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World's richest nation: would you believe Afghanistan?
June 13, 2010 8:17 PM   Subscribe

U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan.

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.
posted by scalefree (156 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, well that explains it.
posted by ghharr at 8:18 PM on June 13, 2010 [28 favorites]


Surely, a coincidence.
posted by The Whelk at 8:19 PM on June 13, 2010 [14 favorites]


No blood for oil LCDs!
posted by Decimask at 8:19 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


This may actually be the worst possible thing to ever happen to the Afghanis.

And to us as well.
posted by Avenger at 8:20 PM on June 13, 2010 [33 favorites]


This is extremely bad news.
posted by a small part of the world at 8:21 PM on June 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


Bonus, we've already dropped enough ordinance to begin the mountaintop removal.
posted by contessa at 8:21 PM on June 13, 2010


So anybody want to take bets on when we'll discover the memo written by DOD 10 years ago that described all of these "discoveries"?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:21 PM on June 13, 2010 [15 favorites]


Eh, $1t doesn't even sound like that much money. To put that into perspective we've already SPENT that much money in Iraq. Yes. We've SPENT More money in Iraq then all the known mineral reserves in Afghanistan. We'll probably end up SPENDING more money in Afghanistan then all the known mineral reserves in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban there.

The known Oil reserves in Iraq are worth about $8t at $80 barrel.
posted by delmoi at 8:26 PM on June 13, 2010 [19 favorites]


I regret that I have but one face to palm for my country.
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 8:26 PM on June 13, 2010 [169 favorites]


OK, we're living in some kind of huge joke, a simulation with the worst possible plot twists.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:26 PM on June 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


"one of the most important mining centers in the world"... or the most devastated war zone in the world.
posted by shii at 8:26 PM on June 13, 2010


I don't remember where I read this, but I remember reading about how natural resource based economies tend toward dictatorship. In a modern industrialized economy, you need police, education, institutions, and so forth, just to keep the factors running and workers employed and so on.

In a natural resource based economy, you just need oil rigs, a pipeline, and guns and fences around them. Or mines and guard towers, etc. This isn't gonna be good for anyone.

Unless the Afghan government refuses to export this mineral wealth. If I were them, I'd require the building of Lithium battery factories in afghanistan as a requirement of allowing lithium mining.

Also -- isn't lithium one of the most abundant elements in the universe? Why is it hard to find on earth?
posted by empath at 8:27 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, interesting -- even though it was formed in the big bang, it's easy to destroy and stars don't really produce it, so it's not that abundant.
posted by empath at 8:29 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


So, one of Bin Laden’s core complaints was that the US owed trillions to Arab nations for the oil it scored on the cheap, right?
An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium
…may this end well.
posted by parhamr at 8:30 PM on June 13, 2010


empath: Resource Curse
posted by ghharr at 8:30 PM on June 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

Original sentence before the editor got ahold of it: "Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials -- seen here cackling, rubbing their hands in glee, and high-fiving various lobbyists -- believe."
posted by scody at 8:31 PM on June 13, 2010 [13 favorites]


First Blackwater, then Brownwater.
posted by Tube at 8:31 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


and too late to send a settler there?
posted by hackly_fracture at 8:31 PM on June 13, 2010 [33 favorites]


Oh, interesting -- even though it was formed in the big bang, it's easy to destroy and stars don't really produce it, so it's not that abundant.

Huh? You can't 'destroy' an element without using nuclear fission or fusion. The problem is that Lithium isn't easy to find in a usable metal form. There are lithium ions all over the place, in fact your brain uses them as a charge carrier along with sodium.

So rather then run out of lithium, you run the risk of running out of cheap lithium.
posted by delmoi at 8:34 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


"one of the most important mining centers in the world"... or the most devastated war zone in the world.

Well now hey, there, sourpuss - it can be both!
posted by regicide is good for you at 8:34 PM on June 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


Just out of curiosity are these the same geniuses at the NY Times and the Pentagon who identified the presence of all those possible WMDs in Iraq?
posted by humanfont at 8:34 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also -- isn't lithium one of the most abundant elements in the universe? Why is it hard to find on earth?

Yes, in that you can harvest it from seawater - at about $22/lb of Lithium Carbonate (the material used in lithium batteries). About 1kg of Lithium Carbonate goes into 1kWh of a battery. Current prices are $4-6/lb.

That said, Nevada has somewhere between 15-25M metric tonnes of Lithium Carbonate, enough for 900M-1,500M Chevy Volts. That's a lot of electric cars to get off oil.
posted by SirOmega at 8:34 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


To explain: Afghanistan has been a very shitty place to live for a long time, but adding enormous mineral wealth to the equation virtually guarantees that Afghanistan will become a cesspool of untold violence, corruption and colonialism for at least the next century.

I don't have the requisite wikipedia article in front of me, but since the late 1800's, there has been basically an inverse correlation between a nation's wealth in natural resources and it's overall stability (including it's preference for democracy). Mineral or Hydrocarbon-rich nations tend to become proxy battlegrounds for Great Powers and, in turn, have little incentive to democratize or develop economically since all of their needs are met through resource extraction.

Case in point: Saudi Arabia, a nation which exists solely to pump vicious liquid out of the ground (oil accounts for 40% of it's GDP and 90% of it's exports) has no need to implement democratic reforms -- if the peasants ever get too uppity, their beholden clients (US) will rush well-armed mercenaries to their aid.

Being nothing more than a Resource Colony means never having to worry about the trains running on time.

Also, if this report is true, we are probably going to have open conflict with China in the next decade or two, regardless of our economic situation. A trillion dollars of industrial minerals is far too much for them to just pass up, even if it means war with their largest trading partner. They will likely bet that their economy can survive such a war, but ours can't. And they are probably right.
posted by Avenger at 8:35 PM on June 13, 2010 [32 favorites]


Oh wait, no. Brains use sodium and potassium, not lithium. I wonder if batteries could use potassium instead of lithium. I'm sure someone's tried it.
posted by delmoi at 8:36 PM on June 13, 2010


Oh man, I wish I could feel optimistic about this... but a homeless guy with no hope and no prospects, who finds a gold watch, still has no hope and no prospects, but now he's in for a beating too.
posted by adamt at 8:37 PM on June 13, 2010 [74 favorites]


l33tpolicywonk: You're ascribing a comprehensive knowledge of modern mineral exploration techniques to the DoD? Sorry, but that's tinfoil-hat thinking there. Cheney would have been all over this like green on a dollar bill if he'd known about it, I'd bet. It wouldn't surprise me all that much if there was some nameless geologist out there with mouldering boxes of files and samples in a U-Stor-It that could have told you this ten years ago, but nobody would listen to him or pay for the data, but I doubt anybody of consequence in the government knew until very recently.

Given that a lot of the larger deposits are supposed to be down near the Pakistani border, I think it'll be interesting to see what their reaction is (and how much of it is being driven by China). Sadly, I think this is going to wind up being a bonanza for the corrupt Afghan government and do very little good for the ordinary people in the area, because that's the way the extractive industries like to (and are allowed to) play things.
posted by hackwolf at 8:39 PM on June 13, 2010


Am I the only person seeing this optimistically? This is a country which fell under the iron grip of the Taliban largely because they had tons of natural defenses but no resources. Now they've got the resources courtesy of a nation which rationally needs to get the fuck out of there. We can trade warfare for necessary economic ties and build a stable Afghanistan for once, with an American military force backing up and supporting that development.

I mean, I know this sounds naive, but it also sounds like the smart and morally correct choice to make, and no matter how much one may be disappointed in Obama, he has no reason to want this war and this is an easy script-written exit strategy for him.

Unless the pundits fuck it up, of course.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:42 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


In a natural resource based economy

All economies are based on natural resources.
posted by regicide is good for you at 8:42 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


How long until the US discovers that Afghanistan is actually a territory of the US?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:45 PM on June 13, 2010


This may actually be the worst possible thing to ever happen to the Afghanis.

And to us as well.


---

This is extremely bad news.

---

So anybody want to take bets on when we'll discover the memo written by DOD 10 years ago that described all of these "discoveries"?

---

Oh, so now I understand why the U.S. government masterminded 9/11--so that we could make it look like Bin Laden did it, and send the military into the country in which he was hiding, then get bogged down in a massive and increasingly futile quagmire there through 9 years and one change of administration, so that in 2010, we could finally begin reaping the massive mining profits that we knew were there all along and was the whole point of this evil scheme anyways.

