Minerals’ discovery may intensify Afghan misery

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Zia Sarhadi

Jumada' al-Akhirah 18, 1431 2010-06-01

News & Analysis

by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 4, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1431)

Informed observers wonder about the timing of the announcement. The US Geological Survey had known about these deposits as early as 2004 although until now this was a closely guarded secret known only to a few in the US.

American officials and corporate elites are salivating at the prospect of laying their hands on $1 trillion worth of lithium deposits discovered in Afghanistan. Other estimates put the deposits including gold, cobalt and copper, at as high as $3 trillion. General David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command who replaced General Stanley McChrystal on June 23 as overall commander of Afghanistan as well, first broke the news while appearing on the TV program Meet the Press on Sunday June 13. There was also much chest thumping in Kabul as officials stroked their beards in anticipation of vast riches accruing to their dirt-poor country. The $1 trillion figure would translate into $35,000 for every Afghan man, woman and child. Some Afghan villagers are already planning a trip to Kabul to collect their “share”!

Informed observers wonder about the timing of the announcement. The US Geological Survey had known about these deposits as early as 2004 although until now this was a closely guarded secret known only to a few in the US. During their occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviets too had prepared geological surveys indicating vast riches. Officials in the Afghan Geological Survey library were fully aware of this and had kept the reports and charts in a safe place from possible destruction during the civil war when the Soviets were driven out in February 1989.

So what explains the timing of the announcement by General Petraeus on prime time television? June has been a particularly bad month for US and NATO occupation troops in Afgha-nistan. In just one week last month, US-NATO forces lost 30 soldiers; a helicopter was shot down and two weeks earlier there were two daring attacks, one in Qandahar and the other in Kabul. In mid-May, the Bagram Air Base was attacked by Taliban fighters. A clear majority of Americans now believe the war is not worth fighting, with many saying openly it cannot be won. Most top US commanders also share this view and have recently questioned whether President Barack Obama’s promised withdrawal date of July 2011 announced last December can be met. On June 19, the BBC reported that violence in Afghanistan had escalated 94% over last year.

Amid growing uncertainties and the recent spate of public differences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that were papered over during his visit to Washington in May, the mineral discovery announcement is seen as changing the rules of the game. It is meant to placate an irate American public. The mineral deposits — including huge deposits of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so huge and so essential to modern industry that Afghanistan, according to US officials, could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world. An internal Pentagon memo even talks about Afghanistan becoming the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys. At long last, there is some good news from Afghanistan even if it is not from the battlefield where Americans and their NATO allies are getting the beating of their lives. Karzai and his government were only recently briefed about the discovery. The reference to Saudi Arabia is not without irony; the Americans would like to turn Afghanistan into another cash cow, except that the Afghans are not as docile as the pleasure-loving Saudis.

“There is stunning potential here,” Petraeus said gleefully, without elaborating for whom. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.” Here is why. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is barely $12 billion. This does not take into account the nearly $1 trillion America has spent on the war since October 2001. The bulk of that money has gone to finance the war and to pay the salaries of hired mercenaries and warlords in Afghanistan.

While it would take many years — perhaps a decade — to develop a mining industry, US officials and industry executives are already talking about heavy investment even before mines become profitable. This is the optimistic scenario. The more likely and more realistic scenario is the prolongation of war as predatory powers dig their claws deeper into Afghanistan. The much-vaunted Obama-McChrystal troop surge in Afghanistan has gone nowhere. Last February’s Marja assault produced nothing. After two months of military attacks, the small town is back in Taliban control. The planned operation in Qandahar that was supposed to have been launched last month has been postponed until September and may not be launched at all. The Americans have stopped calling it “operation”. Was it the stiff Afghan resistance that caused General Petraeus to faint during Senate hearings on June 15 even as Senator John McCain was heaping wholesome praise on him?

The mineral announcement has other downsides as well. Greedy foreigners and their mercenary armies could end up fighting for these riches ravaging the already war-wracked country even further. American officials have voiced concern about China trying to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. Unlike the US and its western allies that have brutalized the Afghans, the Chinese have invested $4 billion in the Aynak copper mine in Logar Province. If the Americans improved their manners it would lessen resentment against them but it is impossible to expect a scorpion not to sting; it is in its nature. Imperial hubris is part of the American psyche.

Then there are numerous warlords and their private armies that terrorize the Afghan population. Most are on the US payroll. The scramble to get their hands on riches could spark fighting between warlords, especially in areas where minerals have been found: south, southeast and west of the country, locales of the most intense fighting.

Far from bringing relief to the long-suffering Afghans, the mineral deposits are likely to increase their misery. At the very least, there will be mad scramble by multinational corporations to grab whatever they can while their armies intensify the war of aggression even further. Iraq, Sierra Leone and Congo offer good examples of what can be expected in the coming months and years in Afghanistan.

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