Provocation of the Day: We Should Run From Afghanistan's Mineral Wealth

WASHINGTON -- The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

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 BlackBerrys. The vast scale of Afghanistan's mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists.

-- James Risen, The New York Times (full story here)

The United States cannot help Afghanistan exploit its newly discovered mineral resources without being corrupted by proximity to the vast riches they're likely to bring. It is especially imprudent to assign a leadership role to the Pentagon, an institution shrouded in official secrecy, largely captured by special interests inside America's military-industrial complex, and lacking any precedent to suggest it is capable of the task.

Nor is it particularly reassuring to imagine another branch of the American government working with corrupt Afghan officials to develop a mining industry in the country, especially since profitability is years away, which itself gives the United States a perverse incentive to extend our war in that nation.

Kevin Drum sums up these fears and others:

I have a very bad feeling about this. It could quickly turn into a toxic combination of stupendous wealth, superpower conflict, oligarchs run wild, entire new levels of corruption, and a trillion new reasons for the Taliban to fight even harder. And for the cynical among us, this line from Risen's piece -- "American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan" -- suggests that the Obama administration might be eagerly thinking about these discoveries as a shiny new reason to keep a military presence in Afghanistan forever. I can hardly wait to see what Bill Kristol thinks of this.

On the other hand, maybe it represents lots of new jobs, enough money to suck away the Taliban's foot soldiers, and the stable income base Afghanistan needs to develop a modern infrastructure. I doubt it, but you never know.
Here's an idea: rather than asking Americans to trod across this minefield in hopes of getting some of the treasure on the other side, let's take a lesson from history, fully appreciate all the buried danger, and ask ourselves how we can best withdraw ourselves from the situation, sending someone else across the minefield in our stead. The United Nations? The World Bank? The China Mineral Corporation? Whoever it is, better that they suffer the consequences of this find than that we do.

Additional reading: Wikipedia has a useful primer on "the resource curse." Thomas Palley offers advice on how to avoid it. This PDF is a deeper look at a related phenomenon. The New Yorker has an excellent piece on how the discovery of lithium has played out in Bolivia.

These provocations are written in hopes that you'll discuss below or e-mail comments to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com



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