WASHINGTON - The recent report that Afghanistan has mineral deposits worth $1 trillion has led several writers to make a broad comparison to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Conflict in that country, which is blamed for killing more than 5 million people, is fueled in significant part by the illicit trade in minerals worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year. It's worth delving into the less obvious links between mineral resources and instability in eastern Congo to illustrate the potentially grave effects of a gold, lithium, or niobium rush in Afghanistan.
1) The pell-mell rush to exploit minerals and other natural resources in the midst of a war further complicates already thorny conflicts. At the outset, the war in eastern Congo was not about minerals, but was the result of an explosive combination of fallout from the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, the collapse of the regime of Mobutu in Congo (then known as Zaire) and simmering tensions over land and citizenship in eastern Congo.
But the profits from the mineral trade enriched whatever rebel group controlled the mining area and gave incentive to for the systematic looting of the country by interlopers on all sides of the war from 1998 through 2002, and then by an alphabet soup of rebel groups, militias and military units operating in the restive eastern provinces up until the present. The money gained from the mining changed the logic of the war.
Immediate thought should be given as to how a potential mineral windfall will impact Afghanistan's similarly intricate layers of local, national and regional conflicts.
2) Earnings from minerals put weapons in the hands of warlords by strengthening their global networks of financial supporters. Control of minerals has made rebels in Congo less dependent on external political support, and given them a connection to international markets. Electronics companies, jewelers and other end-users of Congo's minerals are effectively laundering the proceeds from war. Moreover, in the pursuit of profits, competing networks of armed groups and business elites routinely manipulate Congo's inflammatory grievances around ethnicity and other sensitive subjects. It's a toxic combination that helps to explain why the conflict in eastern Congo remains so deadly, after more than a decade of U.N. peacekeepers. As the war in Afghanistan drags on, the mineral trade could well further entrench that conflict, too.
3) Minerals provide a boon for insurgents, and for corrupt counterinsurgents. Conflict minerals, like blood diamonds, conjure images of rebel groups who use the profits to wage insurrections against states. But in Congo, it's not just the rebels who are in the game. A patronage network extends from eastern Congo's remote mining sites all the way to the highest reaches of the army and the government. Similarly, Afghanistan's poppy fields fund both the Taliban and corrupt government officials who nominally oppose them, but who benefit from the status quo. Mining may substitute for opium without changing the underlying logic of the war economy.
4) Watch out for neighboring countries and other regional stakeholders. Absent a strong central government capable of defending its borders or territory, Congo's neighbors quickly helped themselves to its natural treasures. The patterns of plunder varied. For example, when Rwanda occupied much of eastern Congo, it set up an official military department to supervise the looting of columbite-tantalite, a mineral critical to portable electronics products. Uganda's looting was more private, with army commanders lining their pockets with the spoils of war. Zimbabwe came to the aid of the Congolese government, but demanded a major stake in diamonds and timber as the price for their support. Although foreign armed forces have since withdrawn from eastern Congo, its neighbors continue to profit from its minerals, with smuggling operations moving vast quantities over its eastern borders every day. In Afghanistan, it's not a matter of whether its neighbors will get involved, but how.
5) Multinational conglomerates don't always have the best intentions. Today, Congo's conflict minerals are the product of small-scale and artisanal mining, conducted with simple tools under brutal conditions, commonly employing forced and child labor. But the behavior of multinational mining companies has also been deeply problematic. For instance, AngloGold Ashanti was implicated in provided financial and logistical support to rebel militias while it secured access to valuable goldfields in northeastern Congo. Many of the country's mining contracts remain deeply inequitable. With the Afghan government reportedly rushing to receive bids for mineral exploration rights, the behavior of multinationals deserves extra scrutiny.
Could mineral wealth help propel Afghanistan out of conflict and poverty? Absolutely, but the many ways that minerals complicate already intricate conflicts provide ample grounds for skeptics.
Instead of cheerleading a mineral-driven economic revival, U.S. policymakers should give ample thought to the many different ways that this development could prove harmful. The example of eastern Congo provides plenty of food for thought.
Moreover, the Obama administration should support the efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Under Secretary Robert Hormats, who have committed to taking the conflict out of Congo's minerals. After all, if we can succeed in putting these resources to legitimate use in Congo, we might just be able to do the same in Afghanistan.