“I’m So Happy. Cause Today I Found My Friends.”

James Risen in The New York Times:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.

While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic:

Were it not for the byline of James Risen, a New York Times reporter currently in a legal battle with the Obama administration over the identity of his sources, a second read of his blockbuster A1 story this morning, U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan, would engender some fairly acute skepticism. For one, a simple Google search identifies any number of previous stories with similar details.

The Bush Administration concluded in 2007 that Afghanistan was potentially sitting on a goldmine of mineral resources and that this fact ought to become a central point of U.S. policy in bolstering the government.

[…]

The way in which the story was presented — with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less — and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war. Indeed, as every reader of Jared Diamond’s popular works of geographic determinism knows well, a country rich in mineral resources will tend toward stability over time, assuming it has a strong, central, and stable government.

Risen’s story notes that the minerals discovery comes at a propitious time. He focuses on lithium, a critical component of electronics. One official tells him that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” — a comparison to oil. (I can see it now: “We must wean ourselves off our dependence on foreign lithium!”)

The general perception about the war here and overseas is that the counterinsurgency strategy has failed to prop up Hamid Karzai’s government in critical areas, and is destined to ultimately fail. This is not how the war was supposed to be going, according to the theorists and policy planners in the Pentagon’s policy shop.

What better way to remind people about the country’s potential bright future — and by people I mean the Chinese, the Russians, the Pakistanis, and the Americans — than by publicizing or re-publicizing valid (but already public) information about the region’s potential wealth?

The Obama administration and the military know that a page-one, throat-clearing New York Times story will get instant worldwide attention. The story is accurate, but the news is not that new; let’s think a bit harder about the context.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

Wow! Talk about a game changer. The story goes on to outline Afghanistan’s apparently vast underground resources, which include large copper and iron reserves as well as hitherto undiscovered reserves lithium and other rare minerals.

Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there’s less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry’s website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there’s more here). You can also take a look at the USGS’s documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.

Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen suggests was generated by a Pentagon task force seeking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at the chart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.

Don’t get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it’s been through over the last three decades.

But I’m (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It’s also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

In one way, at least, Ambinder is obviously right. By its very nature, a story like this couldn’t be “news.” This isn’t Jed Clampett popping off his scattergun at a gopher and discovering Texas Tea. The “discovery” of vast mineral resources in a number of geographically distinct sites scattered across the country isn’t the sort of story that “breaks” over the course of hours or days. Rather, it moves at the speed of, well, at the speed of rocks. As Ambinder himself notes elsewhere in his post, the Soviets knewAfghanistan might be a jackpot way back in 1985, and the Bush administration was already building-in the political economy of mineral discoveries into itsAfghanistan policy in 2007.

So no, this isn’t “news” news, but that doesn’t necessarily make it hand-fed from the Obama administration. Perhaps I’m being credulous here, but the sourcing and timing of the story, and the fact that there is now at least a rough dollar-figure — $1 trillion — attached to the cache could just as likely indicate that what were heretofore diffuse bits of information and speculation have now cohered, reached a critical mass and crossed over from abstract-future-opportunity to bona-fide-policy-challenge.

Ed Morrissey:

My first thought on reading this was that the Soviets may have had better reasons for invading Afghanistan than first thought.  There has been no real reporting on whether the Soviets attempted to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources, but had they succeeded in keeping their grip on the nation, they could have found a new way to stay in business against the West rather than going bankrupt in the Cold War economic warfare that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher conducted against Moscow.

That is pure speculation, but don’t expect that to end just because the Soviet Union collapsed.  We’ve spent over eight years in Afghanistan attempting to subdue the radicals and fight those across the border in Pakistan’s frontier provinces, and many people have questioned why we’re spending so much blood and treasure in a country known for its ability to bankrupt empires.  We have plenty of good strategic reasons to attempt to salvage Afghanistan and keep it from becoming a failed state, but this find will definitely have those inclined towards conspiracy theories cranking up new plots and dark cabals as the real reason we’re attempting to salvage Afghanistan.  A trillion dollars in new mineral deposits don’t come along very often, after all, and some of these minerals will be critical to energy and military applications.

