There is a mystery to be unraveled in today’s New York Times story that declares that Afghanistan stands on the cusp of untold mineral wealth, almost a trillion dollars in undeveloped deposits. The mystery has nothing to do with the minerals themselves or their economic implications. Readers who think this portends a rosy future for the ravaged country should pinch themselves and remember that no nation—repeat, no nation—has ever become rich from mining. Mine owners, yes, of course, but the sad lands that sit atop mineral wealth, no.
The real question is, why are we reading this? Let’s assume that James Risen, the byline author and a journalist of considerable talents, is in this case a faithful conduit for an Obama administration news feed. What we might ask is, what purpose lies behind this disclosure? Those closest to the scene may already know the answer, but let me speculate:
1. The war is going very badly, and Washington wants to put a more positive spin on things. Hang in there, Afghanistan will become a prosperous, self-reliant nation. There is a light at the end of this tunnel. Or: we can’t let all these riches fall into the hands of the Taliban.
2. The Karzai regime is cutting deals with Chinese or other mineral-seekers that the US wants to squelch. By shining a light on this sector, some elements (rogue? official?) within the US bureaucracy are trying to mobilize the full resources of the government to bring the Afghans in line.
3. The real audience for the Times piece is not in the US but Afghanistan and Pakistan. Elites there are advised: Stick with the Americans, even though your people despise us. We know where the loot is buried. We can make you rich.
What do you think?