Baby Powder Is the Secret Weapon in the Afghanistan War

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After a few days of hopeful cease-fire for the Eid holiday -- and remarkable images of Taliban and government security forces embracing -- Afghanistan seems headed back to the insurgency that has plagued it for 15 years. 

America’s longest war grinds on with little hope, with neither side able achieve a lasting victory. What could break the deadlock? Where should the U.S. focus its efforts to find a path to a negotiated ending to a violent civil war, such as we saw in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Colombia this decade?

Two vital fronts of this challenge are closely linked:  addressing the endemic problem of corruption and finding a viable economic model for the country.  And a key source of both potential wealth and ongoing corruption is Afghanistan’s abundance of minerals, thought to be worth as much as $1 trillion by some sources

Yes, instability is adding to the difficulty of attracting initial investment, but over time there is every possibility for large-scale mining of lithium, gold, iron, copper, lead, rare earths, gemstones and talc.

But right now, that wealth is more likely to do harm than good. For example, consider talc, an unglamorous industrial mineral used in everything from baby powder to plastics. The U.S. and Europe are the ultimate markets for much of Afghanistan’s talc production. Yet new research from Global Witness, an international nonprofit that monitors links between natural resources and corruption, reveals that almost all Afghan talc producers pay a tax to insurgents.

While the report focuses on the talc deposits in Nangarhar Province along the Pakistan border, it more broadly illuminates how the Islamic State's branch in Afghanistan now controls many mineral-rich areas and is fighting hard for others. There is a real threat that mining could help fund their expansion across Afghanistan.

As for the Taliban, Global Witness estimated they are raking in $300 million a year from the nation's mineral bounty. Indeed, mining is thought to be the second-largest source of revenue for the insurgency after narcotics. Militias supposedly on the side of the government and corrupt provincial strongmen also benefit. These various groups often find themselves in bloody confrontations over the mines.

Unlike illegal drugs, mineral resources could be generating major revenue for the Afghan government. Instead, they are fuelling conflict and corruption.

And that directly relates to one of the key weaknesses of the U.S. mission since 2001. Afghanistan’s mines powerfully illustrate how governance problems like corruption and illegal mining are not just about development -- they are hard-edged issues of national security.  

Yet U.S. efforts to improve governance have consistently fallen short of the mark. Since 2001, the U.S. has invested hundreds of millions in developing the mining sector -- but the money was spent with inadequate coordination and oversight, and had very little impact, as a 2016 report from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction documented.

When I was the supreme commander of the 150,000 international forces there, we concentrated on getting new contracts off the ground. This was a laudable goal, but was always likely to fail without strengthening oversight and addressing the massive abuses that have held back the sector.

At one point, I hired a highly regarded Army one-star general, H.R. McMaster, to do precisely that. Even someone as talented as McMaster was unable to significantly dent the problem, although he set in place some policies that have helped. He probably found service as national security advisor in the Trump White House tame by comparison.

In the end, the point of military action is to create space to deal with the underlying drivers of the conflict. Corruption, along with a wider lack of justice and rule of law in politics and the economy, is among the most important.

By one estimate, there are about $3.3 billion in bribes passed every year in Afghanistan.  This weakens the already fractured Afghan government, holds back development and increases support for the insurgency. Unfortunately, short-term security challenges tend to take priority over longer-term reforms.

It is not just Afghanistan. Around the world, many of the most critical U.S. interests are plagued by similar governance challenges. Just look at the way oil helped fund the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; how corruption undermined the Iraqi government’s ability to fight the insurgents; and how governmental graft increased Ukraine's vulnerability to Russian infiltration.

So how do we help Afghanistan fight corruption? Initially, by breaking the military and civilian approaches out of their silos so we can strike a better balance between short-term military action and longer-term goals like fighting corruption. That’s not easy, and it needs leadership from the top -- in this case, the incoming commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller.

One modest first step could be to strengthen the work of Defense Department investigators on interagency task forces with the Justice Department, the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the FBI and CIA. Such a government-wide effort needs parallel effort from our other key partners like the U.K., France and Germany.

A second step is making more serious use of our tools of influence -- government funding, strategic communications, infrastructure projects and so forth. That means making individual corruption cases and wider reforms a higher political priority for our partners, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and tying reasonable actions much more closely to our aid and other support.

A case in point: Right now the Afghan government is writing a new mining law. We should be pushing hard for it to have the strongest possible protections against conflict and corruption, like requiring all mining revenue to be paid into a single, transparent account.

Third, we need to isolate and punish corrupt actors more aggressively, and deploy our own intelligence, law enforcement and other resources much more actively. In Colombia, we used extradition to U.S. courts to punish drug cartels: we should explore similar arrangements against corrupt actors in Afghanistan.

Finally, real accountability means cleaning up the supply chains that ultimately make American consumers financiers of the Taliban. This means requiring Western companies to carry out reasonable due diligence on the sources of their materials

To its credit, the Afghan government is standing up against corruption -- for example, it banned the talc trade in 2015, although enforcement is weak. The Afghans need our backing. But we have every right to ask much more of them. Every penny they lose, whether from corrupt mining contracts or unpaid customs duties or embezzled budgets, is money U.S. taxpayers are being asked to make up. President Ashraf Ghani clearly understands the dangers, but we need him to deliver -- starting with the new mining law.

Inevitably, these sorts of reform measures have to be balanced against competing security and political pressures. But they should have a much greater weight in that balance.

Corruption is a weapon system in the hands of the Taliban -- and increasingly Islamic State -- who use it to fund their military offensives, undermine the democratically elected government, and harm the people  they once ruled with astonishing cruelty.

It is also at the heart of America's failure to stabilize this war-torn nation and ultimately find a path to a negotiated peace.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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