Afghanistan's Future Is About More Than Just Minerals

Thursday, 17 Jun 2010 10:53 AM

By Kathleen Parker

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Amid all the dark news from Afghanistan, every now and then a sliver of light slips through the cracks.

Afghanistan, it turns out, is rich in minerals. Trillions rich. It's going to become the Saudi Arabia of lithium, they say. Thanks to vast stores of that resource, plus iron, copper, cobalt, and gold, this impoverished, war-torn nation could become a wealthy nation.

No more wars, no Taliban, no heroin, no Osama bin Laden.

Too good to be true, right?

The deposits are real enough, but the question remains: Can a country without mining infrastructure and populated by people who've never known prosperity or possessed the collective memory of self-direction (70 percent of Afghans are under age 30) put its resources to constructive use?

Although the potential is "stunning," according to Gen. David Petraeus, the sidebars and footnotes to this heartening story are full of caveats and "yes, buts."

There's also potential for corruption, for fights between the central government and the provinces, for conflict along the Pakistan border where some of the richest deposits are located, and for a resurgent and enriched Taliban.

Moreover, turning deposits into a functioning mining industry will take decades. But speculation naturally leads to the hope that Afghanistan could begin to fund its own reinvention and liberate other nations, notably us, from that burden.

The key, it seems, lies in educating the rising generation of Afghans — in the liberal arts, as well as in the technologies needed to advance this new economic potential. There is hope there, too, not least because of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), the nation's only private, nonprofit university.

The school was launched with the help of a substantial grant from the United States Agency for International Development and built on 48 acres in Kabul. Instruction commenced in 2006, and the first class graduated last month. Today the school has 500 students, 20 percent of them women, and hopes to expand to 800 next year and to 2,000 in five years.

Most Afghans can't afford the tuition — 70 percent receive financial aid — and are being educated in large part through American donations. Some of those donors attended a dinner in Washington recently to hear from students and to honor former first lady Laura Bush for her support of the university.

A new fundraising project is under way for the Laura W. Bush Women's Resource Center, which will be the cornerstone of a new library and student services building with classrooms, conference space, and an auditorium.

And you thought all she did was sit and smile.

The dinner, held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, was attended by many of those who have worked in the private sector to help bring opportunity to Afghans, especially women.

In attendance were C. Michael Smith, university president; Leslie M. Schweitzer, chair of the Friends of the AUAF; Said T. Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States; and Caroline Hudson Firestone, who has dedicated herself to helping Afghan women and is the author of "Afghanistan in Transition," to name but a few.

It was one of those events familiar to Washingtonians where philanthropists and government officials convene to sip wine and, if the spirit moves the crowd, to write checks. If inspiration is the lubricant that compels luckier Americans to share prosperity, then this particular evening was rich.

The highlight was the testimony of five students who trekked from Afghanistan to report on the results of American generosity. More than once, they urged the audience: "Don't feel sorry for us, be there for us."

Each spoke variously of escaping the Taliban, losing family members, living as refugees in Pakistan. All spoke of feeling safe on the campus, of free speech, of open dialogue with professors and mutual respect — all miracles we take for granted.

But one young woman stood out. Masooma Habibi, a graduate of Goldman Sachs' "10,000 Women" program at the AUAF, founded an Internet-related consulting business in Kabul and employs nearly two dozen. Her head covered, she spoke softly in somewhat halting English. The AUAF is "like a dream," she said. When Americans educate an Afghan, "you are playing with life, so thank you."

We knew just what she meant.

It seems at times too much to hope that Afghanistan might ever become a stable country, where men and women could lead prosperous, peaceful lives. The key to that kind of future clearly lies in education.

There's more to mine in Afghanistan than minerals. And there's gold in these students.


Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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