Jeez people: in case you hadn't heard, something like 95% (I don't have the exact number) of a lot of these rarer metals come from China, so I'd think we'd be celebrating the fact that we've discovered a bunch of them in a place that is much less likely to be able to withhold them from us. And it's not like we have to start a new war to get them (like Iraq and oil), since we're already at war with them.

Given the fact that the U.S. military is already on the ground in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is a very poor country, and the U.S. has a material interest in these metals, I think there's a good chance that this will be a win-win for all parties involved.

(Now, of course that could go wrong--the most likely scenario would be one in which none of the profits end up going to the Afghanis, and all that they get is a destroyed environment and a bunch of overworked, cancer-laden, yet still dirt-poor miners. And that may indeed happen. But the way to prevent that from happening is to stay informed of the situation and protest against U.S. actions if the U.S. does indeed engage in such oppression. But it's easy for the decision makers to paint you as a knee-jerk far left loony if you're already condemning this news, which, on the face of things, is very good news, as terrible, before anything has even happened.)
posted by notswedish at 8:45 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pakistan has nukes.

*gulp*
posted by Hammond Rye at 8:45 PM on June 13, 2010


We can trade warfare for necessary economic ties and build a stable Afghanistan for once, with an American military force backing up and supporting that development.

Navelgazer, I love you. I really do. But this could have been written by Cecil Rhodes.
posted by Avenger at 8:45 PM on June 13, 2010 [12 favorites]


empath: Resource Curse

This. These people are now extra f*cked. :(

Just wait until whichever government they end up with starts raking in the export dollars.
posted by edguardo at 8:47 PM on June 13, 2010


Huh? You can't 'destroy' an element without using nuclear fission or fusion.

Yes, I was talking about it being destroyed in stars.
posted by empath at 8:49 PM on June 13, 2010


We can trade warfare for necessary economic ties and build a stable Afghanistan for once, with an American military force backing up and supporting that development.

Yeah, that's pretty much been the public m.o. of imperialism since the 19th century. It does tend to work out pretty well indeed for the ruling class of the imperialist nations themselves, but for most of the rest of humanity: not so much.
posted by scody at 8:49 PM on June 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


$1 trillion sounds like a lot. Let's do the math. Suppose it took about 50 years to more or less mine it all out (not unreasonable given the lack of mining and transport infrastructure). Now suppose the wealth were equally distributed among Afghanistan's ~29 million people. Now let's further suppose zero overhead: the whole $1 trillion ends up in the hands of Afghanis. That works out to ~ $689 per person per year.

The current Afghan per capita GDP is about $457, so while that would be a tremendous boon to the average Afghani, $1146 / year is hardly wealthy. For perspective: that's around Burma, Nepal, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Rwanda, depending on your source.

In reality, of course, the vast majority of the wealth will be concentrated in foreign mining companies and local warlords, since Afghanistan is not exactly in a situation to implement something like the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (aka The Government Petroleum Fund).
posted by jedicus at 8:49 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Armed with the old Russian charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 percent of the country.

The data from those flights was so promising that in 2007, the geologists returned for an even more sophisticated study, using an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface. It was the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.
What the hell? What is this fantastic technology?
posted by cman at 8:50 PM on June 13, 2010


I can't imagine any way this will turn out well. Or, well, I can, but that reality also has unicorns, sadness is merely a literary concept, and the spill in the gulf is millions of tons of delicious fudge that is magically cleaning the water.

The article mentions that China already tried to bribe the head of the Ministry of Mines, to the tune of $30 million dollars, and that that person no longer has the post. How the hell is a country with no real infrastructure, no real working system of enforcing the rule of law, and, I'm just guessing, not even the basic concept of an EPA like government body going to get these minerals out of the ground? Is there any way the minerals can be removed without absurd levels of environmental destruction? Any way that the mining can actually be carried out without it being auctioned to the highest bidder, leaving the proceeds in the hands of a very, very corrupt few, while the actual laborers are occasional stories in the news about however many hundreds die due to shoddy construction and unsafe conditions?
posted by Ghidorah at 8:52 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


NO BLOOD FOR BAUXITE
posted by GilloD at 8:54 PM on June 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


...by and by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had intrusted [Kurtz] with the making of a report, for its future guidance. And he had written it, too. I've seen it. I've read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his -- let us say -- nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which -- as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times -- were offered up to him -- do you understand? -- to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, "must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings -- we approach them with the might of a deity," and so on, and so on. "By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded," etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence -- of words -- of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: "Exterminate all the brutes!"

-- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
posted by scody at 8:56 PM on June 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


Avenger, scody, I understand the concerns. What I'm asking is, given the situation, what's the preferable alternative?
posted by Navelgazer at 8:57 PM on June 13, 2010


Another complication is that because Afghanistan has never had much heavy industry before, it has little or no history of environmental protection either. “The big question is, can this be developed in a responsible way, in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible?” Mr. Brinkley said.

lol
posted by Rhaomi at 9:00 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, if this report is true, we are probably going to have open conflict with China in the next decade or two, regardless of our economic situation.

Why didn't you tell me this when the liquor stores were open!?!?
posted by hellojed at 9:04 PM on June 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


China still has way more of this stuff and we have no capability of imperializing Afghanistan.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:06 PM on June 13, 2010


Why didn't you tell me this when the liquor stores were open!?!?

Let this serve as your wake-up call. You need to have stockpiles of bourbon, ice, and ammo before things go south.
posted by codswallop at 9:11 PM on June 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


China still has way more of this stuff and we have no capability of imperializing Afghanistan.

You can bet yer ass somebody at the Pentagon is thinking furiously about how to make it feasible right now.
posted by zarq at 9:12 PM on June 13, 2010


This is pretty good news I think. Before you start worrying about discoveries causing war, recall that this has been the status quo for more years than I've been alive, even without this discovery.

It sounds though, like this is not really news for any other reason than the White House wants the public to know about it. It was known by the Russians before they withdrew, for example, and projects have been run to investigate in 2007. With this, the Obama administration has plausible reason to stay and a plausible alternative to the opium trade.
posted by pwnguin at 9:13 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


given the situation, what's the preferable alternative?

Realistically, there isn't one. How's that for "the horror, the horror"?
posted by scody at 9:13 PM on June 13, 2010


I'm just gonna ...put this down here
posted by The Whelk at 9:14 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let's ask ourselves a constructive question:

What can we do to ensure that the multinational corporations responsible for the extraction of these minerals will do so in a sustainable, ethical, and profitable way that promotes civil society and infrastructural improvement?

We've TONS of examples of how this has not worked well in the past, so let's see if we can't identify stakeholders. What corporation would rape the country the least? What government official can't be bought with half a tin of bacon grease? Are there any watchdog agencies that can oversee business practices and inform consumers of where their gold-tipped Monster cables are sourced? Further, what traction does the US government hold in the country now? We should answer these questions.

I mean, if we're going to be armchair diplomats and spend our time chicken belittling the possible benefits that could come of these discoveries, we might as well do more than just sit back and say, "this will wendell."
posted by The White Hat at 9:16 PM on June 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


Related Posts

It takes two to speak truth: One to speak and... March 2, 2010


I love this feature, but it needs a better ai. ;-)
posted by zarq at 9:17 PM on June 13, 2010


The Great Game just will not fucking die.
posted by fleacircus at 9:21 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


All this means is that China will take Afghanistan off our hands for one low price. All we have to do is shut up about Tibet...
posted by Oyéah at 9:23 PM on June 13, 2010


But do they have Unobtainium?
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:27 PM on June 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


notswedish: "Jeez people: in case you hadn't heard, something like 95% (I don't have the exact number) of a lot of these rarer metals come from China, so I'd think we'd be celebrating the fact that we've discovered a bunch of them in a place that is much less likely to be able to withhold them from us. "

Not that I haven't made this mistake before on the blue, but please keep in mind that the readership of the site is hardly US-exclusive. Even some of us USians here do not take knee-jerk joy at the idea of the US maintaining control over more of the world's resources. We seem to have plenty of difficulty regulating the resources we have without regulators having lots of blow and sex with energy companies or accidentally blowing up giant oil rigs and causing major environmental disasters. Further, there are probably many MeFites from countries around the world that don't feel inherently threatened by Chinese control of mineral resources.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:32 PM on June 13, 2010 [11 favorites]


A little stream-of-consciousness about Afghanistan and why we're there:

1. Opium
2. Rich veins of minerals
3. "Let's roll!"
4. "We will find this who did it, we'll smoke them out of their holes."
5. If it feels good, do it.

