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.

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