A New York Times report announcing the US has found $1 trillion-worth of mineral deposits in Afghanistan has some observers wondering if the news is part of a public-relations effort to bolster support for the Afghanistan war as the mission’s death toll continues to climb.
An article in Sunday’s New York Times announces that “previously unknown deposits Ã¢â‚¬â€ including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium Ã¢â‚¬â€ 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.”
The article cites an “internal Pentagon memo” as saying Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” — the mineral used in the production of rechargeable batteries, such as those found in cell phones and laptops. It cites “a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists” as having made the discovery.
While the dollar estimate — $1 trillion — may be new, it’s hardly news that Afghanistan sits on rich mineral deposits. In a 2007 press release, the US Geological Survey announced that Afghanistan possesses “significant amounts of undiscovered non-fuel mineral resources.” And, as Marc Ambinder reports on his Atlantic blog, the Soviet Union was aware of Afghanistan’s mineral potential as early as 1985.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Ã¢â‚¬ËœdiscoveryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ of AfghanistanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s minerals will sound pretty silly to old timers,Ã¢â‚¬Â a “retired former senior US official” tells Politico’s Laura Rosen. Ã¢â‚¬Å“When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s the [US government], the Russians, the World Bank, the UN and others were all highly focused on the wide range of Afghan mineral deposits. Cheap ways of moving the ore to ocean ports has always been the limiting factor.Ã¢â‚¬Â
So why is this news now? To many, the story’s timing suggests a Pentagon public relations campaign designed to extend public support for the war with the hope that, in time, Afghanistan may be able to raise itself out of abject poverty.
“Why the story broke in the NYT on Sunday could be linked to a desire by the Pentagon to create a reason why US troops might want to stick around in Afghanistan for some time to come,” writes Paul Jay at the Huffington Post. “Things are not going very well on the ground and the promise of vast mineral riches would sound enticing.”
Some “veteran Afghan hands detect an echo of [Gen. David] PetraeusÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ effort to ‘put a little more time on the Washington clock’ for the Afghanistan surge, as he once described his public relations strategy to buy time in the US for the Iraq surge,” Rosen reports.
Indeed, the US military’s need to shore up support for the war effort may be becoming critical. Recent news reports indicate that Afghan President Hamid Karzai may have lost his faith in the US military’s ability to carry out the war. And Gareth Porter at IPS reports that US forces are facing “the spectre of a collapse of U.S. political support for the war in Afghanistan in coming months comparable to the one that occurred in the Iraq War in late 2006.”
That context leads blogger Steve Hynd to declare that the Times piece is “a conveniently timed zombie story” that was “resurrected yet again for political purposes.”
Even if one were to take the Times story at face value, the practical benefits of Afghanistan’s mineral deposits are in doubt — not least because of the country’s weak central government, corruption and a lack of skilled labor.
“Under even the rosiest scenarios, it does not appear the new wealth will change dynamics quickly enough in Afghanistan to aid the US military effort there,” reports Alan Greenblatt at NPR.
[Daniel] Markey [of the Council on Foreign Relations] says he’s nervous that Afghanistan will fall prey to the “resource curse,” under which nations that base their economies primarily on natural resources fall prey to conflict and corruption Ã¢â‚¬â€ forces that are already endemic in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan can make a lot of money from this, but this is the way to make money that attracts corruption,” says S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
“A scramble for Afghanistan’s resources would simply intensify the tribal warfare that’s already taking place in that devastated country,” writes Jacob Heilbrun at the Huffington Post. “The sad truth is that precious natural resources are, more often than not, a curse for the Third World nations that harbor them.”