All this post-9/11 freedom-loving generation needs are metaphors for X, a glowstick and a whistle.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:33 PM on June 13, 2010


In this case, it's not clear what the preferable alternative is. Afghanistan simply is one of the shittiest places to be blessed with natural resources. It has no real rule of law, it's highly suspicious of outsiders, with good reason, I might add. Property and contract enforcement for foreign entities best capable of extracting the resources would only exist at the whim of corrupt governments. And of course, American fingerprints over the whole current shebang will taint any development, even if the US takes no active role at all. The question is whether extraction feasible with all the added costs involved, such as security, bribes, and so on. Once all the risk is assessed, it may not make sense in today's market. But yes, this could be the best thing to ever happen to the region. If Afghanistan can ever get over it's backwater medieval mindset.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:36 PM on June 13, 2010


hackwolf: "l33tpolicywonk: You're ascribing a comprehensive knowledge of modern mineral exploration techniques to the DoD? Sorry, but that's tinfoil-hat thinking there. Cheney would have been all over this like green on a dollar bill if he'd known about it, I'd bet. "

First of all, we don't know he wasn't. The man has a pretty clear record on fighting wars in the interests of natural resource-harvesting corporations. Second of all, I don't think I'm ridiculous for suggesting that the impetus to fight the longest war in US history was spurred by incentives other than defeating Al Qaeda, especially as the US selectively chooses not to fight wars with countries from which Al Qaeda operates (Pakistan) or who continue to act as state sponsors of terrorism (Saudi Arabia). It's particularly not crazy when you consider how wars in US history (hell, wars generally) tend to be about imperialism and not about principle.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:36 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


What can we do to ensure that the multinational corporations responsible for the extraction of these minerals will do so in a sustainable, ethical, and profitable way that promotes civil society and infrastructural improvement?

What would the ups and downsides be to banning the export of raw materials and requiring that they be processed into manufactued goods in afghanistan?
posted by empath at 9:39 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the amount of time the US has occupied Afghanistan, the US was able to collaborate with several former Soviet states simultaneously to create relatively stable constitutional governments. Anybody looking for a reason why the US would choose not to do that in Afghanistan and back a corrupt Karzai government over and over again just found a pretty good answer.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:40 PM on June 13, 2010


In the amount of time the US has occupied Afghanistan, the US was able to collaborate with several former Soviet states simultaneously to create relatively stable constitutional governments.

Oh, come on. It takes five minutes of thought to figure out how Afghanistan is different from Lithuania.
posted by empath at 9:42 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Great Game just will not fucking die.

Great, now I've just lost The Game. Of course, so has everyone else....
posted by tzikeh at 9:45 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, if this report is true, we are probably going to have open conflict with China in the next decade or two, regardless of our economic situation.

Are you out of your mind? Trade between the U.S and China was $366 billion dollars That's over a trillion dollars every three years Why would the U.S. or china upset that for such a small amount of money, especially when china has huge mineral reserves of it's own?

Seriously, it's like people see "Trillion" and the and think "Infinity". It is not that much goddamn money! As I said, less then we've spent in Iraq. Something like 1/6th of the federal budget each year!
posted by delmoi at 9:47 PM on June 13, 2010 [16 favorites]


Yeah, sure. It's win-win.
There are as many examples of "win-win" as there are elements on the periodic table. For instance, read up on Coltan, or may I interest you in a movie?
posted by _dario at 9:48 PM on June 13, 2010


You would think things couldn't get any worse for Afghanistan. I guess it's going to be the Great Game all over again. Again.
posted by a sourceless light at 9:48 PM on June 13, 2010


Finally, a reason for a strongman.
posted by klangklangston at 9:57 PM on June 13, 2010


I know this is naive, but I'll say it anyway.

We [in the largest sense] know the dangers here, we know the opportunity, and we know it's possible to do a lot for these people if everybody's just cool about it.

For God's sakes, folks, let's all be good little Fonzies.
posted by HotPants at 10:00 PM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


empath: "It takes five minutes of thought to figure out how Afghanistan is different from Lithuania."

No doubt. But I think, given past experience, it's patently ridiculous to suggest the US has even tried to fulfill its obligation to stabilize the government of Afghanistan. We just took out one warlord and backed the other one.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:01 PM on June 13, 2010


"The Pentagon is helping Afghan officials arrange to start seeking bids on mineral rights by next fall, officials said."

Drat.
posted by HotPants at 10:05 PM on June 13, 2010


HotPants, that's basically all I'm trying to say. We've got an opportunity for something good. It's very possible for us to screw it up badly, unfortunately, but there's at least a way in which this can turn out well.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:06 PM on June 13, 2010


on non-preview, dammit all. My ideal hope was for the U.S. to make contracts to build a mining and refining infrastructure in Afghanistan for them to take over, but obviously that was a pipe dream.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:08 PM on June 13, 2010


"What would the ups and downsides be to banning the export of raw materials and requiring that they be processed into manufactued goods in afghanistan?"

While it's a nice thought, the downside is that it would be much harder to attract the investors needed for mining, as the price for all those resources would be artificially lowered in Afghanistan, making it more relatively costly to extract and lessening the amount of benefit that the Afghan government might see in taxes, especially in the short term.

I am curious as to what the sustainable development folks will be saying.
posted by klangklangston at 10:12 PM on June 13, 2010


"What can we do to ensure that the multinational corporations responsible for the extraction of these minerals will do so in a sustainable, ethical, and profitable way that promotes civil society and infrastructural improvement?"

I'll bite. The most likely alternative here, sort of the lowest energy state configuration, is that Afghanistan will become a sandy Congo, with Karzai and his kleptocrats fighting an endless war against the Taliban and other warlord types over control of the mines, with the produce of the mines themselves financing the wars in an endless spiral of savagery until all value is finally extracted from the ground. So the solution (maybe) is to make sure that the profit from the mines doesn't go to Karzai, the Afghan government, the Taliban, or anyone else who can use it to buy guns. The minerals are there and they will be extracted, there's no doubt of that, but the flow of money that comes from the minerals can be redirected in a positive way.

Set up something new, maybe a nonprofit corporation or international agency that has control over all mining operations in Afghanistan. Headquarter it in The Hague or Geneva or somewhere else that's neutral. Make up a board of directors with members from every interested party: the NATO nations, the Afghan government, Russia, Pakistan, China - hell, maybe the Taliban could be on the board if they'd agree to a peace deal. Everybody wants a piece, but all the competing interests keep each other honest. (Hopefully.) The board makes no direct decisions, but instead hires a bunch of professional business types to run things. Make the corporation totally transparent with frequent outside auditing and crack down harshly on corruption (with the laws of Holland or Switzerland or wherever, not Afghanistan). And put all the profit from the mines into programs that develop Afghanistan and help the Afghani people. None of it is directly handled by any nation or interest group. The programs would (again hopefully) by run by NGOs or the UN or whoever.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:17 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ok so the world for me right now is like the last twenty minutes of a game of Age of Empires or Warcraft or something. Up until now I've had a handle on things. If I've needed to step back and focus on a troop of villagers in the top right of the map it's been fine. I spent a good five or six minutes getting my fishing enterprise up and running without much risk. But now the red guys are attacking, and one of my town halls is besieged, and there's a gold mine I need to secure before I can train any more archers, and the whole thing has taken a life of its own, completely out of control of the players, who can't even guess at, let alone accurately calculate, the possible consequences their actions might have; and they're utterly at the mercy of the game mechanics, and there are divisions of troops just hanging around without orders next to a forest, and the guy controlling the green guys isn't even at his desk, and when he gets back there's a good chance he'll panic and log off, leaving a massive power vacuum in a resource rich area by the lake, and the blue team hasn't even been on my radar for the last half hour, and there's a bunch of papers and textbooks balanced precariously on the edge of my desk that I really need to straighten up before I knock them, and someone's just realised I've been hiding a bunch of relics in a monastery a long way from anywhere, and there's one lone Scout (a pissy little fucking Scout!) who's been picking of my woodchoppers without me even noticing, and maybe I'm letting my emotions getting to me, but that's not fucking on, he's a Scout, for fuck's sake, and I can't find my fucking monks or mages or whatever they're fucking called and and I forgot to call the restaurant about Friday night, and I was planning on upgrading armour, but I can't find the right building to do the upgrades and it turns out I never actually BUILT a fucking blacksmith, and there's something burning in the oven, and the game's lagging like a bitch, and shit is about to get real.

