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With the retreat of American presence in Afghanistan and the reemergence of the Taliban as the country’s rulers, the questions pertaining to the future and well-being of the people remain largely unanswered. In what has been less than a mere fortnight, the Taliban has already given us some indications regarding the direction in which they plan to take the country. Advertisement murals featuring women have been covered up and executions of civilians and Afghan security forces personnel who had surrendered have already been reported. Working women have also been asked to stay at home indefinitely.

All this while the Taliban have actually been restraining themselves as they know that the world’s attention is on them. They have embarked on a PR campaign that aims to promote a more sympathetic view towards the terrorist regime, with op-eds being published in the New York Times containing statements which claim that the Taliban will protect the rights of women who apparently have nothing to fear. For the time being, it is in the interest of the Taliban to keep the peace and to project a humane image of themselves to the rest of the world.

It won’t be long before the world finds some other issue to shift its focus towards. That is when we will really be able to observe what the Taliban’s plans for its country are. Is it even possible to imagine a stable arrangement that will look after the interests of its people? Is there any sort of positive outcome that could be borne out of this mess? Seeing the images of people desperately trying to flee their homes and of the Taliban’s immediate actions after coming to power tells us otherwise.

Afghanistan's Mineral Resources

One thing that Afghanistan has going for itself is its immensely rich mineral resources. A report published by the Pentagon back in 2010 claimed that the value of these resources can be pegged at around $1 trillion. Ashraf Ghani, the recently deposed President, believes that number to be in excess of $3 trillion. This fact presents the Afghan people with an extraordinary opportunity. Much depends, however, on the Taliban government’s vision for its country’s future.

At this moment in time, China appears to be the front runner in terms of a foreign entity aiming to secure rights to mine for rare earths in Afghanistan. They plan to do so in exchange for infrastructure and funding. They had already secured the rights to mine copper in a place called Mes Aynak back in the mid-2000s having paid nearly $3 billion. This project, however, never came to fruition. Security concerns and lack of infrastructure have made it almost impossible to embark on any kind of development here.

The Chinese are more optimistic now. They have a set minimum requirements that the Taliban government must adhere to in order for them to do business, which includes the formation of an inclusive government representing the various ethnic groups, provision of basic human rights for women and minorities, and the containment of terrorist activities that are a threat to itself and countries like India, Pakistan, and the US. They have also become experts at economic diplomacy.

The Chinese have recently gone to countries in Africa and Eastern Europe with significant investment in exchange for resources. Many see this as a form of debt-trapping, wherein China lends funds to economically underdeveloped countries who use resources such as ports or mines as collateral in the event that they fail to pay the money back. The Chinese have been shrewd in their negotiations, often taking advantage of the economic and political climate in these countries, thereby cornering a country into certain indebtedness. The worry is that Afghanistan could suffer the same fate.

One of the most valuable metals currently available in Afghanistan is lithium. Over the last 10-20 years, we have seen technology make leaps and bounds in terms of electric vehicles, smart devices, and so much more. The main reason as to why this has been possible has to do with the development of smaller and more efficient chips along with high performance batteries. These require certain rare earth elements, with lithium being one of the more important resources.

Along with Bolivia, Afghanistan boasts the greatest amount of identified lithium resources available anywhere in the world. This makes the country a crucial player in the global tech industry, which also equates to enormous sums of money.

Naturally, various countries want a piece of the action. The US would like to exploit Afghanistan’s lithium resources so that it would no longer need to rely on China for the metal. China, as of 2019, was home to 73% of the global lithium cell manufacturing capacity. The US comes in at second place, although at a distant 12%. If the Chinese get their hands on Afghanistan’s vast resources, it will only serve to increase their domination in this sphere, giving them an almost absolute monopoly over lithium battery production. The economic consequences of the same could be rather undesirable for the USA.

The Way Forward.

What is the Taliban’s role in all this? If they are serious about establishing a stable and benevolent government in Afghanistan, they need to capitalise on their natural resources. Currently, they are subject to international sanctions from various countries, namely the US, if they fail to comply with certain basic requirements pertaining to human rights and trade. Their relationship with the world relies largely on their ability to maintain peace. Their first priority should be to develop a positive relationship with the people that they rule over. A 2018 survey concluded that 85% of Afghans do not have a favourable view of the Taliban, making them one of the most unpopular governments in existence. They need to firstly take on a more moderate approach towards their framing of laws, abandoning many of their radical views. The provision of basic human rights is an absolute must.

They then need to figure out how best to utilise their vast resources in a way that is financially beneficial to themselves. They can not allow the likes of China or the US to exploit them if that is not going to translate to adequate gains for their country. If the Taliban adheres to the requirements put forward by the international community, the financial sanctions on itself will be lifted. This will mean that the country will receive about $500 million in aid from the IMF, something that it was due to collect just before the Taliban took over. The US has currently frozen about $9.5 billion worth of reserves, which can be unfrozen upon the meeting of certain requirements. This money can be used to build the infrastructure needed to conduct a large-scale and efficient mining operation in the country, which will go on to generate employment and increase wealth. With respect to China, the US has the power to veto any moves by them to ease the UN Security Council restrictions currently in place on the Taliban. This would deter Chinese involvement in the country, thereby limiting the extent to which they can engage in diplomatic relations with Afghanistan.

The US still has a major role to play in determining how much help Afghanistan can get. As mentioned, this largely depends on the Taliban protecting the interests of its people. If the Taliban want to develop their country then they must give in to the demands of the US. It is of course possible that they find an alternative in China, but this would go against international rules of engagement. The Taliban have claimed that they want to establish good relations internationally, especially with China.

Now that the Taliban have to come to power, they have to take a serious approach to governance if they are to have any success. There are already groups such as the Northern Alliance who are offering resistance to the Taliban’s rule, and this could pose a critical threat in the future if the fortunes of the people do not change. As powerful as they might be, at the end of the day they will not have an easy go of things if they are inherently disliked by the very people that they rule over. They are already off to a bad start as things stand.

For feedback, write to pavan@bclindia.in

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