Afghanistan's riches not just in poppies

For the last several years, the only possible exports from Afghanistan appeared to be heroin and Islamist terrorism.  Now, according to the New York Times, the American government knows that perhaps a trillion dollars’ worth of mineral finds might make the traditionally destitute nation a technological powerhouse, almost literally, with lithium among the finds.  It might also rewrite the history of Big Power involvement in Afghanistan, depending on how long this has been known, and by whom:

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.

The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.

Perhaps the Pentagon just recently discovered this, but it doesn’t mean they were the first.  My first thought on reading this was that the Soviets may have had better reasons for invading Afghanistan than first thought.  There has been no real reporting on whether the Soviets attempted to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources, but had they succeeded in keeping their grip on the nation, they could have found a new way to stay in business against the West rather than going bankrupt in the Cold War economic warfare that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher conducted against Moscow.

That is pure speculation, but don’t expect that to end just because the Soviet Union collapsed.  We’ve spent over eight years in Afghanistan attempting to subdue the radicals and fight those across the border in Pakistan’s frontier provinces, and many people have questioned why we’re spending so much blood and treasure in a country known for its ability to bankrupt empires.  We have plenty of good strategic reasons to attempt to salvage Afghanistan and keep it from becoming a failed state, but this find will definitely have those inclined towards conspiracy theories cranking up new plots and dark cabals as the real reason we’re attempting to salvage Afghanistan.  A trillion dollars in new mineral deposits don’t come along very often, after all, and some of these minerals will be critical to energy and military applications.

Still, this is a blessing for the Afghan people.  They will need a massive improvement in infrastructure in order to get the materials out for export, but that investment will come a lot faster with this find.   It gives them a real alternative to narco-trafficking, which because of the poverty and Stone Age infrastructure of the country, has been the only option for many Afghans.’

Update: Kevin Drum makes a good point in Mother Jones while slightly succumbing to the paranoia (via The Week):

I have a very bad feeling about this. It could quickly turn into a toxic combination of stupendous wealth, superpower conflict, oligarchs run wild, entire new levels of corruption, and a trillion new reasons for the Taliban to fight even harder. And for the cynical among us, this line from Risen’s piece — “American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan” — suggests that the Obama administration might be eagerly thinking about these discoveries as a shiny new reason to keep a military presence in Afghanistan forever.

I can hardly wait to see what Bill Kristol thinks of this.

On the other hand, maybe it represents lots of new jobs, enough money to suck away the Taliban’s foot soldiers, and the stable income base Afghanistan needs to develop a modern infrastructure. I doubt it, but you never know.

I’m not sure that the wealth would incentivize the Taliban more than their radical Islamist theology already has, but if they appear to be winning, then the less-ideological may be more inclined to join quickly and get in position to get to the wealth.  The problem in using it to “suck away the Taliban’s foot soldiers” is the years it will take to put the technological infrastructure in place to get to the riches and export them for profit.  It may be a great long-term find, but in the short run, I’m not sure it helps NATO or the US, especially politically, unless they can leverage it to get China to take a tougher stand with Iran and assist in attacking al-Qaeda and the Taliban.