Afghanistan's surrounded by, like, a greatest hits of volatile states, it's a capture the flag map with tunnels! and religion! and NOW it's got resources! and it's far enough away to be an abstraction to most Westerners. And I don't care how many millions the U.S. (or any other great power) spends on intelligence, you can't know what's gonna happen if you piss off Pakistan, or how India's going to react to that, or which side China will fall on, or whether Europe will want to leave Afghanistan suddenly empty of American troops, or how the fuck Iran and Iraq and Israel fit into this. And there're internal Afghani elements as well which probably shouldn't be discounted, and I haven't even mentioned Russia!

We're all gonna fucking die.
posted by doublehappy at 10:17 PM on June 13, 2010 [24 favorites]


Oh, yeah, mineral wealth has worked wonderfully for Africa too!
posted by mmagin at 10:23 PM on June 13, 2010


SO, heartbroken, here's the letter I just sent off:

Mr. President,

Upon reading today of the discovery of an estimated $1 Billion worth of natural mining resources within Afghanistan, I was optimistic and, to tell the truth, elated, that we were in such a position as to help actually build a non-opium economy in that war-torn nation while also creating the economic ties which could stabilize it while we finally withdraw (largely) from battling with it.

Now, sadly, I have read that your administration is dealing with Afghan officials in finding bidders for the mineral rights therein. I beg and plead with you, Mr. President, to not do this.

We can, instead, auction off contracts to companies which can build the mining - and refining - infrastructure in Afghanistan with which they may actually support themselves, and back this up with contracts with American companies to get a portions of their copper, gold, cobalt and so on from these Afghan mines at a discount, while they continue to deal with China for the majority of these goods. A stable economy supports a stable government, sir, as you know.

By selling off the mineral rights, we would only be allowing the raping of Afghanistan's natural resources while the money involved went solely into the pockets of the warlords. There is literally no way in which I can imagine this course of action not coming back to bite us, and badly.

This resource could be a boon, or it could be a boondoggle. It could lead to peace, or to war. Please, I beg you sir, make the right decision.

Thank you,

[Navelgazer]
posted by Navelgazer at 10:29 PM on June 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


And of course, I said "Billion" instead of "Trillion." Why must I fail?
posted by Navelgazer at 10:43 PM on June 13, 2010


What the hell? What is this fantastic technology?

Gravimetrics
posted by phrontist at 10:51 PM on June 13, 2010


[Directed by M. Night Shyamalan]
posted by nightchrome at 11:05 PM on June 13, 2010


Don't be big sillies. This is all a part of careful plan to reboot Afghanistan. First you send them back to the stone age and then you work them up through iron, copper, etc., until everyone's on lithium. See?
posted by pracowity at 11:16 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


At least opium is sustainable. But really, you guys are acting like this is some huge game changer. I don't know how many times I have to say it but the value of this stuff is not all that much in the grand scheme of things. It's a lot of money for Afghanistan, perhaps to fund the government or something but unlike growing poppies it's not something everyone can do.

It certainly doesn't mean much for any other countries. This is a drop in the bucket for the US/China/etc.
posted by delmoi at 11:21 PM on June 13, 2010


So what your saying doublehappy is that Afghanistan needs to spend the 500 food to upgrade to the tool age?
posted by Bonzai at 11:25 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


delmoi: Eh, $1t doesn't even sound like that much money. To put that into perspective we've already SPENT that much money in Iraq. Yes. We've SPENT More money in Iraq then all the known mineral reserves in Afghanistan.

Just as an aside: When people say the US is spending $X million per day on the Iraq war, where is that money actually going?
posted by memebake at 11:29 PM on June 13, 2010


Karzai Is Said to Doubt West Can Defeat Taliban
posted by homunculus at 11:37 PM on June 13, 2010


What's the average annual salary for a soldier? Divide that by 365 and multiply by soldiers involved in Afghanistan. That'll be a fair bit, I imagine.
posted by doublehappy at 11:38 PM on June 13, 2010


I'm just loving all the post hoc ergo propter hoc.
posted by vitia at 11:41 PM on June 13, 2010


A trillion dollars of industrial minerals is far too much for them to just pass up, even if it means war with their largest trading partner.

As is the case with the current war, the costs will likely outweigh the benefits for the victor. I don't see China doing that - they have too much on the line.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:43 PM on June 13, 2010


Just as an aside: When people say the US is spending $X million per day on the Iraq war, where is that money actually going?

To me.

What, didn't everyone know that?
posted by krinklyfig at 11:45 PM on June 13, 2010


A trillion dollars is a lot money for anyone, delmoi. Maybe more importantly, a stable stream of income adding up to a trillion dollars could mean an awful lot to the people of Afghanistan. Just think how far that money would go if spent wisely! And then there's all the second, third, and nth order effects that come from developing an industrial infrastructure and stable economy. Opium may be renewable resource, but it's not something they can build a modern nation on.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:47 PM on June 13, 2010


Before you take it for granted that American companies will simply march in and rip off the locals, remember what happened in last year's Iraqi oil deals.

Iraq deals no boon for Big Oil, services may gain

Iraq eyes top spot after oil auction 'victory'
posted by Anything at 11:51 PM on June 13, 2010


In a natural resource based economy

All economies are based on natural resources.


Yeah, except the ones that want to be "knowledge-based economies"... eughh....
posted by Enki at 12:00 AM on June 14, 2010


And of course, I said "Billion" instead of "Trillion." Why must I fail?

Maybe you're British and don't know it?
posted by Knappster at 12:08 AM on June 14, 2010


post hoc ergo propter hoc

Read this aloud, it sounds like horse poop, hitting the ground. Now in the case of Afghanistan, it surely must be sheep poop, which is more like "post hoc ergo propter hoc," blivet det, blivit det, blivit det, hoc hoc hoc..

All of this sophisticated economic talk, discusses a nation where sheep are raped, in order to avoid masturbation. So, let us say, that a stable economy, springs from a stable mentality. Not happening in the current, situation. No amount of fast talk will replace what a nation really needs for stability; local economy, education, food, vision, peace. Placing a high dollar amount on resources underground, just means that everyone has to get out of the way for the foreigners with the machinery. The craziest places in the world are made, not born, by forces that vie for resources. Humans that accidentally find themselves living over rich mineral resources, are endangered species.

The mining of the Himalayas or the feet thereof, endangers the water supplies of half the world's population.

The concept "modern nation" is antiquated in the face of what modern nations are doing to the world we live on. Primitive, agrarian, sustainable, simple, those are the words the world needs to hear, when we talk of modernizing.

Afghanistan has always been a crossroads between the East and West, their fatalism comes from the realities of trade routes that cross between wildly diverse cultures, where sheep and goats are the real economy, besides opium, and lapis.

Every Afghani that cannot wield a weapon for a mining company, has just become a non-person. Taliban, security guards, and sheep are the new Afghanistan.
posted by Oyéah at 12:10 AM on June 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


The Pentagon task force has already started trying to help the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development.

“The Ministry of Mines is not ready to handle this,” Mr. Brinkley said. “We are trying to help them get ready.


I was ready to think maybe there was a silver lining until I read the article. The future as written by Cecil Rhodes, indeed.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:38 AM on June 14, 2010


What can we do to ensure that the multinational corporations responsible for the extraction of these minerals will do so in a sustainable, ethical, and profitable way that promotes civil society and infrastructural improvement?

We must ensure that multinational corporations are not responsible for the extraction of these minerals. Ultimate responsibility should rest with the Afghan people.

The resources belong to the people of Afghanistan. They belong to every man, woman and child in that country. As such, their use should be governed by a democratic process where all people have an equal say in how the resources are extracted and used. It's the people who ultimately face the environmental consequences of extraction so it should be the people who have ultimate control over the process.

