is little doubt in my mind as to what prompted the sudden attention to
the minerals beneath the ground in Afghanistan.
It’s a rather blunt message to those amongst us who recently bought an
IPod, Blackberry or Pirus: hold on, give the
military more time; there’s is no light at the end of the tunnel right
now but there could be by year’s end. If not, there will be fewer high
tech goodies in the pipeline.
Seriously. The New York Times reported
last week that “senior American government officials” say Afghanistan has “nearly $1 trillion in untapped
mineral deposits,” which might fundamentally alter the nation’s economy
“and perhaps the Afghan war itself.” Nearly all the officials quoted were
generals, including Gen. David Petraeus, who
as head of U.S. Central Command is in charge of the war effort. Why was
the information coming from the Pentagon? Why was the story fed to the
Times with the reasonable expectation that it would appear on the
front page? It really isn’t news. Afghanistan’s
mineable mineral wealth was first documented by the late Soviet
Union, not – as we are being told – when Soviet troops were in the country
but as far back as the 1950s when geological surveys there were begun.
military propagandists needed to come up with something to distract attention
from the reality that things are going badly in Afghanistan, very badly. Public opinion in the
has soured toward the war. Every other country that has troops on the
battlefields is under tremendous popular pressure to withdraw them. There
is obvious strategic policy disarray in the top echelons of the Obama
Administration. On top of that the Pashtun people in the Afghan south
don’t want any more fighting. That’s the reason the planned mother of
all battles, the capture of the Kandahar,
has for now been scuttled.
it was coincidental,” wrote conservative columnist George Will last week,
“that after several weeks of bad news from Afghanistan, on Monday there
was good news, of sorts, about what Obama has previously called Afghanistan’s
could be true only on the fanciful supposition that this wealth can be
tapped in 13 months or, even more fancifully, that the war will grind
on for many years, until the infrastructures of extraction industries
are built in a nation whose current GDP is $12 billion,” Will continued.
‘stunning potential,’ in Petraeus’ description
of the minerals, will encourage the perception that the U.S. engagement
there has something to do with economic aggrandizement, will aggravate
Afghanistan’s pandemic corruption and will intensify the Taliban’s determination
to prevail in a place where even good news has, like a scorpion, a sting
in its tail,” Will concluded.
German publication Spiegel had a slightly different take on the
affair. “Was the ‘sensational find’ of large natural mineral resources
in Afghanistan reported
by the New York Times last week a PR trick by the United States government?”
it asked. “Or was it a clever chess move by Afghan Mining Minister Waheedullah
had good reason to announce the surprising news. US
President Barack Obama is lobbying Congress for a further $33 billion
for the military mission in Afghanistan,
so the reference to Afghanistan’s
‘stunning potential,’ as General David Petraeus,
the head of US Central Command, put it, comes at a highly convenient time.”
commentary carried June 17 in Beijing, citing unnamed
observers we can presume to be Chinese officials, noted that the minerals
announcement “may function as a double-edged sword for the Central Asian
country and it will likely justify continuous US
engagement in Afghanistan’s
rebuilding process.” According to the new agency Xinhua, Wu Dahui, with the Institute of Russian,
East European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences, said the well-timed
report will help justify the US presence in the country.” Washington has insisted that the stability of Afghanistan relies on its
economic rebuilding. The announcement was timed to prove that the US
can gain strategically from its involvement in rebuilding the war-torn
country. The resources in Afghanistan
would feed the US’
demand to boost its economy,” Wu said.
couple of years ago correspondent Rex Dalton wrote in Nature magazine,
“Using the phrase that has been a byword for conflict in the region since
the days of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, World Bank mining engineer Michael
Stanley says: ‘We are into a new phase of the Great Game’.” It is being
replayed over 4,000 miles across the land mass and sea lanes stretching
from Europe’s Eastern edge to the Pacific on what
might be called the Great Mineral Highway. All types of valuable rocks – not just the lithium
needed to power your digital camera - are being coveted. The same day
the Afghan mineral resources story broke PBS followed up its report
with a special on types of “rare earth,” complete with descriptions of
their value, showing scenes of them being strip mined in Mongolia and filled with alarm that China is cornering
the market. One commentator grew somewhat emotional as he warned that
if you do not have access to rare earth you can forget about green technologies.
the people of Afghanistan
might well look to the catastrophe in the Gulf of
Mexico before they rush to sell the mineral rights to foreign multinational
corporations extending into perpetuity. One thing about minerals is that
they are worthless unless there is the infrastructure and investment capital.