Still, this is a blessing for the Afghan people.  They will need a massive improvement in infrastructure in order to get the materials out for export, but that investment will come a lot faster with this find.   It gives them a real alternative to narco-trafficking, which because of the poverty and Stone Age infrastructure of the country, has been the only option for many Afghans.’

Spencer Ackerman:

So if you were still operating on the presumption that the real reason we remain at war after nine years is something to do with the world’s least efficient way to establish and control an oil pipeline, you’re so 2000-and-late. What, you thought it was a coincidence that the Center for a New American Security established its natural-resources/defense program so soon after the first wave of its leadership entered the Obama Pentagon and State Department? It’s a shame we can’t manufacture cellphone batteries from your vast deposits of naivete.

But I digress. This could potentially work out well for Afghanistan’s opium-and-foreign-aid dependent economy. But Risen details the ways in which the so-called “resource curse” is primed to take effect after the discovery: massive official corruption; weak legal understandings controls delineating ownership and revenue-sharing between national and provincial authorities in mineral-rich areas; decades of warfare. And now, naturally, someone’s telling Risen about the specter of great-power resource competition that just so perfectly implies a new rationale for extended war and post-war foreign influence:

American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.

Hey, just because something aligns with a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it lacks geopolitical impact.

Matthew Yglesias:

So Afghanistan is going to be “the Saudi Arabia of lithium”, but a more prosaic way of putting the point might be that Afghanistan is, if it’s lucky, poisoned to become the next Bolivia. Indeed, when last we saw geopolitical lithium hype this was the concern and thanks to lithium’s use in batteries for the hypothetical fleet of electric cars that will allegedly save the planet, Bolivia’s been called “the Saudi Arabia of the green world”. But it’s also an impoverished backwater.

Part of the problem, as you can read here and here is that it’s simply difficult in practice to put this kind of wealth to good use.

Kevin Drum:

I have a very bad feeling about this. It could quickly turn into a toxic combination of stupendous wealth, superpower conflict, oligarchs run wild, entire new levels of corruption, and a trillion new reasons for the Taliban to fight even harder. And for the cynical among us, this line from Risen’s piece — “American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan” — suggests that the Obama administration might be eagerly thinking about these discoveries as a shiny new reason to keep a military presence in Afghanistan forever. I can hardly wait to see what Bill Kristol thinks of this.

On the other hand, maybe it represents lots of new jobs, enough money to suck away the Taliban’s foot soldiers, and the stable income base Afghanistan needs to develop a modern infrastructure. I doubt it, but you never know.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic:

Here’s an idea: rather than asking Americans to trod across this minefield in hopes of getting some of the treasure on the other side, let’s take a lesson from history, fully appreciate all the buried danger, and ask ourselves how we can best withdraw ourselves from the situation, sending someone else across the minefield in our stead. The United Nations? The World Bank? The China Mineral Corporation? Whoever it is, better that they suffer the consequences of this find than that we do.

Rod Dreher:

I told a friend the news that the U.S. has discovered vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan. She said sarcastically, “Oh great, now we get to ‘Avatar’ those people” — by which she meant that the U.S. stands to economically colonize Afghanistan, like the earth people did to the N’avi in “Avatar.”

I don’t think that’s the danger here. Rather, I think that this means US troops will be permanently stationed in Afghanistan, protecting US access to those mineral deposits. It is to be hoped that the money to come will help Afghanistan stabilize itself. I am skeptical, though. There’s this comment from the Times story:

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Yeah, that’s just what we need: another hyper-wealthy Islamic extremist state with the financial resources to export its radical interpretation of Islam. There may be a realist case for keeping US troops in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from gaining control of the mineral wealth and using it to export radical Islam.

Whatever the truth, I am very sorry these resources were discovered in that cursed country. It’s going to mean no end of trouble. I expect that I’ll live to see Chinese soldiers in the Middle East.

It’s very hard to imagine that a country as misgoverned as Afghanistan will be an exception to the rule that whom the gods destroy, they first make rich in natural resources.

UPDATE: James Risen interviewed by John Cook at Yahoo News

And everyone chimes on that interview:

James Joyner

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post

Dan Amira at New York Magazine

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1 Comment

Filed under Af/Pak

One response to ““I’m So Happy. Cause Today I Found My Friends.”

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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