Monday, June 14, 2010

Afghanistan: Rich in Minerals?

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?


George said...

I think all those answers may be putting a bit too much faith in the benevolence of the Times and U.S political elite who are its target audience, as soon as I saw it I thought this message was a not so subtle way of saying 'this invasion may have been a colossal fuckup with absolutely no moral justification but it was worth it, we're all going to be filthy rich I tells ya!'. Its the same rationale that was used in the run-up to the Iraq war, the war would be paid for by plundering Iraqi natural resources. I imagine this is supposed to be a promise of a 'light at the end of the tunnel' as you put it: not for the liberal idealists hoping for a prosperous Afghanistan, but for the kissengerian realists who's main interest is the increase of U.S power and wealth.

Stephen Zielinski said...

I agree with George. When I read the article my first thought was: This is the first step taken in building a pretext for a massive effort to pacify the country -- pacify it so that the USA can work there without much trouble.

It's very much possible that the USA or any other power possesses the technical means or political resources for pacifying the country.

The Afghanis will never know freedom or peace because of this newly discovered "wealth." No great power or contender for such would let the Afghanis work out the details.

abb1 said...

Number 3 doesn't work; I'm sure there are better ways to send messages to Afgan elites than NYTimes.

1 and 2 are pretty much the same idea: to rationalize escalation. That must be it, then.

Shag from Brookline said...

If oil and gas do not bring about peace and democracy, will strategic materials? Of course the major democracies have to "secure" their energy and strategic materials needs wherever located.

Anonymous said...

The Afghanistan war is lost. The current military mission is to establish a semblance of order in some parts of the country so as to effect a withdrawal of troops that won't look like a defeat.

The evolving message is: We are withdrawing our troops but we are leaving behind an Afghanistan that now knows it is rich with natural resources and has a bright future. Mission accomplished.

In reality, any mineral extraction that takes place will be under the auspices of various war lords, since Afghanistan has never had a central government that could exert regional control.

Afghanistan will end up resembling the Congo.

Jimbo said...

The NewsHour did this story in depth. First, they interviewed Riesen who confirmed reasons 1 and 2. They followed up with a story on the fact that a lot of what Afghanistan has includes rare earths and lithium, which are critical to the "new economy". And, yes, the fact is that a) Afghanistan, to the extent it remains a country, would become the usual mining-based kleptocracy and b) the Chinese don't much care about dangerous operational environments, which is why they are proceeding with their railroad a la the old Tanzara Railroad in East-Central Africa.

dodoy said...

hmmmm maybe that's the mean reason why USA still on war on that place, knowing that a lot of minerals might they capture if the Afghanistan declare as surrender.. just maybe huh!..

Suffern AC said...

First sentences of 1 and 2. The article is just a reminder to the public that the "surge" is supposed to be about more than merely bringing in extra troops and shooting people. Apparently, there is someone in the DoD called the deputy undersecretary of defense for business who hires geologists.

Rogue officials aren't usually named and quoted. There aren't any unnamed people in this article.

If the author is a conduit for the administration, he is a very odd one. He states on the one hand that everything is going wrong in Afghanistan and that the administration wants good news. He then quotes a whole bunch of people who state that while there are loads of minerals, it will take decades to exploit the find as those minerals are in far, remote places and no one knows how to dig them up. That does not appear to be the "light at the end of the tunnel".

The administration MAY be giving out bad news to condition people to the idea that we will be in Afghanistan for decades. The MAY be trying to get certain members of the public agitated about China, begging it to stay on and get the lithium. I doubt it. I don't think the public is any more interested in staying in Afghanistan to help make it prosperous than it was in 2008 when McCain promised to stay there 100 years if necessary. I can't be certain. But if you wanted the public to start supporting a longer engagement there, you'd imply that there might be vast quantities of uranium in veins six inches under the surface of the shoulder on a road leading to Iran.

The only narrative I see being reinforced here is that the Taliban will fight no matter what the circumstances (They'll fight harder now! Even though they could be rich!) and that Karzai's government is corrupt and can't be trusted. We tried to be helpful, even sent in geologists but...Notice how no one is actually quoted in the section going over the worst case scenarios. Some of that may be true, but it doesn't sound like the story makes a very compelling case for staying around to exploit the minerals.

ProGrowthLiberal said...

"Afghanistan has a national mining law" but the story never detailed what the law says. Wouldn't that be an important piece of this story to understand how the rights to these resources would be distribututed?

Suffern AC said...

Another reading of this article is that the department of defense wants readers of the Times to be excited about investing in Afghanistan, or doesn't want someone to put this business defense program on a list of programs to be cut in the coming "austerity."

This article is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation of an offer to buy the minerals described herein. The offering is made only by means of the prospectus which can be obtained by contacting the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Business.