The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials. The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe. An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
This story comes close on the heels of a Times report that Hamid Karzai, who has been feverishly looking for an accommodation with the Taliban and Pakistani leaders, has lost confidence in the ability of U.S. forces to achieve a tactical breakthrough in Afghanistan. It also follows what the Times editors call “a bad week” for the United States in Afghanistan. So what’s it all about? Obviously, someone in the Pentagon decided they badly needed some good news—and what could be better than the promise of mineral resources that would justify an American investment in blood and treasure? The timing alone suggests a heavy dose of skepticism is necessary. Moreover, this disclosure, played to gullible media in the United States, will almost certainly trigger hostility in Afghanistan. Taliban forces portray the Americans and their NATO allies as just the latest in a series of imperial adventurers stretching back to the time of Babur, and the idea that the Pentagon is busily collecting data about copper, gold, and lithium deposits will play right into their hands. The Americans tell us they want to bring democracy and education, they will say, but they’re really here for our copper and lithium.
As a lawyer who has spent much of his career working with natural-resource exploration and development companies in the developing world, I can add a bit. It’s easy to say on the basis of modern technologies, including the ground-penetrating scanners that the United States intelligence services have advanced, that a country has vast mineral wealth. But whether that wealth can be feasibly tapped, considering its location and the conditions that prevail there, is an entirely different question—one that can only be approached after the preparation of a “bankable feasibility study.” 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?