sierra Leone. It’s easy to tick off the ways in which what political scientists call the “Resource Curse” applies to Afghanistan: a tenuous legal structure; warlordism; war; foreign interventionism; corruption throughout the political system; an uneasy and unstable relationship between provincial and national authorities; and an uneasy and unstable relationship in provinces and districts with instruments of local governance as well as national governance.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy pronounces himself skeptical that Afghanistan will ever be able to develop the full potential of its mineral wealth and thinks U.S. officials fed the Times the piece to distract from a spate of bad Afghanistan news. But that’s all commensurate with a central aspect of the Resource Course: rapacious foreign governments and corporations eager to help extract all that iron, lithium, copper and cobalt from the ground for a cut-rate price.

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