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Afghanistan’s trillion dollar curse: lithium

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

The New York Times reports that a small team of American geologists and military personnel have discovered vast reserves of precious metals and minerals in Afghanistan, which profoundly transforms the destiny of this battered nation overnight:

The previously unknown deposits – including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium – 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.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberries.

(…) The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.

The value of the reserves just discovered is already estimated at about a trillion dollars – and there’s probably more where that came from.

What does this portend for Afghanistan, and the war? That’s the, ahem, trillion dollar question.

The geopolitics of this are predictable: Afghanistan will be courted aggressively by the United States and China, in competition to secure the mining rights and obtain strategic control over these essential materials. Note that China already has supply dominance over most rare-earth metals, with 95% of the world’s supply, and has been far more successful in Africa by virtue of being more aggressive and unconcerned with human rights niceties.

That competition probably means an end to any hope of reform of Hamid Karzai’s government or meaningful pressure from the United States on the human rights front. The relationship between Washington and Kabul was strained to begin with, but the prospect of China is enough to utterly negate any leverage the US has by our troop presence. The conventional wisdom is already settling in that this means Obama will not wind down our troop presence in Afghanistan as a result, but to be honest I can see Karzai being emboldened to demand that the US withdraw all the more sooner now.

The Taliban’s reaction to this will be particularly interesting. They have always been pragmatic, willing to ignore Islamic injunctions against addictive narcotics when it suited them financially to support the opium trade. But opium is something that mere farmers can grow, with a classic protection racket to bring in the cash. Minerals on the other hand require heavy industry, multinational companies, and political “stability” (usually in the form of a police state – case in point, the coltan industry in the Congo). The Taliban will probably seek to position themselves as the better alternative to Karzai’s cronyism – recall that prior to 9-11, they presented a civilized face to the West while being courted by western oil companies for rights to oil pipelines – even sending a delegation to Texas to talk logistics.

The dynamics within Afghanistan are probably going to be too complex to predict. For example, the central government and the provincial and tribal leaders will be at odds, and the Taliban will try to exacerbate those conflicts. The NYT article delves into more detail:

The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan’s minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.

Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts. Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge.

“No one has tested that law; no one knows how it will stand up in a fight between the central government and the provinces,” observed Paul A. Brinkley, undersecretary of defense and leader of the Pentagon team that discovered the deposits.

In stable, mature governments, laws are a roadmap for resolving conflict; witness the orderly progression of power in the US 2000 election for a case study. In corrupt, third-world, post-colonial, war-ravaed nation states, however, laws are blunt instruments wielded at will when convenient and cast aside when no longer so. It stands to reason that the tribes, the probincial governments, the central government in Kabul, and the Taliban are not going to abide by the rulings of hypothetical (but surely illusionary) impartial judiciaries. This will be fought in a literal sense.

The words, “resource curse” have never been more stark or inescapable. In fact, this discovery portends total disaster for any hope of a liberal, stable Afghanistan, human rights, or economic relief. What wealth will be derived from the soil of Afghanistan will flow to butchers and tyrants and powerful global corporations – not the desperate poor and uneducated people of Afghanistan, the true sovereigns of their nation. That is the lesson of history.

Or is it?

In fact, there is one power that can act as a dampener on the forces of corruption, tribalism, profiteering, and exploitation. A superpower, in fact: the United States. The very presence of our troops in Afghanistan is an immediate and unmovable barrier to the various forces that will seek to position themselves around the mineral wealth. The United States has leverage by virtue of its presence – and we can use that leverage to try and ameliorate the worst of what is to come.

One immediate step that we can take is to promise an extension of our troops protecting Kabul from the Taliban – but make that contingent on a citizen dividend to any mineral wealth, analogous to the Alaskan oil dividend. This should be an unbreakable condition of our continued support to any government in Kabul – and use the threat of the Taliban to our advantage.

And, distasteful as it may seem, it is time for President Obama to follow in the footsteps of another Democratic president and define the Obama Doctrine as the successor to the Carter Doctrine in 1980. Put simply, President Carter made it clear in his 1980 State of the Union Address that the United States would use military force as it saw fit to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf.

The key sentence of the Carter Doctrine read,

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

and deliberately evokes the Truman Doctrine and a similar declaration in 1903 by the British. Arguably, if not for the Carter Doctrine, the Soviet Union might still be in existence today (something that Reagan partisans would do well to acknowledge).

This might well be the start of a Cold War between ourselves and China. We have no choice. The free trade and movement of these critical – and increasingly scarce – materials is absolutely non-negotiable to preserve the entirety of modern industry, technological advancement, and scientific investigation worldwide. No country, or government, can be permitted to attain a monopoly on them. And only we have the presence to prevent it.

I do not advocate an American Empire, but I do think that the Saudi Arabian example, however distasteful, is the best possible outcome. The 50-year US-Saudi relationship is the unique and sole reason for why oil is a commodity in the global market and an indirect guarantor of global prosperity.

Will Afghanistan ever be a healthy and democratic society, free of corruption and strife? I remain an optimist, so I believe the answer is inevitably yes. But maybe thats a story for the 22nd century.

