The big story coming out of this weekend has been the discovery – or rather, the announcement of the discovery – of a trillion-dollar mineral resource in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration is trying to paint this as a potential game-changer and a way out of the mess. Many others are painting this as an excuse to prolong our stay – especially since one of the major mineral deposits is lithium, a critical resource in the development of energy-efficient rechargeable batteries in a post-fossil world. So, is the Obama Administration looking for a reason to stay or a reason to leave? And does it matter one way or the other for the people of Afghanistan?
Because to me, the problem I see brewing with the new mineral deposit cache is one which the Saudi Arabian people have been dealing with for nearly a century, which is that having resources in the country does not do the people any good unless the people can actually work in the jobs that those resources produce. Even in the most coopted countries, common people often do the manual labor that comes with international economic success, but this is not the case in Saudi Arabia. In that country, the Wahabi imams run the schools, which teach a strictly Koran-based syllabus. Such an education does not really help secure a job as an engineer or even as a forklift operator, since math, science or writing are not on the agenda.
The result is an angry population from which many Taliban and al-Qeada recruits are plumbed. Even without the international terrorist scene, riots and hunger are common place problems for the House of Saud. To compensate, the government creates “make busy” projects building monuments and water fountains which do nothing to enrich the people, let alone lifting them from their primary intellectual poverty.
In Afghanistan, literacy rates are around 34% for men and 10% for women. This does not bode well for the economic boon that the mineral deposits supposedly represent. Even if the Afghan government weren’t corrupt, the chances are slim that any real work can be found for the majority of Afghans. So, do we make a commitment to stay and educate a generation of Afghans? Or do we leave them to the fate the Saudi people face? Do we, in finding the exit strategy both the American and Afghan people want, end up leaving behind an even more economically-striated place than we went into?