Mineral Wealth May Impact Afghanistan's Future Alex Thier, an Afghanistan analyst at USAID, talks with NPR's Liane Hansen about the ongoing counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, the rediscovery of the country's mineral wealth and how those natural resources might affect the country's future.
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Mineral Wealth May Impact Afghanistan's Future

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Mineral Wealth May Impact Afghanistan's Future

Mineral Wealth May Impact Afghanistan's Future

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It's been six months since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan. But the question is still whether that surge strategy has achieved its goal: stopping the rise of Taliban forces. And there's a new dimension to the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy: the presence of valuable natural resources.

Alex Thier is an Afghanistan analyst who soon will join the government agency USAID. He's in our Washington studio. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. ALEX THIER (Afghanistan Analyst, USAID): Pleasure to be here again, Liane.

HANSEN: Alex, as the New York Times reported this past week, the United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan. Other estimates have put that figure even higher. Put that in context given what's happening on the ground.

Mr. THIER: Well, one piece of context I think which is interesting is Afghanistan's national budget is less than a billion dollars a year. Now, that doesn't include what the U.S. and others are helping to pay for. But the money that they raise themselves is less than a billion dollars a year. The whole economy is under $10 billion a year.

So, natural resource wealth of the magnitude that we're talking about does potentially provide Afghanistan with a level of sustainable revenue that it didn't have before. It doesn't have much of a taxation system and never really did. And it doesn't want to rely on foreign powers like the United States for its money forever.

And so, this new natural resource discovery does provide an opportunity for Afghanistan to fund its future.

HANSEN: The United States and other foreign governments, though, reportedly have known about the presence of these reserves for years. I mean, what's the value in the timing of this rediscovery?

Mr. THIER: Well, I think that there are a few things going on. A couple of years ago, USAID helped to fund the United States Geological Survey to do intensive identification of Afghanistan's natural resources. And they did two things. One: they found old maps that the Soviets in the '80s had started to construct of the mineral resources of Afghanistan. But they also used newer technology that allows you to actually overfly the country hundreds of times and to take magnetic pictures that show in 3-D where the mineral deposits were.

And through these two things, they made some fascinating discoveries. In part, that Afghanistan has deposits of certain mineral resources like copper and iron and lithium that exist in that scale only in a few places in the world.

HANSEN: Do you think the presence of these natural resources will affect the president's timeline for withdrawing troops? He wants to do it in July 2011.

Mr. THIER: Well, you know, I think that these natural resources for Afghanistan represent a real turning point. Afghanistan could become Chile or it could become Congo. The natural resources could be a great boon for Afghanistan. It could allow them to stand on their own. It could allow them to fund their military, their schools, their health care system.

But alternatively, natural resources of this scale in a country that's poor and doesn't have sufficient rule of law can also turn into a curse and they can fuel corruption. And so what I hope will happen is that these resources will be used in the next few years, together with the Afghan and international plan to create stronger and better civilian governance.

HANSEN: What do you think the Obama administration's long-term vision is for Afghanistan, beyond the 2011 troop drawdown?

Mr. THIER: I think that the Obama administration has articulated that they don't want Afghanistan to be a safe haven for al-Qaida. The second goal is that they want an Afghan government thats stable and provides for its population. And the third is that they don't want Afghanistan either to be a staging ground for destabilization of its other neighbors, particularly Pakistan.

And I think that they are reasonable goals with the resources that we've now devoted to the problem really for the first time since 2001.

HANSEN: Alex Thier is an Afghanistan analyst. He will be joining the government agency USAID tomorrow. And he joined us in our Washington studios. Alex, thanks.

Mr. THIER: Thank you, Liane.

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