Alex posted last night about the rich mineral deposits in Afghanistan, and what implications that could have for political stability and economic development in Afghanistan. Since his post, it has come out that this is not exactly a new find (it's been known since at least 2007), and the timing of the NY Times article is a bit suspect. All of which is true, but doesn't really change what the important questions are, such as what effect will these resources have on Afghanistan's political and economic development? Alex highlighted many of them, as did Andrew Exum:
I have been reading Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion in between editing chapters of my dissertation (which is tough enough to do when my local coffee shop has the World Cup on all its televisions), and Collier describes the characteristics that "trap" countries in cycles of civil conflict: low income, slow growth, and dependence on primary commodity exports. I don't need to tell you Afghanistan has the first and third characteristics in spades, and you may have noticed that Afghanistan has already been in a pretty miserable cycle of civil conflict since the PDPA coup in 1978. Does this resource find make civil war more or less likely? The statistics, I'm afraid, suggest the former.
Somewhat ironically, Collier's research methods are exactly those that Exum disapproved of in our dispute from a few months back. But I'm glad that Exum is broadening his horizons in this case, and even though I don't think Collier's book is perfect, there are still a lot of lessons to be learned from it.
The wild card in Collier's work, and in this particular case of Afghanistan, is the presence of an external military in the state with resources. Collier argues in later chapters of his book that the presence of an outside intervener can change the "trap" dynamics that many poor countries find themselves in. (In fact, he's been criticized fairly strongly for this "colonialist" aspect of his work, and for the statistical methods he uses to reach his conclusions. I told you it was ironic that Exum was praising it, given his previous stances.) So while the combination of "ethnic/tribal/ideological rivalries + poverty + natural resources = conflict + economic stagnation" most of the time, adding "external intervention" to the left-hand side of the equation can, in some circumstances, change the right-hand side quite dramatically.
It's impossible to know from Collier's work alone whether that can happen in Afghanistan's case or not. But given that these resources are in Afghanistan no matter what the U.S. does, it's probably better for Afghans that we're there. Of course, if that's true than it also true that it would be disastrous for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan any time soon.