Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lithium Mining as Afghanistan's Savior? Think Again

Ever since The New York Times unraveled the old story about Afghanistan's trillion dollar mineral deposits, major publications and their pundits have spun the news release in every direction.

What is clear is the U.S. government is trying desperately to reinvent Afghanistan to shore up support for the war effort. I'm doubtful, though, if transforming the "Graveyard of Empires" into the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" is going to help rebrand Afghanistan. Comparing Afghanistan to the oil-rich kingdom with an atrocious human rights record and the land where most of the 9/11 hijackers and Osama bin Laden's family resides is probably not going to lift Afghanistan's image.

Afghanistan cannot and does not need to be compared to Saudi Arabia, South Korea, or Switzerland to become popular in the collective imagination. Afghanistan is Afghanistan-it has its own unique qualities than can be cultivated. Take for example, its unparalleled hospitality, an authentic gourmet cuisine, majestic scenery, and a fusion of Eurasian cultures-something that even glamorous Dubai cannot boast.

As a native Afghan who is aware about his ancestral homeland's glorious past, I have a better idea. Why not reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit by re-inventing the Silk Road superhighway?

From the 10th century up until the time European maritime powers took to the seas and discovered the New World, Afghanistan was the crossroads of the Old World. Ancient Afghanistan was a cosmopolitan hub of information exchange and the focal point of an expansive trade network that criss-crossed through the heart of the continent. Capitalizing on Afghanistan's geostrategic location to re-create what once previously existed makes better sense to me than playing out the movie Avatar in real life.

No minerals can be extracted from Afghanistan's hard-to-reach barren mountains when you have insurgents capable of disrupting production and trade. Neither can the natural resources enrich the lives of the average Afghan when you have a culture of bribery. What Afghanistan needs is for young leaders of the next generation to be empowered to transform the land into an incubator for knowledge transfer and engine of regional trade. A majority coalition based on "merchants" and a "creative class" is more likely to honor loyalty to nation.

Entrepreneurship is a cross-cross cultural phenomenon. In his new book, "The Rational Optimist," Matt Ridley discusses how entrepreneurship is innate to human nature. The idea of selling Afghan entrepreneurship is more realistic today than envisioning a "mining" promised land.

Afghanistan needs a change in perception, but envisioning a "mining" promised land where Afghanistan is imagined as the Shangri-La is not believable when the country is plagued with deadly violence and ranks second to poorest, according to the UN human development index.

There's a famous Dari proverb that says "drop by drop makes a river." So let's take baby steps for quantum leaps to happen.

Let's start out by replacing the "made in Afghanistan" brand to no longer mean export of opium, refugees, and terrorism. Before Afghanistan erupted into turmoil more than three decades ago, it was self-sufficient agrarian society. So let's start by buying Afghan-made pomegranates, saffron, and world-class rugs-all of which it already produces and doesn't require massive drilling. And let's create a surge towards Afghanistan's human capital-a sure bet you can make to rid the land of corruption, extremism, and poverty. Once a functioning political class is established then we can talk about bidding mining contracts and extracting Afghanistan's vast mineral wealth.

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