  • Phil Hambley

    I’m absolutely dumbfounded: Are the proles really expected to believe that these mineral resources were ‘previously unknown’?! Reading half a dozen web articles this evening on the ‘recent’ find, not one poses the question “Is this the real reason for a bloody, immoral, illegal and frankly sickening near decade long occupation of a sovereign nation state?” No – just a few sentences about how great, super, awesome this is going to be for those poor unfortunates who happen to have been resident in Afghanistan for the last…several decades. The Russians knew what was there. So did every one else.
    The ‘TAPI’ pipeline is widely considered one of the main (actual) reasons for the continued military prescence in Afghanistan. This newly stated mineral wealth in the country will certainly help to deflect attention away from the pipeline, and bolster support (and finance) for a prolonged military campaign. Even the dumbest, most pliable and braindead voters are likely to eventually start to question the need to spend $3.6 Billion (!) a month in Afghanistan – in order to protect the world against one AK-47 toting bearded man in a cave (Or maybe I’m being overly optimistic for my soma-smacked up peers: Must get back to watching ‘Celebrity Come Dine With Me Everyone’s Got Talent Strictly on Ice’ – It’s the live final dont cha know?)
    Yes, I agree that this this will ‘transform the destiny of this battered nation overnight’ – There was once the possibility that the occupying forces would have to give up and ship out (like the Russians) as support for a phoney, and very expensive, war on ‘terrorism’ flagged. No chance of that now. Not ever.
    People of Afghanistan: I’d like to apologise from the absolute fabric of my being for the conduct of resource-hungry, megalomaniacal and vicious people you have never met (Namely members of the US and UK government). I’m deeply sorry. I hope that one day you will find happiness and peace – and forgive us.

  • FIKE2308

    china is unconcerned about human rights, you mean like u.s. troops sexually molesting senior citizens?

  • Cyrus

    Aziz, you have it backwards. U.S involvement and occupation of Afghanistan IS the very reason that stability will not being coming to the place anytime soon. Continued U.S occupation will do two things. Firstly, it will continue to bankrupt the U.S for no benefit what so ever. Secondly, it will see to it that Afghanistan is permanently stuck in a low-level tribal guerrilla war for the next few decades.
    This news of “mineral wealth” suddenly coming out is a farce. Pentagon propaganda at it’s finest. The Soviets knew about it back in the early 80’s. It has been public knowledge in the U.S since 2007. So what? It is nearly impossible to get food and supplies to international forces in Afghanistan by land at this time. Do you think it really will be possible to dig out and truck out hundreds of thousands of tons of ore every year, on those very same roads? Do you think the local tribes are going to let the U.S do that, without a serious cut?
    I don’t think so. This “information” was released for the consumption of a naive American public. It is a fantasy means of justifying a continued war that sucks up incredible amounts of money, and gives nothing in return.

  • Ariana

    Are you kidding me? The more I read your articles, the more I realize you’re desperately trying to appease the conservative, pro-war, sarah palin lunatics of this country. I know its tough to be Muslim in America- you’re constantly trying to show the crazies out there that “we have more in common than you think”, but going as far as to nonsensically support US foreign policies is a bit much. The Saudi-US relationship is exactly why Al Qaeda exists today. And do you realize that the royal family in Saudi Arabia controls the oil, and wealth, of that country? Despite being oil rich, the majority of its citizens are still dirt poor. Insinuating that a cold war will break out between China and the US is an exaggeration. China and the US are able to conduct trade peacefully, and yet for some inexplicable reason there are always people in the media trying to egg on a sense of animosity between the two countries. China has not threatened us or our livelihood in any way – if they wanted to deal us a huge blow, they’d cut off the Ramen and the millions of other products on our store shelves today. China needs our business, so no, a cold war will not be breaking out any time soon. I know its difficult to come up with material to capture readers’ interest, but what you’re doing is making grandiose statements that are largely unsupported.

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  • Anan E. Maus

    What is quite clear to me is that our world needs to think a lot less about money, about how and where to make it…and a lot more about God.
    If we think about God and pray to Him, He will take care of our material needs.
    If we reject the spiritual and seek the material out of fear that God will not protect us, we will lose both worlds…the material and the entire purpose of our lives – the spiritual.



  • TJR

    No, I don’t think so. US presence has not meant peaceful existence in Afghanistan, and it has not facilitated any level of self-support for either the government or the people. Afghanistan was under the Soviet army, now it is under the US army, and neither of them has been any good to the country.
    Another thing, your article points out what is best for US. What about Afghanistan -after all the minerals have been found in that country. Would we allow another country to call the shots over our wealth? Our only motivation in Afghanistan should be a stable government there, not how best to profit out of a poor nation.

  • wow

    The comments here make it quite obvious to me that idiots are attracted to this site. One of them can’t even press the caps lock button. Another said “The Saudi-US relationship is exactly why Al Qaeda exists today”, and the author is somebody I already consider to be an ignorant fool.
    Another said “If we think about God and pray to Him, He will take care of our material needs”
    In short: all of you are pathetic.


    It seems that the only objectionale material in the comment was CAPS LOCK.
    Such comments are only intended to be an invitation to think.I don’t think truth is accepted on the basis of an argument.The acceptance comes from within the conscience. If someone refuses to think it is his or her choice.
    Why talk about justice and human values when we want this only selectively?
    The Afghans are going through a painful time in their history. The rest of the world is also going through a test :whether we side with the wrong doer or truth. If we condone wrongs for national interests we cannot escape accountability before the Creator.

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