Er, great news: Afghanistan sitting on a giant treasure trove of valuable minerals

The best news since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia?

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…

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

So primitive is Afghanistan’s mining infrastructure that they’re potentially decades away from being able to get at the ore. But no matter: Giddy Afghans are already calculating how much dough this could mean for each citizen in the unlikely event that warlords and bureaucrats don’t skim 90 percent of it off the top. The current estimate, assuming a $1 trillion haul: Roughly $35,000 for each man, woman, and child. Current per capita income in Afghanistan, according to the CIA Factbook: $500 per year. So why is this potentially bad news? Follow the timeline in this must-read post by Blake Hounshell:

I’ll get to the main point in a little bit, but bear with me for a second … A series of recent news stories has deeply damaged the Obama administration’s case for continued patience with U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign, which has shown little discernable progress despite the best efforts tens of thousands of additional American troops and an all-star lineup of top military officers…

Read a little more carefully [in the Times’s mineral story] and you realize that there’s less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry’s website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there’s more here). You can also take a look at the USGS’s documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.

Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen suggests was generated by a Pentagon task force seeking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at the chart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.

The Times’s mineral story acknowledges that the data was first compiled three years ago but doesn’t explain why the study wasn’t touted until now. Hounshell’s not kidding about the horrible news cycle, either. Two days ago we had this mind-bender about two of Karzai’s best ministers resigning in protest over the fact that not only does he seem to have given up on NATO’s chances of success but allegedly is now blaming the United States for a Taliban rocket attack on an Afghan peace conference earlier this month. Then, just yesterday, the Telegraph confirmed the world’s worst open secret, that Pakistan’s intelligence bureau is actively collaborating with the Taliban and even has members inside its leadership council.

Hence Hounshell’s question: Did the White House push the old mineral data yesterday to the Times to goose public support for a mission that seems increasingly bleak? Or, per another possibility, is The One dangling the prospect of energy riches publicly in front of the Taliban to get them to lay down their arms and strike a peace deal already? That mining infrastructure can’t be built so long as there’s a war going on (some of the richest deposits are in some of the least secure areas), so if Mullah Omar wants a cut, now’s the time to play ball. Which, in fairness, makes for fine short-term logic, but the prospect of total control over vast energy resources is poison for any long-term peace deals, especially since Pakistan now has another reason to keep its Taliban proxy well-armed and motivated to retake the country. Controlling the deposits will bring the two not only wealth but something precious that they both need — international political legitimacy, as resource-hungry powers like China decide to make nice in order to keep those mining contracts coming. (Don’t forget, too, that a strong Chinese presence in Afghanistan likely means a weak Indian presence, which will make Pakistan happy.) In fact, if the Taliban can convince Afghans that they’re better positioned to provide security in insecure areas where ore deposits are found, the financial incentive to Taliban rule will be a powerful new propaganda tool, especially given the current government’s reputation for corruption. If you’re an average Afghan and you think Omar’s more likely to give you a cut of the lithium haul than Karzai is, that’s something to think about.

Exit question: Is this news really all that likely to boost public support for the mission? All it does is hand the left a “no war for oil lithium!” rallying cry to screech about “imperialism” or whatever.