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A New Plan for a New Afghanistan

Securing the future of Afghanistan is not just about troop counts after 2014. Sustainable economic development may just be the key.

Afghanistan's future will not be determined by the thousands of lives tragically lost, the billions spent, or the number of international troops that will remain after 2014. The number of troops on the ground — whether foreign or Afghan — will not decide our future. We can only secure Afghanistan’s success if we first secure sustainable economic development at home.

We are confronting a unique set of economic challenges at a time when the West is confronting their own. Demographic shifts and an unsustainable debt burden will fundamentally change the calculus of aid and intervention; we must come up with our own solutions. Our success as a nation will rest largely on our capacity to create economic growth, stimulate job creation, and use financial innovation to create and sustain entrepreneurs and functioning markets as well as increase our access to global capital through our natural resources.

Much has been written about the immense wealth that lies in the ground as well as the immense difficulty of extracting it. To meet its unusual challenges, Afghanistan needs a novel plan to reverse the trend that typically befalls nations struggling through extreme poverty while possessing vast mineral wealth. The solution I propose includes the establishment of transparent and accountable trusts first, then pledging a fraction of Afghanistan's mineral wealth to those trusts, and thirdly issuing bonds backed by the trust's value to fund agricultural, water, and industrial development projects first, not last. As mining tenders are accepted, a portion of those proceeds should be earmarked to pay down the trust and service the capital

In order to move beyond failed state status, we must pay for long-term economic development first because that is what will sustain us when the mining companies are gone and resources are depleted. Only if the pace of broader sustainable development exceeds the jobs created solely to support mining operations will we have a chance of succeeding as a nation. Make no mistake, we need our mining and hydrocarbon partners around the world; but how we secure the future of Afghanistan is far more important that the short-termism that historically has driven nations to sacrifice their future on the promise of natural resource extraction. Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, while potentially immense, can only support the creation of a fraction of the number ofjobs we need, plus they require literacy, technical skill, and mobility; many of which are traits a significant portion of our population simply does not have. Securing the needs of the rural farmer, preserving their stability and supporting their capacity to feed their families are the factors most likely to determine if we will be writing about a failed state in 2018 or the bright future I see now.

The key to progress in Afghanistan is making the future returns on mining pay for current improvements in agriculture and food security, housing and education, and infrastructure. A trust program that requires making social investments today as part of the process of contracting mineral rights can ensure that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth benefits all Afghanistan, not just foreign investors and a sliver of the Afghan population.

Securing the future of Afghanistan is not just about troop counts after 2014. That calculus is a critical component but it is not the only piece. Food and economic security is directly related to the regional security of Afghanistan and will form the bedrock of state development over the coming generation. Securing capital against the mineral assets in the country in a transparent way to advance water, agricultural, industrial development will drive future job creation and lift our citizens beyond simple day-to-day survival. What our international partners have gotten so wrong in focusing first on rule of law projects is that it is very difficult to sustain those values when confronted with the real possibility of a starving family, a hopeless future, and an absentee president.

Poverty and insecurity is shockingly expensive. It is a tax on our future; it will burden my grandchildren, and will radically lower the costs extremist groups pay to fund conflict in my country. In order to confront the challenges that lie ahead, we must boldly embrace new ideas and governing methods, and understand that the highest values derive from those most basic instincts of self-preservation, feeding one’s family and a genuine hope for the future.

Ahmad Zia Massoud was the first Vice President under President Karzai in office from 2004 and 2009 and is the leader of the National Front of Afghanistan. Christian H. Cooper is a bond trader working on ways to create the structures and new financial instruments needed to transparently and responsibly advance development in Afghanistan, and in MENA at large."