Kabul's Iron Lady
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 02, 2019

Nargis Nehan is working to reform a troubled ministry and get Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources out of the ground.

Matthieu Aikins

As a female politician in a country where many women still struggle for basic rights, Nargis Nehan is used to standing out. In December 2017, at age 38, she was the only woman of 12 acting ministers seeking confirmation to the cabinet by Afghanistan’s parliament. Winning approval to remain head of the ministry of mines and petroleum was the highest-profile test of her political career—and initially it seemed like she’d failed.

Afghanistan’s rugged, landlocked terrain holds vast mineral wealth, including Hajigak, one of the world’s largest iron deposits, as well as copper, gold, lithium, chromite, manganese-rich forms of columbite and tantalite, precious and semiprecious stones, rare-earth metals, and uranium. Some estimates peg the collective value of these resources at $1 trillion or more—if they can be brought to market despite extreme security, logistical, and political challenges.

When President Ashraf Ghani appointed Nehan acting minister in 2016, with a mandate to reform the sector and attract international investment, she knew she’d be fighting corrupt, entrenched interests. “I never learned the art of keeping quiet, and I don’t want to learn it,” she says, sitting in her heavily guarded office in Kabul. By the time she came up for confirmation, she’d been in the job almost a year. She’d upset some powerful people by canceling a number of irregular-looking contracts, and she’d refused, she says, to engage in the horse-trading and bribery that commonly precede confirmation votes. “All my friends were telling me, ‘Look, you’re going to lose,’ ” Nehan says. They proved correct. “Deep down I kind of knew,” she says. Yet it stung to learn she’d been the only one rejected.

The apparent sexism of the decision brought an outcry from civil society. “MPs started fighting amongst themselves,” she recalls. “They were blaming each other, like, ‘Why did we do this?’ ” In the end, Ghani kept her on without pushback from parliament. “I said, ‘Now that you didn’t give me the vote, that means I can double and triple my reform.’ ”

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