For Afghanistan, Wealth Is Just Below The Surface

June 5, 2011

NPR Staff

Mines, like this one in Badakhshan, could help lift Afghanistan out of poverty.

There's close to a $1 trillion waiting to be unearthed beneath the rocky soil of Afghanistan. The massive deposits of iron, copper, gold and lithium could potentially turn the troubled nation's economy around.

"Afghanistan, with certainty I can say, in 20 years is going to be a mining country," Paul Brinkley, head of a Pentagon group called the Task Force for Business Stability Operations, tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "That is going to happen."

He sees these untapped natural resources as a means for Afghanistan to build a stronger economy.

Brinkley, who has been doing this kind of work since 2006, is stepping down from his post later this month. But he's adamant this project is only starting to scratch the surface.

"This is a resource the Afghans are beginning to understand offers them a future," he says.

Business In A War Zone

To Brinkley, Afghanistan's mineral deposits are the country's chance at having a core indigenous source of wealth. But he knows it's not as simple as just getting those minerals out of the ground.

Brinkley says that in order to properly develop the mining industry, "creation has to take place of business practices."

In the past, Afghanistan has seen lots money come into the country through illicit industries like opium production. He notes minerals can't be smuggled in the same way drugs can, so Afghans will need to engage in legal business transactions and build working relationships to make this work.

As part of his efforts, Brinkley brings in corporate executives on trips to Afghanistan to try to get them to invest. An array of executives, including from Citibank, IBM and even Kate Spade, have accompanied Brinkley on these types of trips. When he's making his pitch, he wants to make it clear this is not a charity opportunity. It's strictly business.

"I want them to come in and see that they can make actually make money, that there's a market," Brinkley says, "that there's talent that can be brought to bare for their particular business interests."

High-Risk Investments

But these possible business opportunities are still located in a volatile, dangerous environment. With the task force moving to the civilian-run U.S. State Department, the risk is greater.

State Department personnel are "not trained to be in combat zones," notes Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians, "they're not trained to be in combat zones, and very often you're talking about doing this kind of armed development work while being shot at."

Those are the same concerns some lawmakers have on Capitol Hill, saying Brinkley's task force blurs the line between military and civilian missions. They think taking CEOs around Afghanistan is not something the Pentagon should be doing.

Brinkley has had his own close calls. In January 2010, a bomb went off in a Baghdad hotel where he was holding a meeting. Even after that close shave, Brinkley and his team only had one thought.

"Our immediate reaction was we're going right back in," he recalls.

Having A Stake

Once the minerals are extracted from the ground, Brinkley is faced with the reality of possible corruption — his greatest concern. He doesn't want minerals to become the blood diamonds of Afghanistan. To combat this worry, the task force makes sure Afghans have access to mining industry experts.

The overall key, according to Brinkley, is engagement. By staying involved, he says, the U.S. has the ability to better shape the outcome. He also notes, the U.S. does have a strategic interest in seeing Afghanistan develop.

It's not just the U.S. Brinkley thinks if Afghanistan can provide these highly sought out minerals, Afghanistan will be a critical source for other countries' economies.

But with Brinkley leaving the task force and most of his main sponsors in the Pentagon, like Gen. David Petraeus, also in transition, he says the project is at a point of inflection.

"There's a long way to go between, where we are today and where that future can be," he says.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Categories