Afghanistan: From a Battlefield to a Business-field

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 22 Aug 2011

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

With International Assistance Security Forces’ plan of phased withdraw from the war torn country of Afghanistan and with consonant rise of the Taliban, the prospects and problems of a resurgent Afghanistan have received attention from various quarters. Afghanistan is not only rich in its conflict potentials due to its geo-strategic location and significance but also rich in its natural resources, and this later richness has recently got attention from various players. While the Taliban have increasingly targeted foreign forces, of which the recent targeting of a Chinook helicopter killing all 38 boarding it is one of the deadliest, amidst the commencement of their draw down strategy, there are other players which are interested to enhance their foothold in the resource rich country without much hype and media glare. This may appear a difficult endgame as with the Taliban ascendancy, the prospects of exploring relations in the field of trade and commerce appear difficult though not impossible. The prospects appear feasible as Afghanistan is a power house of natural resources including minerals such as iron, copper, uranium and lithium.

In present scenario in Afghanistan, a much debated theory of conflict and peace can be juxtaposed. Is it necessary that the interested players will have to wait till the violent atmosphere in the region is subsided completely and then think about business? Or is it possible to initiate commercial ventures in a violent atmosphere, which can only succeed with the cooperation of the national government as well as local warlords and also the Taliban? In this context, China has taken the lead to explore natural resources in Afghanistan while conflict atmosphere in the region has not shown any sign of thaw, rather it has increased in recent months. In one of its big foreign ventures, the Chinese copper producer, Jiangxi Copper Company together with China Metallurgical Group succeeded in 2007 to broker a deal with the Karzai led Afghan government to explore Aynak copper mine in Logar, south east of Kabul. The $3.4 billion deal will enable China to explore copper by the year 2014, and will likely provide 5000 jobs to Afghan people, besides helping develop infrastructure, and sectors such as health, sanitation and education. Despite criticism by the watchdog organization Integrity Watch Afghanistan that the Chinese secured the deal by paying heavy bribes to the tune of $30 million to then Finance Minister, Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, the Chinese venture will impact the politics and economics of Afghanistan significantly.

The main driving factor behind such an active policy of developing economic relations is undoubtedly manifold. The question is related to three distinct concepts of conflict, peace and development and the linkages between them. Now-a-days it is reasonable not to perceive all these concepts in absolute terms. It is difficult to find a region in the world which is absolutely conflict free and peaceful. The argument also hinges around the assumption that, to a significant extent, the road from conflict to peace lies through development. There are many instances in conflict regions such as Kashmir how the disgruntled poor people are lured by money to take part in violent activities. It is not implausible to argue that at least partly poverty plays a part to drive many poor people in Afghanistan to the fold of the Taliban. Perhaps in order to wedge a divide between the moderate Taliban (of which the majority are not moved by radical and fundamentalist ideology of the Sunni Taliban) and the hard-line Taliban, and lure the former to the mainstream, various economic packages are initiated by the Karzai government. These developments are based on the argument that peace and development are linked together, and a better living condition and opportunities may induce in individual the spirit of reconciliation and harmony, than seeking solution of problems through violence.  However, in this context it needs mention that massive cases of corruption have made the implementation of such ideals difficult.

Besides economic considerations, political factors too play an important role in this whole conflict and peace matrix. None of the surrounding countries of Afghanistan will prefer to import terrorism and extremism to their soil from Afghanistan. China is not interested in escalation of extremism in Xinjiang, which is close to Afghanistan. Countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or further north countries including Russia will not prefer a scenario in which radical ideas, illegal drugs and arms flow through their boundaries. It is reported that every year over twelve tonnes of pure heroin reach Russia from Afghanistan through these porous borders. Hence, besides economic factor, the above factors play important role in determining the relations of these countries towards Afghanistan. And at this juncture of international politics, neither of these countries will prefer a violent resolution of conflict in Afghanistan; rather they will prefer a regional format with active participation of the regional and international players, towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict, which can pave way for a stable and economically vibrant Afghanistan.

Another player which has raised its stakes to promote economic relations with Afghanistan is India. India has found it difficult to engage with Afghanistan due to its rivalry with Pakistan. Pakistan has a strong leverage over the Taliban, and traditionally it has perceived Afghanistan as a strategic ally under its tutelage. India on the other hand has searched for various ways and means to enhance its friendly relations with Afghanistan. It has commenced various development projects in the war-torn country. India has committed about $ 1.2 billion in Afghanistan in terms of building bridges, roads, and schools and other developmental activities.  Recently, five major companies of India, both public and private, have joined hands to bid for the exploration of Hajigak mines located in the mountainous Bamiyan province, 130 kilometres west of Kabul. The mines in the Hindukush mountain range are estimated to have 1.8 billion tonnes of iron ore. India which is poised to be the second largest producer of steel by 2013, has expressed strong interest to explore iron ore in these mountains. The last date for application for the bid is 4 September 2011. Afghanistan government has reportedly assured India of security, if India is finally selected to explore the mines. Indian companies have also expressed interest to build a steel plant in Afghanistan during the visit of Afghan Mines Minister Wahidullah Shahrani to New Delhi earlier this year. The Indian authorities are exploring options of land route through Pakistan or through Iranian port of Bandar Abbas for the transport of raw materials to India.

Some analysts perceive this Indian venture as a kind of competition between India and China, but it will be beneficial to see these ventures, whether by China or India or by any other country as developments in Afghanistan, which at least precluded violence from their ambit. One may wish, companies from other countries venture to Afghanistan and explore the natural resources for mutual advantage. It is a better way to peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, than seeking solutions by making the country a battlefield.

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Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on issues of conflict, peace and development, terrorism and strategic aspects of Central Eurasia.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Aug 2011.

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