I'm not advocating communism. Profit is a good motivator. Corporations will have to be involved and they should make reasonable profits but it should be the people who have final say in how things are done. If the people feel that the extraction method will cause too much damage to their environment or if they feel they are being exploited, they should have the option of firing the current corporation and finding (or creating) a new one that better meets their needs. Profit is a good motivator but it's competition that drives innovation.

And when I say democratic process, I mean a true democracy (with freedom, anonymity and equality) where corporations are not involved in the political process. Democracy (dēmokratía) is rule of the people. It is government of the people, by the people and for the people. Period. Bestowing corporate personhood and letting corporations lobby politicians was a mistake. The monster we now call "democracy" is nothing more than the wolf of corporatocracy hidden under the sheepskin of democracy. Simply replacing the de facto narcokleptocracy that was the Taliban with our flavor of de facto corporatocracy will do nothing to end the suffering of the Afghan people. We need dēmokratía. Nothing less will do.

We should make Afghanistan a true democracy (a political system free of all corporate and religious influences) so that they can be a guiding light in the world. The people in Afghanistan have lived in the darkness of oppression, religious zealotry, war, exploitation and suffering for too long. If anybody deserves to prosper in the daylight of true democracy, it's them.
posted by stringbean at 12:42 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, and then maybe we can tear down their backward religion and replace it with the light of Christianity; if anybody deserves to prosper in the daylight of true religion it's them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:57 AM on June 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


The problem is that you can't make a country democratic. A people can inherit democracy, or evolve/build it on their own, but it can't be imposed on them from the outside. Not successfully, anyway. If there's no democratic tradition and widespread belief in the rule of law, then the imposed system will crumble and fall apart, turning into something else. We've seen that happen over and over in the last ten years.

But what you can do is impose stability and peace, or craft peace by making compromises. And when there's some measure of security, you can develop that nation's economy and go about raising the standard of living for everyone. And eventually, a generation or two down the line, people who have known peace and prosperity all their lives will demand freedom for themselves. We've seen this happen in Southeast Asia with nations like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and hopefully it will happen soon in Eastern Europe. Afghanistan could get there too if stability is achieved.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:12 AM on June 14, 2010


maybe we can tear down their backward religion

Not saying I don't agree with the larger point about the United States spreading Christianity at the end of a rifle, but the Taliban did blow up one of the wonders of the world, among their many "sins".

Rather than singling out their brand of Islamism, it's perhaps more appropriate to note that religious belief has motivated savage behaviors of all stripes and colors throughout history, and it continues to do so.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:13 AM on June 14, 2010


Why does this news not come as a surprise? And please wait for all the "see? see?" fear-mongering now due to come out of Pakistan about de facto colonization...
posted by bardophile at 1:21 AM on June 14, 2010


The resources belong to the people of Afghanistan. They belong to every man, woman and child in that country. As such, their use should be governed by a democratic process where all people have an equal say in how the resources are extracted and used. It's the people who ultimately face the environmental consequences of extraction so it should be the people who have ultimate control over the process. [...] We should make Afghanistan a true democracy

Who's "we"? The U.S. government? The U.S. military? American corporations? Multinational corporations? These players have no interest -- literally, zero political and economic interest -- in "making" Afghanistan a true democracy in which the vast reserves of natural resources are nationalized among the Afghan people. (They don't have this interest anywhere, frankly; see, e.g., Nigeria and oil). You say you're not for communism, but it would literally require the overthrow of modern global capitalism to ensure that "all people have an equal say in how the resources are extracted and used." Now, I'm all for such a thing, but if you're hoping that capitalism (with the assistance of its military and political wings) will voluntarily morph into its own antithesis out of the kindness of its profit-hungry heart, history suggests you may be disappointed.

IMO, the best thing we can do -- and in this case, by "we" I mean those of us who A) don't happen to be elected officials or members of the Pentagon or CEOs of multinational conglomerates, and B) care on a human level about the actual people of Afghanistan -- is to support independent movements and organizations that are actually on the forefront of the struggle for a secular, democratic society, such as RAWA.
posted by scody at 1:24 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


China ain't gonna be going to war over with the US ffs over Afghanistan, lol, talk about mutually assured destruction.
posted by smoke at 2:31 AM on June 14, 2010


"NO BLOOD FOR BAUXITE"

Bauxite is everywhere, it's limited exploitation is due to cheap electrical power for processing.

"What would the ups and downsides be to banning the export of raw materials and requiring that they be processed into manufactued goods in afghanistan?"

I'd like to see the bureaucracy that could reasonably control this. IE: are 10 cm cubes of gold sold as paper weights a manufactured good? How about bean bags filled with copper balls. Lithium Ashtrays? Iron free weight plates? Zinc ballast? It would be pretty easy to come up with hundreds of manufactured goods that are nothing more than fancy shaped ingots.
posted by Mitheral at 3:11 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I need a hug
posted by infini at 3:33 AM on June 14, 2010


As much as this is a terrible turn of events for afghanistan, I'm actually relieved to know that there really was a reason that the U.S. sent troops there.

Its comforting to know that at the end of the day, everything boils down to greed.
posted by FuzzyLumpkins at 3:42 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


A trillion dollars is a lot money for anyone, delmoi. Maybe more importantly, a stable stream of income adding up to a trillion dollars could mean an awful lot to the people of Afghanistan.

Yeah, it could. I doubt it will be well distributed. It could be a boon for Karzai and his successors, though. It would provide a government income stream independent of the west and/or opium.

On the other hand, talk about how this provides a huge motiviation for China to invade or something, or is even enough money for the U.S. to stay in regardless of the fate of Al Qaeda is what's silly.
posted by delmoi at 4:17 AM on June 14, 2010


Who's "we"?

By "we" I mean any person who cares.

This can include: Yes, it can include certain members of government, the military and corporations. It can also include the small business owner running a tea shop in Bangladesh, a single mom struggling to make ends meet in Fargo or the guy selling The Big Issue on a street corner in Akihabara.

It includes anyone with a mind to think and a heart to care, regardless of their power, position or lack thereof.

You say you're not for communism, but it would literally require the overthrow of modern global capitalism to ensure that "all people have an equal say in how the resources are extracted and used."

I'm suggesting that people should have a say in how common resources are extracted and used (as in how they are sold, to whom and for how much). I'm not advocating a system in which the people have a say in private business or the economy. Once a corporation has purchased the resources on terms acceptable to the public (or a majority thereof), they are free to do what they want with them.

For example, if a company in the USA wants to exploit the oil reserves in Canada, it should be the Canadian people who vote on how it is extracted and the terms of sale (price, exclusivity, etc.) because it ultimately affects all Canadians. If the USA corporation doesn't agree to the terms the Canadians impose, they are free to look elsewhere for their oil. After the USA corporation has purchased the oil, the can do what they want with it wherever they please.

...literally require the overthrow of modern global capitalism...

I may be mistaken but modern global "capitalism" is not capitalism at all. It's monopolistic corporate welfare rife with corporate subsidies/protectionism, political corruption and exploitation/destruction of common resources. Corporations use bought-and-paid-for government officials as puppets and corporate mouthpieces to push losses onto society at large while evading taxes/regulations and shuffling profits to hidden accounts overseas. Modern "capitalism" privatizes profits and socializes losses. How is this different from the modern "communism" that destroyed so many countries? The few exploit the many and the net result is the same. It's an unsustainable system and doomed to die.

In order to fix capitalism and democracy, we need to cut corporations out of the political process. We need to stop money flowing from companies to politicians. We need to stop favoritism flowing from politicians to certain companies. We need politicians who answer to the people. We need companies that compete on their own merits. No protectionism, subsidies, bail-outs or corporate-crafted laws that place private profits over the common good. Then and only then will we have a real chance at true capitalism and democracy.

Now, I'm all for such a thing, but if you're hoping that capitalism (with the assistance of its military and political wings) will voluntarily morph into its own antithesis out of the kindness of its profit-hungry heart, history suggests you may be disappointed.

No, I'm not hoping for capitalism to voluntarily morph into its own antithesis. I simply expect it to evolve into true (or at least a better form of) capitalism when enough people realize that the current system is broken, anti-competitive, destructive and unsustainable.

And I don't expect politicians and companies that steal from the commons to voluntarily return their ill-gotten booty. The commons will have to take it back and hold the thieves accountable. It won't be easy but nothing worth doing is.

...history suggests you may be disappointed.

Fortunately, history tells me of at least one man who overcame an imperial power with simple truth and non-violence.

