Blog | Dec. 17, 2014

Is there a new window of opportunity in Afghanistan?

Just over a week ago, London hosted the first major international conference on Afghanistan since the country’s tumultuous elections. The fight against corruption was one of the main themes of the conference and a key commitment of the new government. So now is a good time to ask: has there been a real change in direction?

The short answer is: it is early days, but the signs are good. One of the key areas of concern is governance of Afghanistan’s $1 trillion of minerals. The Afghan government has already said it will amend the mining law, which could be a chance to fix some of its major gaps on protections against conflict and corruption. And the London Conference’s final communique included the Afghan government’s commitment to “putting in place the strongest possible available measures, based on international best practice, to counter the threat of conflict and corruption around the extractive industries.”

Afghani leader

President Ghani himself appears to be well aware of the real threat that conflict and corruption pose to his hopes for natural resource-driven development. At a Chatham House event after the London conference, Ghani said: “Mining companies in the West did horrors everywhere in the world and we are learning from those. Look at some of the same companies, now they talk of corporate responsibility, but their histories are written in blood and toil. We want to avoid all of this, because our key goal is the citizens. So it’s not which companies come from where, it’s under which discipline they will work with us.”

In another meeting, Ghani explicitly set out his priorities for the extractives sector. The first of these was reportedly to ‘do no harm’ – in other words avoiding squandering Afghanistan’s natural wealth as so many other resource-rich countries have done. The focus was to be on cautious growth, ensuring licences were allocated fairly and openly, building up institutions and capacity, and working with Afghanistan’s provinces. “Mining can come later,” Ghani added.

Given the serious danger that mining in Afghanistan could end up fuelling conflict and corruption, that precautionary approach is eminently sensible. With all the pressure to sign contracts quickly, it is especially laudable that Ghani has set out a vision for a careful, long-term development of the sector, in line with the government’s ability to manage it.

There is an understandable desire to do anything which could boost the economy and government revenues. If it is done right, mining can indeed play that role. But the sense of urgency should be directed at putting in place the structures and capacity needed to allow high-quality, responsible mining as quickly as possible – not to press ahead with mining at any cost.

Ghani’s partner in the National Unity government, Dr. Abdullah, has said less on mining, but has also committed to strong measures against corruption. And from the meetings I have had with him in the past, I believe he also understands the need for better oversight.

There are signs of hope beyond the extractives sector as well: the government has re-opened the investigation into the Kabul Bank scandal, one of the greatest bank frauds in history. They have announced plans to reform government procurement, a key source of corruption. They have nominated a well-respected figure as the new Attorney-General. And they have made fighting corruption a central public commitment.

I met with a range of ministers and advisers in Kabul late last month, and the change in atmosphere was noticeable. There was an interest in practical proposals for reform, and plans to strengthen the anti-corruption agency and create new procedures for contracting  – very interesting proposals if they can be implemented.

Of course, a substantial degree of caution is still warranted. The true test of the government’s vision will be the changes it brings to laws and policies, and its determination in enforcing them. That will not be easy: any move that significantly compromises the interests of the armed groups and power-brokers that benefit from corruption, or are involved in illegal or abusive mining, will inevitably give rise to some political backlash.

The Afghan government will need all the support it can get to resist that pressure. In particular, Afghanistan’s international partners need to back the fight against corruption, and to ensure Afghanistan becomes a model of how to defeat the resource curse. In the past, they have generally worried more about getting contracts signed than countering the evident threats the sector faces from conflict and abuses.

The bottom line is that progress on corruption and governance is critical to hopes for stability and development in Afghanistan, as well as to salvage the investment that Afghans and foreigners alike have made since 2001. Given this, the more receptive environment in Kabul is a gift that should not to be underestimated. There is a long road to travel, and there will be many pitfalls on the way, but right now the window of opportunity is open in a way it has rarely been since the heady days of 2001. It is a chance neither Afghans nor donors can afford to miss.