It has taken some years, but now the numbers are coming in and adding up. The ongoing so-called war terror in Afghanistan is openly revealing its imperial character as the US geological service proudly reports of fantastic mineral finds in Afghanistan. In June the BBC said that Afghanistan may have more than a trillion dollars worth of untapped mineral deposits (1). However this appears to be yesterday’s news, and critics, with eyebrows raised, have already started questioning the purpose and motivation for launching an apparently old news story.
One source provides a time line on the data and charts that provide the basis of the mineral find claims. Journalist Dave Lefcourt reports:
[The] discovery began rather inconspicuously in 2004 when a small team of American geologists ‘stumbled’ across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They had been placed there by Afghan geologists in 2001 after the American invasion, (during the Taliban rule in the 1990’s these geologists took them and protected them in their homes, returning them only after the Taliban had been removed). The Americans learned from the discovery of the charts that they were originally collected by the Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989. The U.S. Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006; more studies were done in 2007 but the results languished for two more years.(2)
Just three days after the BBC reported about the find, the European Union provided a timely press release on a report that forecasts shortages of 14 critical mineral raw materials. Specifically,
In this first ever overview on the state of access to raw materials in the EU, the experts label a selection of 14 raw materials as “critical” out of 41 minerals and metals analyzed. The growing demand for raw materials is driven by the growth of developing economies and new emerging technologies.
The expert group considers that 14 raw mineral materials are critical for the European Union: Antimony, Beryllium, Cobalt, Fluorspar, Gallium, Germanium, Graphite, Indium, Magnesium, Niobium, PGMs (Platinum Group Metals), Rare earths, Tantalum and Tungsten. Forecasts indicate that demand might more than triple for a series of critical raw materials by 2030 compared with the 2006 level. (3)
Of course several of the “critical” raw materials are essential not only for the production of high tech electronics and associated devices, but more importantly for the US treasure finders, are their uses for advanced weapons systems and platforms for national defense.
At a time when public support for the war in Afghanistan is dwindling, and the human and financial costs appear increasingly unjustifiable, the prospect of buried treasures in Far-far-away-istan could prove attractive. Yet the “opportunity costs” of these harvests are beginning to haunt the US-led imperial forces in Afghanistan. Just recently, it has been reported that the US military paying tens of millions of dollars to Afghan security firms. In return these firms ensure safe passage of the trucks that carry supplies to US troops in dangerous areas of Afghanistan. It has been alleged that much of the money is channeled to territorial warlords who then provide safe passage assurances. (4)
Be that as it may, the mineral find announcement appears to be marred in controversy already. Apart from the story actually being old, the ramifications of potentially exploiting mineral resources in an occupied land could lead to an even greater political quagmire. How will the proceeds be distributed and who will benefit the most? Will there be sufficient social improvements and developmental impacts to attribute to the proceeds of large-scale mining? How will environmental concerns be addressed? These and many more questions have already been voiced. Raising them here again can help place them into a perhaps broader political context.
The Associated Press notes that “Afghanistan lacks even the most basic resources for mining, such as railroads and electricity”. More importantly,
many of the sites listed on a map as potential metal or mineral sites are also known for Taliban activity … without increased security and massive investment to mine and transport the minerals, it could take years for Afghanistan to bank the rewards. And there’s always the potential that such a discovery could bring unintended consequences, including corruption and civil war. (5)
That comes as no surprise; civil war has and continues to be the sad fate of the Afghan people, most of whom have never lived free from conflict, not to speak of peaceful conditions. In addition, corruption is more rampant today than ever before. In 2009, on the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, Afghanistan was ranked as the 179th most corrupt country in the world: out of a total of 180.
On the flip side, Afghanistan has been catapulted to the top of the charts of recipients of U.S. foreign aid: the requested allocation for 2011 will see it take the number one spot. A peculiar reward for ranking second most corrupt place in the world while failing to produce noteworthy developmental progress as the country ranks a dismal 181 out of 182 countries in the latest United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report.
Perhaps some of these enormous aid resources will actually be harnessed to tackle the considerable technical challenges of large-scale mining operations in Afghanistan. Challenges that included the tremendously detrimental impacts on the availability and quality of the country’s water resources. Already today these are at serious risk of being over-exploited and depleted.
In this context the role of USAID’s Commercialization of Afghanistan Water and Sanitation Activity (CAWSA) which began in 2008 is not fully clear. The general objective of the three-year CAWSA Program is to establish a viable business model for water service delivery in Afghanistan, in coordination with the Central Authority for Water Supply and Sewage Enterprise (CAWSS), provincial Water Departments, and other donors. However, it remains to be seen how commercialization of an already scarce public good will be of benefit to the vast majority of Afghans, especially should mining operations with high water demands be launched. (7) It should not come as an afterthought that in a country where agriculture (including of poppies and hashish) is almost entirely dependent on irrigation, scenarios of violent water conflicts are not at all unlikely.
Regarding the mineral treasures, there seems to be good reason to dismiss the possibility of exploiting them, or at least be very skeptical about the feasibility of doing so. It may even be that it is all part of a ploy, whereby, according to the natural resource business media outlet, Resource Investor, “The U.S. government wishes its people to have a reason for losing American lives in Afghanistan other than protecting the poppy growers, so it invents Afghanistan as a mineral treasure trove” (8)
Who can say for sure until the day comes in fifty years or so when some ‘sensitive’ documents related to national security might need to be revealed? For now it should suffice to take a purely economic approach to getting at the mineral wealth. As noted in the Times Online, “Even if there were $1 trillion of mineral resources in Afghanistan, and even if those resources were economically viable, it would be years before large Western miners considered going anywhere near the country.” (9)
On the other hand, China has demonstrated its willingness to send its mining and other resource extraction operators abroad. Resource-hungry China has frequently shown its readiness to set up raw materials and extractive industries operations, especially in Africa, where it is said to not shy away from dispatching prisoners as cheap laborers and thus be able to undercut local labor.