IMO, the best thing we can do... is to support independent movements and organizations that are actually on the forefront of the struggle for a secular, democratic society, such as RAWA.

Good suggestion. RAWA is an excellent choice. Thank you.
posted by stringbean at 4:47 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't have the requisite wikipedia article in front of me, but since the late 1800's, there has been basically an inverse correlation between a nation's wealth in natural resources and it's overall stability (including it's preference for democracy). Mineral or Hydrocarbon-rich nations tend to become proxy battlegrounds for Great Powers and, in turn, have little incentive to democratize or develop economically since all of their needs are met through resource extraction.

Historically, the United States has been an incredibly resource rich nation. So is Canada. In the early 1900's the United States produced most of the world's oil supply. I don't think it's that simple.

Also, if this report is true, we are probably going to have open conflict with China in the next decade or two, regardless of our economic situation. A trillion dollars of industrial minerals is far too much for them to just pass up, even if it means war with their largest trading partner. They will likely bet that their economy can survive such a war, but ours can't. And they are probably right.
posted by Avenger at 11:35 PM on June 13 [15 favorites +] [!]


Frankly, that's ridiculous. The People's Republic of China (a nuclear power) is going to start a hot shooting war with the United States of America (also a nuclear power)? You can't win a nuclear war. You especially can't win a nuclear war with the United States, a country which has enough nuclear weapons to wipe out life on this planet.

And while you're imagining a -- a what, a naval engagement between the PRC (whose largest ships are some destroyers and some frigates) and the United States (the most powerful navy in the world)? A remake of Red Dawn where Chinese paratroopers (carried on what aircraft, resupplied how?) land in the United States?

No, the People's Republic is smarter than that. China doesn't want to make your iPods forever. They don't even want to beat Apple and make the next generation of iPods. China knows that the country that makes the next big technological leap -- the country that invents the next Internet -- they're the ones who reap gigantic economic benefits.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:50 AM on June 14, 2010


The Aynak mine (estimated fifth biggest copper deposit in the world, in Logar province) was sold off in 2008 on a competitive bidding process administered by the World Bank to the Chinese (beating, as far as I remember, a Canadian and a Mexican bid). It will be interesting to see if the process repeats itself. A couple of friends of mine did some background work on it [pdf]. Another story I heard, the Chinese gave the surrounding villages nice new weapons and said 'jobs for life, your sons' lives, and their grandsons, if you defend our investment' (so the story goes).

I'd guess as a mining company you'd think twice about investing heavily in a place like Afghanistan - although the deposits in the north might seem more attractive. The US military can't protect itself - why would it protect a Chinese or Mexican operation?

It's certainly going to heighten the stakes, but I don't think China's the problem here. Pakistan (and, less so, Iran) have the proximity and muscle to get involved. It will also be interesting to see how the winners of any process try to get the minerals out. The deposits seem scattered - do they go North, through the Tajikistan etc, or try to go through Pakistan? Will this give the Pakistani government an incentive to secure a route through Waziristan and Baluchistan, launching another attack on the Taliban? My best guess is that the resources will be auctioned of, and then whoever wins will sit on it until the present situation shakes itself out, and will then invest.

Also: I'm pretty sure that no-one had any idea there was this much beneath the surface when the US went in - it's a recent discovery (although the Russians had strong suspicions and some fairly well advanced geological surveys).
posted by YouRebelScum at 5:01 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think there's a good chance that this will be a win-win for all parties involved.

"Mr. Lincoln, you'll have the best seats in the house for the play!"

"The landing in Lindenhurst should go smoothly, sir.."

"Don't worry President Kennedy; the people of Dallas welcome you with open arms!"

God this whole thing stinks but I sure hope to hell I'm wrong.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 5:12 AM on June 14, 2010


greetings, good peoples! please listen and attend!

~ person from Afghanistan = Afghan
~ currency of Afghanistan = Afghani
~ Afghan /= Afghani

this concludes your pedant-plus micro-rant of the day! please continue with your duties!
posted by jammy at 5:20 AM on June 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


imho it depends on the language and how the syntax is constructed
posted by infini at 5:27 AM on June 14, 2010


Historically, the United States has been an incredibly resource rich nation. So is Canada. In the early 1900's the United States produced most of the world's oil supply. I don't think it's that simple.

We were the world's largest oil producer for a long time. It's just that our consumption outstripped our production capability after a while. In fact, one of the reasons Japan attacked us was because they wanted our oil. (Well, they wanted to force us to sell it to them). Kind of Ironic. I think we stopped being the world's largest producer in the 1970s or something. We only have 2% of the world's remaining reserves, though.
posted by delmoi at 6:04 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I found this article, which points out that the "discovery" is not new news, to be interesting: "The Pentagon’s Afghan Mineral Hype"
posted by Houstonian at 6:07 AM on June 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


My heart just sank when I read this post. We recently watched an absolutely horrifying documentary about the Afghan situation (VERY GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING).
posted by desjardins at 6:45 AM on June 14, 2010


An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium"

That sounds oddly familiar: "Bolivians have begun to speak of their country becoming “the Saudi Arabia” of lithium."

But Bolivia's enormous reserve of lithium is pretty much useless, for political and infrastructure reasons. And Afghanistan has all the problems Bolivia has times a billion.

If I was a multinational mining conglomerate planning to build a lithium mine, I'd pick Bolivia -- their government might be difficult to negotiate with, but at least they have one.
posted by ook at 6:47 AM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


The timing of this announcement, almost precisely eight years into the war, and when virtually everyone is totally disillusioned by it, seems really suspect to me. I would wager that the existence of these mineral fields has been known for some time, but the government has decided only now--being desperate for some new excuse to stay the course there--to announce the news.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 7:00 AM on June 14, 2010


we have no capability of imperializing Afghanistan.

Genocide.
posted by a3matrix at 7:07 AM on June 14, 2010


> This may actually be the worst possible thing to ever happen to the Afghanis.

Afghanistan, the next West Virginia.

If I were Afghan and those were my mountains I really would grab an AK now and hunker down and prepare to repel boarders.
posted by jfuller at 7:18 AM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


jfuller, I suspect they may be ahead of you.
posted by YouRebelScum at 7:22 AM on June 14, 2010


This will solve all of Afghanistan's problems, right?
posted by Mister_A at 8:00 AM on June 14, 2010


The timing of this announcement, almost precisely eight years into the war

Supposedly this has been known for a while. Besides, most places have some natural resources, it would be odd if Afghanistan didn't.
posted by delmoi at 8:03 AM on June 14, 2010


Blake Hounshell posits that the story about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is a media strategy designed to bolster support for the war effort in the wake of a couple of weeks worth of adverse events and reporting. His circumstantial case leans on the point that this news is arguably not so new:
So for one thing the data was all available online since '07
posted by delmoi at 8:14 AM on June 14, 2010


No, The U.S. Didn’t Just ‘Discover’ a $1T Afghan Motherlode
posted by homunculus at 8:57 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the wired article, they attribute part of their source to this US Geologic Survey study:

Significant Potential for Undiscovered Resources in Afghanistan

So maybe they knew of the potential previously, but now they actually have identified mineral rich sites?
posted by rosswald at 9:05 AM on June 14, 2010


I don't think anyone's linked this skeptical look at the timing of this little revelation from Foreign Policy, contextualizing it at the end of a long series of bad news about the area, and ends with this:

Moreover, before we get too excited about lithium and rare-earth metals and all that, Afghanistan could probably use some help with a much simpler resource: cement. According to an article in the journal Industrial Minerals, "Afghanistan has the lowest cement production in the world at 2kg per capita; in neighbouring Pakistan it is 92kg per capita and in the UK it is 200kg per capita"...

Why do I mention this? One of the smartest uses of development resources is also one of the simplest: building concrete floors. Last year, a team of Berkeley researchers found that "replacing dirt floors with cement appears to be at least as effective for health as nutritional supplements and as helpful for brain development as early childhood development programs." And guess what concrete's made of? Hint: it's not lithium.


It also links to this WSJ story about corruption in the Afghan government's Mines Ministry delaying the awarding of minerals contracts. From January. So, yeah, this looks like the NYT doing what it did for Bush in Iraq - uncritically helping to justify a war. Again.
posted by mediareport at 9:34 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Here's the simplest reality test I can offer you: if we're just at the initial discovery phase now, we're talking upwards of a decade before there will be mature mines. Fast-forward a decade in your mind and try to imagine the US having a bigger presence in Afghanistan than China. I myself cannot."
posted by homunculus at 9:35 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


rosswald, the very first sentence of your link says that this is all based on information from three years ago.

