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Reconstructing Afghanistan: Nation Building or Nation Failure?
John F. Shroder Jr.

Conquest of Afghanistan has been relatively easy for a long list of invaders; later withdrawal has often been disastrous. With vastly superior military technology, the American coalition forces defeated and easily drove Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters underground. Eventual American withdrawal from the country can be either easy or vastly more difficult, depending in part on whether or not devastated Afghanistan is treated with a neo-Marshall plan, in the same fashion as the rebuilding of enemy states after World War II. Certainly the future of other hotspots in South Asia and the Middle East may hang in this same balance as well. In spite of optimistic projections from Afghanistan leader Hamid Karzai and Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the choice of either national success or continued failure may very much rest upon how competent the United States is in rebuilding the country.

Indeed, optimistic strategies for Afghanistan’s recovery came forward at the Afghanistan-American Summit in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2002, and yet again in Chicago in the summer of 2003. Millions of dollars have been promised for health, education, women, family and society, reconstruction, and commerce and trade. Where the money is to come from is unknown, however, as the millions of dollars donor nations have promised are undelivered; rebuilding has barely begun. Reports from American government insiders in Kabul and media reports indicate little progress. In my experience, USAID seems to have lost much of its competence following post-Cold War demobilization. In fact, analysts recognize that robust reconstruction — to keep the American coalition from failure in Afghanistan — is critical to preventing Al Qaeda from winning another victory as large as September 11.

Ideas for rebuilding Afghanistan with its own resources were first assessed for USAID in the 1980s as the Soviets departed. In fact, extensive Soviet exploration resulted in first-rate geologic maps and reports that detailed more than 1,400 mineral shows and occurrences, and about 70 commercial deposits (discussed in Geotimes reports in March 1987 and February 2002). The Soviet Union committed more than $652 million for resource exploration and development, with a half-million-ton oil refiner, as well as a smelter for the Ainak deposit that was to have produced 1.5 million tons of copper a year. A World Bank analysis indicated that the Ainak copper production could capture as much as 2 percent of the annual world market, as well as vast coal deposits and many other deposits that could spur major development. Assessments revealed that the Hajigak iron deposit, high in the Hindu Kush west of Kabul, is one of the largest remaining high-grade deposits in the world. Thus in the late 1980s, the future of Afghanistan appeared to have an optimistic cast, at least from the point of view of having the basic resources to eventually produce revenue and rebuild the country.

But when the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s, so did we Americans, and only the poorly educated and largely illiterate Taliban were left to take over the destroyed country and introduce their own primitive constraints. Rebuilding the country was not in their backward plans. The Taliban did consider construction of a trans-Afghanistan oil and gas pipeline from Central Asia to Pakistan, but aside from their personal greed, they had no vision of a better future for their country. Instead, they allowed it to flounder further into illiteracy, poverty and despair. Al Qaeda slipped into this vacuum and dragged Afghanistan ever more deeply into the deserts of the human spirit, with the result that all Afghans suffer today.

In fact, although Afghanistan is not endowed with vast natural riches, it clearly has plentiful deposits of low-grade minerals, considerable coal, oil and natural gas, and a few sizeable ore bodies. Because Soviet geologists developed all of the original resource information on Afghanistan during the Cold War, more modern resource assays are now necessary. Last year the U.S. Geological Survey requested some $70 million from the U.S. Department of State for reassessment of Afghanistan’s resources. The request focused on water and mineral resources, oil, gas, coal, earthquake hazards, infrastructure development and training. The State Department offered less than 10 percent of the request, however, and just for oil and gas. A broader approach could counter the cynics and conspiracy theorists of the Middle East who perceive Washington to be lusting only after hydrocarbon wealth.

Unfortunately many other possibilities for resource extraction leading to redevelopment seem to have been ignored. Exploitation of their own resources could be the key to the Afghans lifting themselves by their bootstraps. With competent help from Washington, the World Bank and the promised donors, greater resource assessment and extraction might become an essential element for Kabul.

If the Bush administration is serious about showing that the American public wants peace, stability and decent treatment of human beings, a proper step would be robust reconstruction of Afghanistan. A well-designed and efficient neo-Marshall plan could turn the beleaguered state into an example of American beneficence and good will. Americans generally consider themselves to be an altruistic people who want the best for their friends, and oftentimes even for their conquered enemies. Many of the people of Afghanistan have great hopes that with American help they can live as decent human beings once again and build up their failed nation. As America now also deals with a defeated Iraq, any reasonable person would expect a better job in the reconstruction of previously conquered Afghanistan. The wretched of that benighted country certainly deserve better than the little that has been done up to now.


Shroder is the Regents Professor of Geography and Geology and a Research Fellow at the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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