There is a strong interconnectedness between foreign resource interests and despotic regimes. As noted it in the 2009 Transparency International global corruption report, “countries relying on oil and mining revenues tend, with surprisingly few exceptions, to be poor, badly run and prone to violent instability: the infamous resource curse”(10) . It is no secret that “Increasing quantities of Chinese-made military equipment have been finding their way to Africa, traded for oil, mineral resources and even fishing rights. (11) The question to ask with regard to Afghanistan is to what extent are such corruption-prone trade patterns being replicated, on what scale and who is involved?
For the time being it seems that the risks with regard to security and both human and material costs far outweigh the expected profit margins – at least for Western companies active in the Afghanistan war. Given that rough estimates see costs of $5 billion or more needed to develop large copper, iron ore or gold mines in Afghanistan, and potentially a further $5 billion to build the necessary infrastructure, it seems that only the Chinese are demonstrating tangible interest. This was demonstrated earlier this year when Afghanistan and China signed various agreements on trade and economic co-operation.(12) Already in 2007, state-owned China Metallurgical Group won a tender to develop one of the world’s largest copper mines in Afghanistan, promising to invest nearly $3 billion. Later, the Washington Post reported that it was alleged that the Afghan minister of mines accepted a roughly $30 million bribe to award the country’s largest development project to the Chinese mining firm. (13)
There are no reports on which Western firms bid and how high any bribes they offered were. Against this background it comes as no surprise that there are suspicions that China’s grab for Afghan resources has prompted the Pentagon to try and generate some broader international interest in the country’s resources.
The pie in the sky of $1 trillion dollars worth of minerals in Afghanistan’s inaccessible rocks and mountains has been discovered at a time when the human toll and the material costs are cutting deeper wounds. One can only wonder if those responsible for the ongoing war and all its misery are prepared to perpetuate the conflict as long as expected profit margins are considerably higher than ongoing losses in lives and materials.
In the world of such cold and inhuman accounting, the price tag on over 1,500 US soldiers killed in Afghanistan (or who died of their wounds in military hospitals such as Landstuhl in Germany, and other emergency care centers outside of the region) might seem acceptable. Assuming that on average a soldier posted in Afghanistan was deployed there for 2 years at a cost of $1 million dollars a year, the 1,500 lost lives purely and coldly seen from an economic vantage point have cost the US Government approximately $2 billion. Roughly calculated that amounts to less than one percent of the mineral treasures assumed to be buried in Afghanistan, once extracted.(14) Those who stand to gain from any mineral bonanza in Afghanistan are most likely not those who have paid the immeasurable personal and emotional toll of losing loved ones in the Afghan conflict.
To keep track of when the war can no longer be paid for by extracting the estimated minerals in Afghanistan, I recommend keeping an eye on the Cost of War in Afghanistan ticker. (15)
Glenn Brigaldino is a contributor to TowardFreedom.com based in Ottowa, Canada.
(1) BBC, 14 June 2010
Afghans say US team found huge potential mineral wealth
(2) The Mineral Find in Afghanistan, Justification to Remain Indefinitely?, by Dave Lefcourt
Also see U.S. Geological Survey Office of Communication, Significant Potential for Undiscovered Resources in Afghanistan, USGS Newsroom, Nov. 13, 2007 http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=1819
and, Clive Mitchell and Antony Benham’s report on Afghanistan’s industrial minerals industry at: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/AfghanMinerals/docs/IndustrialMineralsFinalArticle.pdf
(3) Europa, Press release RAPID, Brussels, 17 June 2010 (IP/10/752), Report forecasts shortages of 14 critical mineral raw materials
(4) BBC, 22 June 2010, Investigators claim US money is funding Afghan warlords
(5) Huge obstacles seen in exploiting Afghan minerals, by Deb Riechman, The Associated Press, June 14, 2010
(6) State, Foreign Operations, and Related, Programs: FY2011 Budget and Appropriations, Congressional Research Service, May 5, 2010
(7) Water profile of Afghanistan, updated April 10, 2007, on Encyclopedia of Earth
(8) Afghan Lithium and Other Nonsense, Jack Lifton, Resource Investor eNewsletter
June 16, 2010
(9) Times Online, June 14, 2010, Value of Afghanistan’s mineral discovery needs to be dealt with cautiously by David Robertson
(10) Corruption and bribery in the extractive industries, Gavin Hayman in Transparency International, Global Corruption Report 2009, chapter 3, page 54
(11) China To Arm Africa For A New Century Of War, by Andrei Chang
Hong Kong (UPI) Jan 29, 2009, http://www.spacewar.com/reports/China_To_Arm_Africa_For_A_New_Century_Of_War_999.html
Also see: Following the Mineral Trail: Congo Resource Wars and Rwanda, by John Lasker, 18 February 2010 in Toward Freedom
(12) China, Not U.S., Likely to Benefit from Afghanistan’s Mineral Riches, by Charles Wallace, June 14, 2010, in DailyFinance:
(13) Afghan and Chinese presidents sign trade agreements, BBC News, 24 march 2010 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8584331.stm
(14) US spends $1 million per soldier in Afghanistan, government report says, the Raw Story, October 15, 2009
(15) Cost of War in Afghanistan ticker at http://www.costofwar.com
operated by the National Priorities Project (NPP).
NPP notes that each dollar spent on war in Afghanistan is a dollar not spent on human needs in the USA (or for that matter in the whole world). It has charted the costof the war for each state in the USA and what that money could have bought in Head Start, Health Care, and Renewable Electricity programs. See report at:
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