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Monday, June 14

Afghanistan's vast natural wealth: Treating an old story as if it's news (Updated 2:00 PM EDT)

Watch carefully, don't blink:

June 13, 2010, The New York Times:
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. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.[...]
March 16, 2009, Reuters
Afghanistan holds mineral treasure: minister
Afghanistan sits on one of the largest mineral deposits in the region, the country's mines minister said, urging foreign firms to invest in oil, gas and iron ore sectors.

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had shown that the war-torn nation may hold far higher amounts of minerals than previously thought, Mohammad Ibrahim Adel said.

"In the field of minerals, Afghanistan is the richest country in the region, much more, hundreds of times more. Except for diamond, you have all the other minerals that you find in nature, in Afghanistan," Adel told Reuters in an interview late on Sunday.

Based on the USGS survey, he said, Afghanistan's north is estimated to hold between 600 to 700 billion cubic meters of natural gas and the country has some 25 million tonnes of oil in four basins.

"We are a people who don't have money, food or clothes. But we are sleeping on gold," he said. The country's iron deposits were estimated at between five to six billion tonnes, he added.

Adel will travel next week to Dubai, Britain, the United States and Singapore to drum up foreign interest in the country's oil, gas and iron ore sectors.[...]
So I guess the "recent briefing" of Afghani officials means "the most recent briefing."

I found the Reuters report last spring after a reader alerted me that U.S. soldiers were guarding a Chinese company's copper interest in Afghanistan. I returned to the report in January 2010 while giving a prescription for tamping down the Taliban uprising in Afghanistan; i.e., getting the Pakistani military to stop machinating in the country:
[...] 3. Behind closed doors, tell the truth. Explain to Pakistan's military command that since the discovery that Afghanistan is filthy rich in key natural resources, and given that every government on the planet will make a beeline for the resources once the global economy picks up, the United States plans to stay on in Afghanistan for the next thousand years to help play traffic cop.

A rhetorical flourish would be to add that given the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, there's no need for Pakistan's military to worry anymore that India will invade Afghanistan. That is not a real worry but it's one the Pak military has been trotting out to rationalize their continued support for tribes that attack ISAF troops. [...]
Of course the news about Afghanistan's natural resources never made it into the American mainstream media -- until this weekend.

Why now? Stay tuned.

UPDATE 2:00 PM EDT

The Atlantic's political editor made the same observation I did about the June 13 New York Times article (print edition dated today) although he went further back on the timeline than the 2009 Reuters report to illustrate his point. (H/T The Jawa Report):
The Mineral Miracle? Or a Massive Information Operation?
by Marc Ambinder
Jun 14 2010, 9:05 AM ET

Were it not for the byline of James Risen, a New York Times reporter currently in a legal battle with the Obama administration over the identity of his sources, a second read of his blockbuster A1 story this morning, U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan, would engender some fairly acute skepticism. For one, a simple Google search identifies any number of previous stories with similar details.

The Bush Administration concluded in 2007 that Afghanistan was potentially sitting on a goldmine of mineral resources and that this fact ought to become a central point of U.S. policy in bolstering the government.

The Soviets knew this in 1985, as a 2002 history of the region's economy shows:

"Afghanistan has reserves of a wide variety of nonenergy mineral resources, including iron, chrome, copper, silver, gold barite sulfur, talc, magnesium, mica, marble, and lapis lazuli. By 1985 Soviet surveys had also revealed potentially useful deposits of asbestos, nickel, mercury, lead, zinc, bauxite, lithium, and rubies. The Afghan government in the mid-1980s was preparing to develop a number of these resources on a large scale with Soviet technical assistance. These efforts were directed primarily at the country's large iron and copper reserves. The iron ore deposits contained an estimated 1.7 billion tons of mixed hematite and magnetite, averaging 62 percent iron. These reserves, among the world's largest, arelocated at Hajji Gak, almost 4,000 meters up in the Hindu Kush, northwest of Kabul in Bamian Province. Development started in 1983, and because the Afghan authorities had put forth no plan to establish an iron and steel industry, the output appeared destined for the Soviet steel mills in Tashkent."

A former senior State Department official said that regular discussions between the U.S. and the Karzai government over how to best exploit the resources for potential future use were ongoing when he was privy to those discussions around 2006.

By 2009, the government had already begun to solicit bids for various mining opportunities.

Jonathan Landay of McClatchy was on to the geopolitical importance of Afghanistan's mineral reserves in 2009, writing that China's thirst for coal might be the key to regional stabilization.

Already, there are accusations that the REAL reason the US is in Afghanistan is because WE want to exploit those mines. That's a passable but facile interpretation of what's going on here.

The way in which the [New York Times] story was presented -- with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less -- and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war. Indeed, as every reader of Jared Diamond's popular works of geographic determinism knows well, a country rich in mineral resources will tend toward stability over time, assuming it has a strong, central, and stable government.

Risen's story notes that the minerals discovery comes at a propitious time. He focuses on lithium, a critical component of electronics. One official tells him that Afghanistan could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" -- a comparison to oil. (I can see it now: "We must wean ourselves off our dependence on foreign lithium!")

The general perception about the war here and overseas is that the counterinsurgency strategy has failed to prop up Hamid Karzai's government in critical areas, and is destined to ultimately fail. This is not how the war was supposed to be going, according to the theorists and policy planners in the Pentagon's policy shop.

What better way to remind people about the country's potential bright future -- and by people I mean the Chinese, the Russians, the Pakistanis, and the Americans -- than by publicizing or re-publicizing valid (but already public) information about the region's potential wealth?

The Obama administration and the military know that a page-one, throat-clearing New York Times story will get instant worldwide attention. The story is accurate, but the news is not that new; let's think a bit harder about the context.
See the column at the Atlantic website for reference links to the old articles about the mineral finds, etc.

Is Ambinder's analysis correct about why such an old story was dressed up as news? Close but still missing by a mile. The news about Afghanistan's wealth in natural resources could have been promoted by the USG any time this year or last "to remind people about the country's potential bright future."

What else was going on yesterday (when the Times story was published on the internet)? Let me see -- oh yes, the news broke about Matt Waldman's paper on Pakistan's ISI official involvement in Taliban terrorism in Afghanistan.

I'll give you another clue by adding here the rest of the #3 point in my prescription:
[...] As to what to tell the Americans who still believe the 2011 withdrawal date that Obama gave -- there's no need to tell them anything. Oil, natural gas, copper, iron, you name it; it's there, in Afghanistan, waiting to be developed. China's government is already mining a copper lode. So just start leaking reports to The New York Times and Washington Post that Afghanistan is the world's Cinderella nation. The American public will get the picture, which is already known to Islamabad, New Delhi, Moscow, Tehran, Riyadh -- and, of course, Kabul.

(If Afghanistan can rather quickly develop its natural resources, does this mean they could afford to buy themselves an off-the-shelf bureaucracy manned by foreign contractors? Yes, but that's getting ahead of things.)
So what does it all mean? Stay tuned.

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