Afghanistan

Exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral wealth?

The new reports of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth, said to amount to 1 trillion dollars, are in fact, not new at all. The information has been available to the public for at least two years through the U.S. Geological Survey, and many are raising the alarm about a possible propoganda motive behind the timing of the story. Still, it’s hard not to hear the reports and worry about what this might mean for Afghans and hope for their sovereignty. As always, Jon Stewart mixes hilarity in with the dread. [For some reason WordPress won’t let me embed the video, so here’s a link to the DailyShow.]

Mark Ambinder from the Atlantic suggests the timing and aspects of the story point to “a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war.”

John McQuaid from True Slant presented a more detailed assessment of the politics at play:

The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan – set to end next year – is faltering, Hamid Karzai is acting odder than usual, Congress is growing restive. Suddenly, the NYT runs a story quoting David Petraeus saying: Afghanistan has enormous strategic importance. …

Moreover, there’s a problem in the basic structure of the article as a traditional straight news story. Its point of view is: Here’s the paper of record telling you something new, and that’s all you need to know. But it presents its facts stripped of context essential to understand what’s actually happening.

The fact that Petraeus is quoted is still a giveaway: this is a politically important story that Pentagon officials want played up. They want it in the mix of the current debate on the Hill, in the push-and-pull between the White House and Defense Department, and in the public’s mind. Risen’s story makes no mention of this political background or how untapped mineral resources might figure in the Afghanistan policy debate. Given that a New York Times story on it will automatically put the issue front and center, we were owed that context. Instead, the story takes place in a political vacuum.

And while the story takes pains to note the difficulty of getting $1 trillion in mineral resources out of the ground, that angle was still underplayed. Besides being politically frakked, Afghanistan has virtually no infrastructure. Who knows how many decades and untold billions would be required to even begin extracting gold and lithium on an economically meaningful scale? The $1 trillion figure will end up being a lot, lot less once you subtract the costs of extraction (and, let’s be honest, the impossible-to-quantify – lives of who knows how many Afghan miners, environmental damage, etc.).

So how might these mineral riches benefit Afghanistan? According to Los Angeles Times, the corruption of the US-backed Afghan government and the violence of the war makes that kind of development very unlikely:

“Sudan will host the Winter Olympics before these guys get a trillion dollars out of the ground,” said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association, which represents U.S. mining companies.

Few experts disputed the conclusion that Afghanistan has immense mineral resources. But the Pentagon study, first reported by the New York Times, reported larger likely reserves than suggested by previous estimates. And experts said it will probably be years before the minerals can be profitably extracted because of the lack of infrastructure, mining know-how, security and a climate conducive to business.

The Afghan government is plagued by corruption, particularly involving officials who have dealt with mineral concessions. Many of the areas of mineral deposits are in south and east, centers of the insurgency, where little development of any kind has taken place.

Manuela Saftoiu Kumar contributed to this post.

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