Afghanistan could contain mineral deposits worth as much as $1 trillion, according to the New York Times. An internal Pentagon memo reportedly says that Afghanistan, which has struggled under a war-torn economy for three decades, could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," a valuable metal used in such items as computer and cell phone batteries. An infusion of foreign investment, jobs, and new wealth could do wonders for the Afghan economy and for the ongoing war. However, skeptics are attempting to pour some cold water on this story. Here's what the story reports and what the skeptics are saying.
- Mineral Wealth Could Save Afghanistan The New York Times' James Risen writes, "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. ... While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war."
- The Timing and Facts Are Dubious Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell writes, "there's less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry's website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there's more here). You can also take a look at the USGS's documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs."
I'm (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It's also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment.
- Even If True, Changes Little Democracy Arsenal's Michael Cohen adds, "But even if this is true, so what? How many years would it take to put in place an infrastructure to develop and mine these natural resources? And if you think Afghanistan is corrupt now (only Somalia is worse!) imagine how it will look after this? Congo has tons of natural resources; so does Angola. How's that working out for them? There is nothing in this story that changes the fundamental incoherence of the current mission in Afghanistan."
- Or Makes Things Worse Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis predicts, "instead of bringing the country together and leading to an era of prosperity unlike anything Afghanistan has ever seen in it's history, this discovery could serve to tear the country apart even further as factions fight over the wealth buried underneath them. Even if that doesn't happen, however, the history of natural resources exploitation in the third world does not bode well for the Afghan people."
- Justification to Stay Forever? Mother Jones's Kevin Drum worries, "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. ... the Obama administration might be eagerly thinking about these discoveries as a shiny new reason to keep a military presence in Afghanistan forever."