Even though Afghanistan is almost certainly heading towards a run-off election to choose a successor to Hamid Karzai, the first democratically elected president following the fall of the Taliban, the first ballot serves as a bellwether presaging big changes in Afghanistan.
Despite minor disruptions, voters turned out in droves eager to decide their political future. Moreover, the nation’s youth – the median age is only 18 years – are ready to leave the legacy of turmoil and strife behind and create a nation that can provide security, opportunity and well-being to its citizens.
Over the past dozen years, Afghanistan has accomplished a great deal. Hamid Karzai has worked to stabilise a nation of diverse ethnicities and tribal governance in a time of harassment by terrorists. That has formed a solid base for the changes that are about to come.
Contrary to conventional doom and gloom scenarios conjured by much of the media, the future of Afghanistan looks bright. At its heart are two important developments. The first is that international powers have come to recognise that Afghanistan is a potential political linchpin of Asia – the swing state in the balance of power between Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and Russia. And in a larger sense between western powers like America and Europe seeking to maintain a presence in Asia. The second development is the recognition that Afghanistan has huge natural resources. In one of the poorest nations on Earth resides massive mineral reserves that some estimate to be worth US$3 trillion or more. These include major veins of copper, iron, cobalt, fluorite, gold and industrial metals like lithium – virtually every element in the Periodic Table as well as growing discoveries in oil and gas. Afghanistan could very well become one of the most important mining centres in the world.
Many of the mineral discoveries were made by the Soviets during their occupation, but more or less abandoned with their withdrawal.
During the previous decade, the information the Soviets left behind and cursory aerial surveys have generally confirmed this wealth and in many cases increased estimates of its value. Whatever the final numbers, Afghanistan has the potential to become a powerhouse in minerals and mining and to use the resulting revenues to build a modern, affluent state.
Exploiting these vast resources is not without its challenges. Human capacity in both the public and private sectors is still sorely lacking because of the destruction of the educational system over the decades of turmoil. But that’s changing as access to higher education improves.
Many also point to a corrupt government as a major barrier to investment and commercial development. Yet corruption has been driven in part by the huge infusions of donor money that the Afghan government has little ability to control.
As donor aid is rationalised over the coming years and the management capacity of Afghans increases, the corruption problem will shrink.
Another issue is the lack of infrastructure to support mineral exploitation. However, this too presents investment opportunities. No one doubts that the road to build the human capacity and infrastructure will be long and tedious, but the reward – the ability for Afghans to take advantage of their wealth – makes the effort worthwhile.
One cannot escape the obvious analogy between Afghanistan and the Gulf. Both are blessed with natural resource riches and yet both began in modest circumstances. That gives Afghans a major incentive to look to their Arab brothers for guidance in how to capitalise on great natural wealth to transform their nation into a modern society with opportunity for its peoples and respect for its cultural past.
Such an alliance, even if only commercial in nature, is in the interest of both Afghans and Arabs. It would be a partnership that among other benefits could contribute to the stability and the overall well-being of the Middle East and the surrounding region.
Dr Rod Monger is professor of business at the American University of Afghanistan