On Wednesday, the regular St. Petersburg International Economic Forum started. Its program is extremely extensive and eventful, but among other meetings and speeches, an extremely important event stands apart. Deputy head of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry Mohammadyounis Hossein and head of the Afghan diplomatic mission Jamal Nasir Garwal were seen on the sidelines of the forum.
In itself, the participation of representatives of the Taliban movement can be called scandalous, but the invitation to participate in the SPIEF of representatives of the new Afghan government suggests that Moscow is considering Kabul as a trading partner with growing interest.
Let’s start with the political moment.
Many, watching the military successes of the Taliban, which forced the shameful flight of the Americans from Afghanistan, feared further military and Islamist expansion. But the Taliban took Kabul, went to the borders of the country and stopped. Time passed, and the Taliban did not make any attempts to invade neighboring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and over time, tension along the border line began to subside. The new government concentrated exclusively on restoring order within the troubled country and from the very beginning began to build diplomatic bridges with Moscow and Beijing.
Just the other day, Zamir Kabulov, special envoy of the Russian president for Afghanistan, director of the Second Asian Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, lifted the veil of understatement over Russian-Afghan relations. It follows from the diplomat’s statement that at present the Taliban does not create a direct military threat in Central Asia and is actively developing interstate ties, primarily with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Translated from streamlined-neutral diplomatic language, this means that Moscow is very close to recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate authority and establishing official bilateral relations.
The fact that these are not our conjectures is also confirmed by the rhetoric of the forum guests.
Most recently, Afghan Charge d’Affaires Jamal Garwal said the Taliban government was determined to develop economic cooperation with Russia. A representative of the Cham-ber of Commerce and Indu-stry echoes him from St. Petersburg – Kabul is act-ively negotiating on duty-free supplies of fruits and minerals to Russia, and in return is ready to buy gas, oil and refined products.
With the political part sorted out, let’s move on to the economy and energy.
The situation with Afgh-anistan is strange and paradoxical. On the one hand, the majority of SPIEF participants do not recognize the current government, a-nd on the other hand, Mo-scow sent an official invitation to the Taliban – and no one objected to this. There is a very simple explanation for this, and it lies purely in the market plane.
Afghanistan is fabulously rich in resources.
In terms of the size of territories and population, only in terms of the cost of extracted minerals, Afgha-nistan can easily compete with the leaders – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and, of course, Russia. True, unlike most purely “fuel” players, the Afghans can boast of a much wider range of reserves. As of August last year, that is, at the time of the flight of the American army, Western analysts estimated the total cost of non-fuel resources at more than a trillion dollars. Afghan bowels store copper, rare earth metals, cobalt, bauxite, mercury, chromium and even uranium in their bins.
The country also boasts lithium reserves with an estimated value of three trillion dollars. The very lithium that is considered the metal of the 21st century, since without it the production of modern electronics, primarily batteries, is impossible.
In the central mountainous part of the country lies the gigantic Hajigak iron ore deposit, with estimated reserves of a mind-boggling two billion tons, and the local ore is super-rich. The content of the useful component in the ore mass reaches 62 percent, which is not just a lot, but a lot.
Significant hydrocarbon reserves have been explo-red in the north of the country along the Amu Darya. We are talking about volumes of 1.8 billion barrels of oil, 440 billion cubic me-ters of gas and more than 560,000 barrels of gas condensate. Of course, against the backdrop of all the same oil-producing countries in the Middle East, the numbers are not shocking, but here you need to understand that Afghanistan is still in many ways a tabula rasa, that is, a blank slate in terms of geology, and no one will undertake to predict with accuracy what else hidden away in his underground storerooms.
A brief excursion to this Asian region would be incomplete without mentioning the deposits of lead, zinc, niobium, as well as precious and semi-precious stones, among which are often stunningly beautiful emeralds, rubies and lapis lazuli, in short, everything that jewelers take to work with pleasure and later worn by the rich and fashionistas.
With all this, Afghanistan is a monstrously poor country.
According to official statistics alone, more than 70 percent of the population, that is, about 27 million people, do not have access to electricity, and in rural areas this figure reaches ninety percent. It was simply impossible to solve the problem of access to electricity in a country constantly blazing with war. The US administration has claimed that more than $4 billion has been spent on electrification since 2002, but the money has not been converted into physical generation and distribution infrastructure. Generating capacity as of 2019 was estimated at a meager 3.5 gigawatts, while the country’s total need is at least 40-45 gigawatts.
All neighbors are well aware of this, and the same Uzbekistan is persistently asking Rosatom to build the first nuclear power plant in the south of the country in order not only to provide for its own population, but also to better export electricity across the Afghan border, receiving payment either in foreign currency or in commodity items.
A glaring shortage of clean water is also on the agenda. Nearly 40 percent of the population – over 15 million people – do not have access to permanent sources of drinking water. Distribution systems of water utilities are critically outdated and worn out to the limit, which leads to huge losses during transportation. But even where they work, the water is far from ideal, since the vast majority of water pipes are made of asbestos-cement mixture, which, due to wear and tear, has long lost its performance.
In short, it’s easier to say that Afghanistan is good than to list critical problems, so let’s move on to the main thing.
Afghanistan is a huge and completely empty market in all directions without exception. In today’s world, bound by the chains of globalization, corporations are fighting for profits and production growth, sometimes in tenths of a percent. This happens because the entire “civilized” world has long been divided into spheres and sectors of influence, and it is very difficult to squeeze into a certain niche, whether it is the production of baby food or ferroalloys. Although Afghanistan cannot boast of the wealth of the state treasury, at the first stage it is ready to exchange its own resources for essential items and materials, which can include absolutely everything – from wires and plastic pipes to mini-factories for oil processing and the production of glass containers.
Large and small Russian manufacturers, whether it be turbines for hydroelectric power plants, railway rails or reinforced concrete structures, should hurry up to occupy the still pristine Afghan market. The delegation’s visit to SPIEF spe-aks of mutual understanding and interest between Kabul and Moscow, which is good news.