The more I think about the timing of this announcement the more it pisses me off.

In the Bush years they kept veering around changing the justification for why we invaded and why we were still in there: "It's about the terrrists! No, wait, it's about bringing democracy to the freedom-loving people of etc! Also it's about the war on poppies! No, actually it was about the oil all along! No, hang on, I've got it, it's about Pottery Barn!" And here we are apparently continuing that same endless string of post hoc justification. Now it's about minerals. Next week it'll be about Afghanistan's unparalleled supply of fresh natural artesian spring water, no doubt.
posted by ook at 9:38 AM on June 14, 2010


From delmoi's link: the "1 trillion figure ... seems to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price."

This doesn't seem to take into account the costs of extraction, which would include extraction in an environment without electricity, the need to import pretty much everything, protection of installations, transport costs, paying off local hardmen. I'm no businessman, but this is going to cost a lot. I wonder what it does to their margins? On the bright side, at least whoever it is gets hold of it won't have to deal with the costly regulation of pollutants.
posted by YouRebelScum at 9:39 AM on June 14, 2010


This is really turning into Murphy's Century, isn't it?
posted by brundlefly at 9:39 AM on June 14, 2010


This thread is full of grah...

Resource curses reduce the economic efficiency of countries via a couple mechanisms; one is general graft (graft in Afghanistan is already high between the central government and regional strongmen); it reduces the economic efficiency of an economy compared to international counterparts see.

But... what companies, what entrepreneurs? Most of Afghanistan's GDP comes from poppy production and export.

This isn't going to increase graft or corruption, if anything it will create a small to medium number of waged labor (and there is a chronic shortage of waged labor in Afghanistan). If we're going to weigh consequences I'd say this only has the potential for good, and little potential to mess Afghanistan up.

Also not to pick on any individual but a general way that we think as Americans, and forgive me if I missed any hint of sarcasm in your writing:

"We should make Afghanistan a true democracy (a political system free of all corporate and religious influences) so that they can be a guiding light in the world. The people in Afghanistan have lived in the darkness of oppression, religious zealotry, war, exploitation and suffering for too long. If anybody deserves to prosper in the daylight of true democracy, it's them."

Why do we as Americans think that have the power, capability, or moral superiority to do this? This line of thinking brings us Bush and his belief that we have the power and moral urgency to transform the middle east. Not acting through force is a moral failure.

This type of belief pushes political pundits to believe that we can push regime change in Iran, ultimately undermining pro-democratic homegrown movements trying to increase transparency of governance in their own country.
posted by stratastar at 9:40 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Stratastar: there's an alternative 'resource curse' argument, from a Collier and Hoeffler article callled 'greed and grievance' (which is a wholly different argument, as far as I understand it, to the causal arguments of the resource curse argument to which you refer). Crudely, it articulates that a big resource is going to change the incentives of actors within the country to pick up weapons and strive to control it, triggering instability and civil conflict in a fragile state. The diamonds in Sierra Leone are a classic example. That is a very real danger in Afghanistan.

A mine requires a great deal more investment and skill for extraction than the diamonds in Sierra Leone. But Massoud took considerable effort to control the emerald and Lapis mines in the Panjshir (NE Afghanistan), and it certainly funded his ability to wage his war against the Talibs in the 90s (and everyone else). Dostum did the same with natural gas reserves in the NW.
posted by YouRebelScum at 10:01 AM on June 14, 2010


I know the report was from 3 years ago, that was the point. People keep saying we (the US) knew it (presence of minerals) all along, but most of the previous information (like that report) only hint at the possibility of mineral deposits.

I side with the more positive take on this. Even if it takes years before full-fledged mines are operational, it will still create lots of jobs, investment, infrastructure, etc.. As others have mentioned, Iraq seems to be doing a decent job of developing its resources.

I doubt this will be a magic wand of any kind, but I think all the negative comments in this thread are far off. Hopefully this will be a win for the Afghan people.
posted by rosswald at 10:10 AM on June 14, 2010


...Iraq seems to be doing a decent job of developing its resources.

The problem is that these issues stick around. The current strain in Kirkuk is a good example of what natural resources do to an already divided area. The argument is that things calm down for a while, but the fault lines don't go away, and then things deteriorate again. The evidence suggests this pattern is very difficult to escape from.
posted by YouRebelScum at 10:26 AM on June 14, 2010


My heart just sank when I read this post. We recently watched an absolutely horrifying documentary about the Afghan situation (VERY GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING).

Thank you for the heads up on the documentary, desjardins.

Unfortunately, Hulu blocks non-USA IP addresses. Hulu even blocks popular anonymous proxy and VPN services located inside the USA.

Fortunately, the entire video is available on the Rethink Afghanistan website's videos page or you can Google "Rethink Afghanistan torrent" to download all six parts in one 791MB chunk.

Message to Hulu: The Internet was created to remove technical, physical and artificial barriers (like borders!) so that people can share knowledge regardless of hardware, operating system or geographic location. If you can't play along, Hulu, take your videos and go home.
posted by stringbean at 10:32 AM on June 14, 2010


It's ridiculous anyone would get excited by this. As delmoi rightly points out, 1T is chump change on a world economy scale, hardly a game changer... not even for Afghanistan, and further, as has been pointed out, even this 1T figure is for the birds - it's a simple tabulation of all minerals scattered all over the place multiplied by world prices, with zero given to extraction costs. It's stupid. What's readily usable may be as little as $50 billion final value for Afghanistan - if that. And that's not taking into account the infrastructure, security and political situation, all of which would escalate costs. Not worth it, given alternative sources for these minerals from other places. It's brain dead. This whole thing is one big hype, I can't believe anyone would give this thing any time. Afghanistan is fucked, and fucked good - and while outside forces have done their evil part, the brutal truth is that Afghanistan is a cesspool because they have a dysfunctional culture - and what to do about that, I don't know, but bombing them is not the solution, and these minerals don't change a thing.
posted by VikingSword at 10:50 AM on June 14, 2010


I know the report was from 3 years ago, that was the point. People keep saying we (the US) knew it (presence of minerals) all along, but most of the previous information (like that report) only hint at the possibility of mineral deposits.

I do not know where you formed the impression that a geological survey performed "with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface" merely "hints at the possibility of mineral deposits."

From the original NY Times link:

But the results gathered dust for two more years, ignored by officials in both the American and Afghan governments. In 2009, a Pentagon task force that had created business development programs in Iraq was transferred to Afghanistan, and came upon the geological data. Until then, no one besides the geologists had bothered to look at the information — and no one had sought to translate the technical data to measure the potential economic value of the mineral deposits.

Even if you set aside the risible assertion that the geologists in 2007 were somehow incapable of noticing that the minerals they were surveying had economic value, and had to wait until last year for a business dev group to bust out their calculators, this is not new information. It's old information -- much of it at least a decade old, as both the Wired and NY Times articles make clear -- that is now being repackaged in a press release.
posted by ook at 11:09 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why do we as Americans think that have the power, capability, or moral superiority to do this?

As I mentioned in my following post, the word "we" did not refer to America but to humanity as a whole. I should have been more clear in my initial post.

And on review "We should make Afghanistan a true democracy..." does sound quite arrogant and heavy handed.

Sorry. I should have said "We should help Afghanistan become a true democracy if that's what they really want..." because forcing democracy on a country that doesn't want it (or that may want it but is not ready to properly implement it) will cause more problems than it solves.
posted by stringbean at 11:22 AM on June 14, 2010


harpers.org's Scott Horton expresses doubt.
"For the moment, I’d say the talk of a trillion in riches just under the surface in Afghanistan is about as credible as all those tales of Iraqi oil wealth that would finance the American occupation. Remember how that turned out?"
posted by fartknocker at 11:38 AM on June 14, 2010


Over at Tom Ricks' blog, there's something from John Stuart Blackton:
The " discovery" of Afghanistan's minerals will sound pretty silly to old timers. When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970's the USG, the Russians, the World Bank, the UN and others were all highly focused on the wide range of Afghan mineral deposts. The Russian geological service was all over the North in the 60's and 70's.