There is certainly no guarantee that having huge stores of valuable minerals
beneath the ground means peace and prosperity for poor countries. Rather
it often means an influx of foreign companies, massive bribery and corruption,
increased wealth inequality and environmental degradation. One has only
to look at “blood diamonds” and “blood minerals” in Africa - the coltan
(cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers), and cassiterite mining in the Congo. Inviting the multinationals in can be a
costly Faustian bargain.
from Nigeria last week, the Financial Times had this comment on
the reoccurring flare up of violence and political upheaval in the Niger
delta: “The motivation for young men to take up arms is simple. ‘There
are no jobs, nothing for us,’ says Paul, 22, a fighter in Bayelsa
state. Crude spills have poisoned long stretches of the creeks where the
locals fish, wash and worship.”
Niger Delta, where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with
the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez
spill every year for 50 years by some estimates,” the New York Times
reported last Thursday. “The oil pours out nearly every week, and some
swamps are long since lifeless.” The story said the delta “has suddenly
become a cautionary tale for the United States” having witnessed
spills of almost 11 million gallons a year over the past 50.
mineral wealth can hold out the possibility of meaningful economic development,
including employment for the young. While copper has been mined for a
long time and has many industrial and construction uses, it is also indispensible
for modern high technology. In the 1960s Soviet and Chinese surveyors
located a copper source in Afghanistan’s
Logar province. Today China Metallurgical Group,
a Chinese government-owned conglomerate based in Beijing,
operates a huge mining complex at Aynak, south
of Kabul. According to a report by the McClatchy
newspaper chain, the planned operation includes, “an on-site copper smelter,
a $500 million generating station to power the project and augment Kabul’s
electricity supply, a coal mine to fuel the power station, a groundwater
system, roads, new homes, hospitals and schools, and a railway line from
the country’s northern border with Uzbekistan to its southeastern border
with Pakistan.” The projection is that soon the workforce at the complex
will be entirely Afghan and to that end Afghan students are studying in
and Chinese language courses are underway in Afghan universities.
you have men who don’t have jobs, you can’t bring peace,” Abdel Rahman
Ashraf, a German-trained geology professor who’s
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s
chief mining and energy adviser, told McClatchy. “When we take
money and invest it in a project like Aynak,
we give jobs to the people.”
the project could inject hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties
and taxes into Afghanistan’s meager coffers
and create thousands of desperately needed jobs,” noted the correspondent
Jonathan S. Landay.
happens at Aynak could eventually serve as a model for developing Afghanistan’s other natural resources, ranging
from mineral wealth to reserves of coal and petroleum,” Dalton wrote in Nature in 2007, before the Chinese firm won the contract
bidding. It surely is a better prescription for bring peace, development
and security than continuing a ruinous and seemingly unending war.
an echo of the war in Southeast Asia, Washington
is conjuring up light at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan. “I think that we are regaining the
initiative,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel last week
in Washington. “I think that
we are making headway” NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said. “Tough fighting is expected to continue, but the
situation is trending in our favor as more forces flow into the area,”
adding “It has to be tougher perhaps before it goes easier.”
or not Obama adheres to his announced deadline matters less to the Afghans
than it does to us,” Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington
Post June 18. “U.S.
casualties are increasing, as was anticipated; Obama has tripled U.S.
troop levels since he took office; and the battle for Kandahar will be bloody. Our European allies are squirming, balking,
complaining and looking for the exit. As time goes on, this will become
even more of a primarily American war.
question is how much more the war will cost in precious young lives and
scarce resources. Obama won the nation’s forbearance by making a promise
that the inevitable withdrawal of U.S.
troops would begin next year. Americans should expect him to keep his
word - and insist that he does.” Lithium aside.
Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in
San Francisco, a member of the National
Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy
formerly worked for a healthcare union. Click here to contact Mr. Bloice.