As David Cameron prepares to welcome the nations of the world to the first major conference on Afghanistan since its tumultuous election earlier this year, many of his fellow-citizens will be asking themselves if the 13 years of U.K. military engagement in Afghanistan have been worth it.
As an Afghan, I would give the prime minister a simple answer: “It depends.” It depends on what happens in the next few years and whether we are able together to finally make progress on building the foundation that is needed for a stable, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan. And one of the most important parts of this foundation, will be tackling the cancer of corruption and the systemic abuse of my country’s natural resources.
Afghanistan is rich. Experts estimate we have around $1 trillion of minerals, as well as plentiful reserves of oil and gas. Our mountains produce a rainbow of precious stones, from rubies and lapis to emeralds. We have oil and gas, lithium, copper, gold and iron. This is a treasure that belongs to all Afghans.
Enormous hope has been invested in these resources to fund the Afghan government and fuel the Afghan economy. The international community is relying on them to free them from the burden of funding the Afghan government and especially the Afghan military. Afghans are relying on them to provide desperately needed jobs, development and growth. But there is a great danger that these riches will instead be a poison for Afghanistan.
Across the country, widespread illegal mining continues to fund the Taliban and armed militias involved in terrible abuses. The income minerals should be producing for the national budget instead lines the pockets of corrupt officials, politicians, commanders and mining companies. Scratch under the surface in some parts of the country and the fighting is much more a result of competition to control the mines than it is of competing ideologies. There is a great danger that these resources will lead to a chronic cycle of conflict and humanitarian crisis.
If we want our natural resources to fulfil their promise, we should surely be taking every available measure to mitigate this clear and present danger. And that is exactly what a coalition of more than 40 Afghan and international civil society organisations, are asking Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and Afghanistan’s donors to do.
Cameron, as the co-host of the London conference, must step up and take the lead for the international community. In a letter to the Prime Minister ahead of the conference, we’ve made the case that “stronger natural resource governance is not a side issue: it is a critical precondition for the stability and prosperity we are all working for.”
We’ve asked both him and Ghani to re-enforce their promises to create strong laws and strong policies to regulate our natural resources. We’ve asked them to put some flesh on the bones of that promise, by agreeing some of the basic measures that will go into fulfilling it. We’ve asked for transparency, we’ve asked for accountability, we’ve asked for the rights of communities living in mining areas to be respected.
These are basic protections: publication of contracts, of payments between companies and the government, and of the true, beneficial owners of mining companies. This is about introducing rules to allocate mining concessions fairly and transparently; ensuring communities are involved in the benefits of mining and can have their concerns addressed; preventing environmental and social damage, and making sure abusive armed groups are kept out of any involvement in the sector.
We believe our new government is serious about making sure Afghans are not robbed of the resources that are their birth right, but they now need to deliver on their commitments. We want to be open to businesses and investment, but not to exploitation and abuse. We want to develop our natural resources – but from a position of pride and strength, not by lowering our standards and ignoring abuses.
And Cameron also needs to deliver on his commitments. He has already said he will push the agenda of greater transparency and honesty in Afghanistan’s extractive industries “as far and as fast as we can.” Now there is a chance to get agreement on practical, concrete measures to do exactly that.
Just last month, Cameron said that Britain has “paid a very high price” for the war in Afghanistan. Afghans themselves have paid an even higher price. The only justification for all this sacrifice is if it can provide the space for Afghans to build a lasting peace. Afghanistan can still pull itself out of decades of conflict, but we need the international community to help us seize that chance. We need them to help us to build up our abilities and back us in the fight against corruption and conflict.
Tackling this challenge is not easy. But Cameron should know that, in the end, it is the only thing that will make the great sacrifices we have all made truly worthwhile.
Ikram Afzali is the Director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan civil society organisation campaigning against conflict and corruption.