Sunday, June 13, 2010

A shocker from Afghanistan

One of those odd little contingencies that change history just got announced tonight:
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 Blackberries.

That unfortunate scenario might be the best-case scenario, by the way. Ask the Congo and Zimbabwe how their vast mineral deposits have worked out—they can’t even extract the stuff there, let alone have any wealth trickle down to the poor (and that’s all you’re going to get with resource-based economies, trickle down). Given the number of warlords and narco-bandits around in that country, it’s very possible that we see a Congo type situation, wherein various gangs and mafias fight for the right to export and exploit these resources, which helps the outside world…but does nothing at all of Afghans. Compared to that, Saudi Arabia—which at least is a stable government—looks positively wonderful. (On the positive side of things, we were very worried about a possible "peak lithium" scenario which may or may not be averted. Also, sucks to be Bolivia; this New York Times article on the country and its lithium features this not-entirely-reassuring quotation:
"We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium," said Francisco Quisbert, 64, the leader of Frutcas, a group of salt gatherers and quinoa farmers on the edge of Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. "We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants," he said. "The lithium may be Bolivia's, but it is also our property."
Do you really want to become Saudi Arabia? Don't countries have real ambitions these days?) 

It’s worth noting that we seemed to be in a leak cycle recently, with NATO and the Afghans sniping at each other how much the other sucks. So you have stories about the military intelligence trying to stamp out graft and corruption in the Afghan bureaucracy (which is yet another disturbing sign in the logic of counterinsurgency: counterinsurgency logically demands that you do stuff like build successful bureaucracies and install governments, processes that took hundreds of years to build from the ground-up in the West, and the qualities for which are not necessarily selected for in soldiers), or you have stories like this:
President Hamid Karzai has lost faith in the US strategy in Afghanistan and is increasingly looking to Pakistan to end the insurgency, according to those close to Afghanistan's former head of intelligence services.

Amrullah Saleh, who resigned last weekend, believes the president lost confidence some time ago in the ability of Nato forces to defeat the Taliban.

As head of the National Directorate of Security, Saleh was highly regarded in western circles. He has said little about why he quit, other than that the Taliban attack on last week's peace jirga or assembly in Kabul was for him the "tipping point"; the interior minister, Hanif Atmar, also quit, and their resignations were accepted by Karzai.

When is good news bad news? Right now: I fear this will cause us to cling ever more tightly and ever longer to Afghanistan even though it’s probably a losing cause.

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