Monday, June 14, 2010

$1 trillion USD of.......oh, screw it.

ISAF military operations, corruption in the government, strategic planning by the Obama administration, the weaknesses of current counter-insurgency theory, and all sorts of other Afghanistan-centered topics generate a predictable response in the blogosphere. Often the commentary is juvenile, hyperbolic or just plain wrong, but generally it barely rises beyond the level of nitpicking among COIN specialists or partisan hackery. There's often an undertone of negativity and defeatism, as the old saying about "bad news selling more papers" applies just as accurately to blog traffic, but no single article usually creates quite the firestorm that seems to have ignited over this article in the NY Times.

Maybe it's the overwhelming eminence of The Grey Lady, or perhaps their oft-perceived liberal bias or maybe simply the fact that the headline seemed custom-made to demand investigation and counter-point.*

*Here's a fun mental exercise: skim any major US paper (or British for that matter), reading only the headlines. Formulate in your head your own perception of the days events, and then go back and actually read the articles. I'm betting that the headline-induced perception is significantly different than the reality described in the articles.

To summarize, underneath a headline that read, "U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan," the text of the article went on to say:

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.

That's a pretty shocking headline, and an exceptionally bold opening paragraph. The rest of the article includes phrases like "the vast scale of Afghanistan's mineral wealth," "stunning potential" and (my personal favorite) "the Saudi Arabia of lithium."*

*Afghanistan is probably one of the few countries that aspires to be the "Saudi Arabia" of anything. Personally, I'll take decadent poverty over the Vice and Virtue Police.

Apparently, there are potentially significant deposits of iron, copper, cobolt, gold, lithium and something called niobium.*

*So who gets to name these things anyway? Is "niobium" really the best name we could come up with for a mineral? Sounds like a particularly unimportant part of a dog's salivary system. "Well, if you ever want Sparky to lick his own ass again, we'll have to remove his infected niobium."

As the article goes to great lengths to emphasize, all of this is potentially hugely beneficial for Afghanistan. Mining, especially for iron and copper, is largely low-skilled industry, which suits Afghanistan's total lack skills rather nicely. I assume that lithium, cobolt and niobium require a bit more technology and know-how to extract, but still the revenue would be nice for a cash-strapped government. Someday, in the distant future, maybe these deposits will generate some revenue for the government. It will take billions of dollars of foreign investment, not to mention replacing a tenacious insurgency with a functioning government, but at least it's possible.

I'm no optimist when it comes to the eventual fate of this 12th century shithole, and the article didn't sufficiently address the difficulties and dangers of this possible bonanza. It also fails to clarify where the $1 trillion USD figure came from, or when this "discovery" was actually made (Hint: the guys who originally stumbled on this had the hammer and sickle on their passports). But even I was a little put off by the exceedingly negative "gotcha" reaction of the blogosphere.

A sampling:

*Is it just me, or is Ricks' constant harping on the supposed "unraveling" in Iraq starting to sound like a guy hoping for a predicition to come true, regardless of the consequences? Things in Iraq are not good, but are ever so slowly getting better, but sometimes I think Ricks would prefer that the country falls apart so he can stand up and say "I told you so!"

Tomorrow, a sampling of some reactions from actual Afghans to the supposed news that their country holds impressive mineral wealth, along with a few thoughts of my own. In the meantime, there are plenty of more relevant, interesting and important articles in the NY Times recently. For examples, see here and here.

N.B. Apologies for the "wall of text" but I couldn't find a way to communicate the salient points in more concise language. Verbosity was always one of my faults.


dmouse said...

Yeah I see what you mean.One thing I pickup on was the no jobs there for locals. often though a scarp metal steel mill would work out very well.At the very less a shredder mill,for recycle metal market.a mini mill.

Adam said...

Any thoughts on the dude they found armed with a sword and gun, looking for Bin Laden?

Daphne said...

Some knowledgeable people are calling B.S. on the metals story, describing it as a ridiculous bit of propaganda to buck up failing public support for the AfPak war.

Here's one educated source on the subject.

By the way, nice blog. I've been visiting for a little while now, thought it was finally time to leave a comment.

Anonymous said...

He's on target. The locals would benefit from the mining, but putting the resources in country to make it work is undo-able. The Russians realised that early, the Chinese will learn. We (US) are probably using it as a good news coup.