Cheap ways of moving the ore to ocean ports has always been the limiting factor. The Russians were looking at a northern rail corridor.

Take a look at this little bibliography of Afghan mineral assessments. This one is mostly Russian, but pre-dates the DoD/USG "discovery" period by 30 years. In my day we did a joint USG/Iranian study of a potential rail line from Afghanistan to several of the Iranian rail hubs. This was predicated on mineral exploitation in a way that would thwart the Russian's northern rail corridor plans.

In the early 70's the USG had an old FDR New-Deal planner/economist/brains-truster - Bob Nathan - working with the Afghan Ministry of Plan to work out a fifty year mineral exploitation program. When the Russians took over they picked up Bob's plans and extended them. So this is anything but a "new discovery".

Low cost, long haul transport infrastructure remains the constraint. The Louis Berger "four inches of asphalt on the old Ring Road" doesn't do it.
posted by lullaby at 11:50 AM on June 14, 2010


stringbean - What force through humanity? Ideal thoughts about self-determination? Promoting just leaders? Pumping public health, or infrastructures until they modernize and start treating their fellow man and woman like we do in the west?

YouRebelScum - The greed and grievance curse already exists in Afghanistan, the Taliban, local warlords, and central government ALL take part in it. That's a current given not a vague future possibility. If anything the possibility of some of these people solidifying power may be better for the country's future than the current setup. The possibility of mineral returns may cause that, but then again it may not.
posted by stratastar at 11:57 AM on June 14, 2010


Stratastar: More resources means prolonging the ability and willingness of factions to fight - for example, the ability of Massoud to continue to raise funds through exploiting mineral resources certainly prolonged the war in the nineties, and his ability to resist the Taliban (who had their own revenue sources). And again, the evidence from the nineties is that a handful of warlords with 'solidified power' is not that great for your average Afghan. There'd still be too many of them to overcome the coordination problems - even if they wanted to, which they probably wouldn't, in the light of the ethnically charged recent history.
posted by YouRebelScum at 12:14 PM on June 14, 2010


Afghans.
posted by doublehappy at 1:23 PM on June 14, 2010


Paragraph nine of the original NYT article is probably the most salient ...

American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan. The American-led offensive in Marja in southern Afghanistan has achieved only limited gains. Meanwhile, charges of corruption and favoritism continue to plague the Karzai government, and Mr. Karzai seems increasingly embittered toward the White House.

While I'm here (and putting aside any concerns about whether mineral extraction would be good for the people who live in Afghanistan) unless the plan is to move rock by air freight I think it's worth reviewing the land borders of Afghanistan, which are :

People's Republic of China,
India (that's Indian Kashmir - as in warzone),
Iran,
Pakistan,
Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan

... take your pick.
posted by southof40 at 3:56 PM on June 14, 2010


This was asked well upthread, but it's an interesting question: What would the ups and downsides be to banning the export of raw materials and requiring that they be processed into manufactured goods in Afghanistan?

If I can be a little overly reductionist, I'd like to call this concept "export substitution industrialization"—it being to 21st century globalization what import substitution industrialization (ISI) was to 20th century modernization theory. Here, instead of focusing on building industries for domestic consumption (thereby lessening dependence on imports), and eventually export, Afghanistan would be manufacturing goods for export, and hoping that the need for such goods (rechargable Li-ion laptop batteries for instance) arises as their economy grows.

Here's a reason this wouldn't necessarily be a good plan anywhere: The success of this plan is contingent on a globalized economy that's capable of consuming and transporting the manufactured goods. Thing is, this same globalized economy is going to import the experts needed to set up manufacturing and transport, as well as to work the jobs necessary to build the infrastructure, and to work as skilled labor once everything is set up (think Shell Nigeria). So, say, a Chinese corporation pays Bangladeshi construction workers (especially as work in the UAE dries up) to build a Li-ion battery plant that's then operated by, say, factory workers from Xinjiang. So, although you're exporting a manufactured good, you're not necessarily interacting with or benefitting the surrounding community that much more than you would be if you were exporting the resource alone.

Here's some reasons this wouldn't be a good plan in Afghanistan: As mentioned above, Afghanistan is landlocked, is surrounded by a number of unstable regions, and is generally composed of shitty, hard to traverse terrain. Even if you do produce your good, you're going to have a hell of a time just getting it to the foreign markets that will want it most (while doing so at a competitive price). Geography brings us to culture, since it's no small part of why Afghanistan is operated by regional strongmen and is more or less a state in name only. The new industry is likely to rent from and benefit only the local leadership, strengthening strongman rule and opening the door for kleptocracy. Local communities, which have majority illiteracy, are probably even less likely to be employed in skilled manufacturing than in resource extraction. Whatever benefits they receive would be contingent on the magnanimity of their local leader.

Sorry for the tl;dr doom and gloom, but I've been mulling the question since last night, and that's more or less what I've come up with. Any other takers?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 5:41 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


With this, the Obama administration has plausible reason to stay and a plausible alternative to the opium trade

compared to Lithium extraction, Poppy Cultivation is a path to "Green Jobs."
posted by eustatic at 5:54 PM on June 14, 2010


As goes the resource curse stuff, not all resources are created equal. I'd recommed checking out Michael Ross's "What do we know about natural resources and civil war?" (abstract, pdf), which examines the link between the "lootability" of a resource, and the likelihood of a civil war. It also discusses and cites some great articles (including the Collier and Hoeffler piece mentioned above).

It's certainly true that natural resources are not necessarily a curse. Countries with diversified economies, and in particular, those capable of engineering extraction on their own, tend to do pretty okay if they set up a stabilization fund, and invest in other domestic industries. The US, Russia, and Canada (sixth largest oil reserves per capita, second largest overall) come to mind. It'd take something of a miracle for Afghanistan to join the club, though.

Anyone know of any studies regarding the effects of contemporaneous, multiple-resource extraction? It strikes me that most of the studies around focus on countries with a resource monoculture. Could the existence of multiple viable industries help Afghanistan?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 5:59 PM on June 14, 2010


Jeez people: in case you hadn't heard, something like 95% (I don't have the exact number) of a lot of these rarer metals come from China, so I'd think we'd be celebrating the fact that we've discovered a bunch of them in a place that is much less likely to be able to withhold them from us. And it's not like we have to start a new war to get them (like Iraq and oil), since we're already at war with them.

Interesting choice of wording, NotSwedish: 'a place that is much less likely to be able to withhold them from us'.

Not less likely to withhold them, but less likely to be able to withhold them. Doesn't sound like you envisage much of a choice for the Afghans in all of this - if the Chinese don't let us have what we want, why, we can take it from the Afghans!
posted by reynir at 3:20 PM on June 15, 2010


For the record, the main reason I ran with the article as-is without further checking is because it had James Risen's byline on it, a name I generally trust for fact-checking & reliability. I guess that's why they picked him too.
posted by scalefree at 7:16 PM on June 15, 2010


Risen has been subpoenaed by the Obama DOJ over a CIA leak, btw.
posted by homunculus at 7:45 PM on June 15, 2010


This could further complicate things: WikiLeaks to release video of deadly US Afghan attack: Whistleblowing website says it is still working to prepare the film of the bombing of the Afghan village of Garani in May 2009
posted by homunculus at 2:02 PM on June 16, 2010


What happens when you give cameras to a group of Kabul teens? You see Afghanistan not as a place of war and violence, but as a country where children still play and life carries on.
posted by homunculus at 8:07 PM on June 18, 2010


Afghanistan violence is soaring, U.N. says: Afghanistan is increasingly dangerous for troops and civilians alike, the report says, citing an 'alarming' 94% increase in IED attacks alone in the first four months of 2010, compared to last year. Suicide bombings and political killings also have risen.
posted by homunculus at 3:11 PM on June 19, 2010


Karzai: Japan gets priority in Afghan mining
posted by homunculus at 10:07 AM on June 20, 2010


US Strike Kills Civilians in Khost,
Bombings Rock Helmand Capital
UN: Roadside Bombings Double

posted by homunculus at 10:59 AM on June 20, 2010


Afghanistan’s Civic War: Can Lt. Col. Guy Jones win the battle to build responsible self-government?
posted by homunculus at 3:20 PM on June 20, 2010


U.S. Said to Fund Afghan Warlords to Protect Convoys
posted by homunculus at 9:02 PM on June 21, 2010


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