After more than seventeen years of fighting in Afghanistan, the US and the Taliban insurgents appear to be closing in on a peace deal, as per reports in the Western media.

But there are still significant unresolved issues which could bring the peace effort to a grinding halt. The US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, put it aptly: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

The kind of comprehensive agreement Khalilzad was alluding to, is a far cry even at this stage, given the fundamental nature of the issues involved.

While appearing to be very keen on withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US is trying to retain its hold on the country by getting the Taliban to talk to the elected government led by President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul and come to a power-sharing arrangement with the latter. But the Taliban, now on the verge of a total military victory, is unlikely to accommodate the Ghani regime which it feels is a US puppet, and a corrupt, inefficient and un-Islamic one too.

As a militant extremist group involved in a trademark zero sum game (and not in a game of give and take), the Taliban will either have all or nothing. Sharing power is out of the question for a quintessential militant group like the Taliban.

Despite President Donald Trump’s expressed determination to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, he would find it hard or even impossible to withdraw them without assuring American presence in that country. And the only way in which US presence can be ensured is to ensure the continuance of the pro-US regime in Kabul, even if only in an attenuated form.

From the US point of view. its continued presence in Afghanistan is essential for geo-political and economic reasons.

From a geo-political perspective, Washington would have to be in Afghanistan in order to prevent the China and Russia from encroaching and filling the vacuum. Russia is already an ally of the Taliban giving it arms when needed. Russia shares the Taliban’s view that there can be peace in Afghanistan without a deal with the pro-American government in Kabul.

If the Americans vacate Afghanistan, China would step in with its money to help the Taliban rebuild the smashed country and also ensure that Afghanistan is an anti-American bastion.

US presence is needed to keep a tab on Pakistan also. Despite its own problems with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s eastern frontier, Pakistan is helping the Taliban fight its enemies in Western Afghanistan. However, at the moment, the US is grateful to Pakistan for helping it hold talks with the Taliban in Qatar, and also participate in it along with like-minded Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Then there is an economic angle which is hardly talked about in relation to the situation in Afghanistan, but it very important from the point of view of the future.

According to published reports, Afghanistan is sitting on vast mineral resources. The country has over 1,400 mineral fields containing coal, barite, chromite, petroleum, precious and semi-precious stones like emerald and lapis lazuli, salt, sulfur, talc, and zinc, copper, gold, and other minerals.

To quote extensively from one of them: “The value of these natural resources is estimated to be over US $1 trillion, possibly much higher. However, because of the lack of development, political instability and war, these resources are being stolen and illegally extracted by smugglers and others in different parts of the country while the government heavily depends on international assistance to fund its national budget, “ one of the reports said.

“Predictably, illegal mining is a major source of income for armed groups and insurgents. Insurgents benefit from taxing smugglers in the areas under their control.”

“In some cases, locals easily extract valuable stones and other minerals by using explosives sell the resources to smugglers. Such smuggling and illegal extraction are reportedly supported by some countries which benefit from illegal trade.”

But attempts to exploit the resources have been foiled by various unfavorable factors.

Again to quote from the report: “There have been several attempts by major international companies and consortiums to invest in the natural resource sector of Afghanistan but these efforts have failed due to a lack of clear policy, guidelines, and procedure for mineral resource extraction.”

“Afghanistan’s central committee for making decisions on the exploitation of the country’s mineral resources, has no fixed or predictable policy. This makes the task of investing in Afghanistan a painful one. Of course this gives room for corruption. With corrupt officials and ministers ruling the roost, no wonder Afghanistan is rated as the second-most corrupt country in the world.”

According to a report in Fortune, Afghanistan’s wealth has lain there mainly undisturbed for thousands of years as armies of Persians, Greeks, Mongols, Britons, Russians, and now Americans tramped above. Invaders have dreamed of exploiting it since the time of Alexander the Great, but no one has yet succeeded on a large scale.

According to Fortune Capt. Henry Drummond, an officer of the British Indian army’s 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, was the first Westerner to discover Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

He found “abundant green stains” of copper, some of which rivaled the deposits of Chile, and veins of iron ore that “might no doubt be obtained equal to the Swedish.”

Fortune goes on to say that while many of Drummond’s countrymen viewed Afghanistan as an untamable place, where a man could not stray many yards from his home or tent without risk of being murdered, Drummond was smitten. Mining, he felt — not the gun — offered the best hope to pacify the territory and win over Afghans.

“Give them, however, but constant employment, with good wages and regular payment; encourage a spirit of industry, both by precept and example; let strict justice be dealt out to them without respect of persons; and we shall shortly see their swords changed into plowshares, industry take place of licentiousness, and these people be converted into peaceable and useful subjects,” Drummond wrote.

“But the Afghans weren’t keen on the idea of handing over their minerals to occupiers, or on the British occupation itself, for that matter,” he added regretfully.

Fortune says that mining resumed during the Cold War. Both Soviet and U.S. geologists conducted surveys in Afghanistan.

“The Russians bored thousands of test holes and identified big deposits of copper, zinc, mercury, tin, fluorite, potash, talc, asbestos, and magnesium. But instability in the countryside put an end to serious mining exploration.”

“After the toppling of the Taliban by the U.S.-led coalition, the Afghan government, with financial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, commissioned new, high-tech aerial surveys of Afghanistan.”

“The results were stunning: The U.S. Geological Survey identified huge veins of copper, iron, lithium, gold, and silver. The Afghan government solicited bids for one of the biggest of the copper deposits, a site south of Kabul that had been identified by both Drummond and the Soviets.”

“Offering a rich price, China won the bid in 2007, beating out four other mining companies. But the Chinese mining company has yet to extract any copper from the site because of delays clearing land mines from the area, and the discovery of archeological relics,” Fortune said.