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Coveting Riches on the Great Rare Earth Highway

Carl Bloice: The military propagandists needed to come up with something to distract attention from the reality that things are going badly in Afghanistan, very badly. Public opinion in the U.S. has soured toward the war. Every other country that has troops on the battlefields is under tremendous popular pressure to withdraw them.

There is little doubt in my mind as to what prompted the sudden attention to the minerals beneath the ground in Afghanistan. It’s a rather blunt message to those amongst us who recently bought an IPod, Blackberry or Pirus: hold on, give the military more time; there’s is no light at the end of the tunnel right now but there could be by year’s end. If not, there will be fewer high tech goodies in the pipeline.

copper mine

Seriously. The New York Times reported last week that “senior American government officials” say Afghanistan has “nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits,” which might fundamentally alter the nation’s economy “and perhaps the Afghan war itself.” Nearly all the officials quoted were generals, including Gen. David Petraeus, who as head of U.S. Central Command is in charge of the war effort.

Why was the information coming from the Pentagon? Why was the story fed to the Times with the reasonable expectation that it would appear on the front page? It really isn’t news. Afghanistan’s mineable mineral wealth was first documented by the late Soviet Union, not – as we are being told – when Soviet troops were in the country but as far back as the 1950s when geological surveys there were begun.

The military propagandists needed to come up with something to distract attention from the reality that things are going badly in Afghanistan, very badly. Public opinion in the U.S. has soured toward the war. Every other country that has troops on the battlefields is under tremendous popular pressure to withdraw them. There is obvious strategic policy disarray in the top echelons of the Obama Administration. On top of that the Pashtun people in the Afghan south don’t want any more fighting. That’s the reason the planned mother of all battles, the capture of the Kandahar, has for now been scuttled.

“Perhaps it was coincidental,” wrote conservative columnist George Will last week, “that after several weeks of bad news from Afghanistan, on Monday there was good news, of sorts, about what Obama has previously called Afghanistan’s “vast potential’.”

“This could be true only on the fanciful supposition that this wealth can be tapped in 13 months or, even more fancifully, that the war will grind on for many years, until the infrastructures of extraction industries are built in a nation whose current GDP is $12 billion,” Will continued.

“This ‘stunning potential,’ in Petraeus’ description of the minerals, will encourage the perception that the U.S. engagement there has something to do with economic aggrandizement, will aggravate Afghanistan’s pandemic corruption and will intensify the Taliban’s determination to prevail in a place where even good news has, like a scorpion, a sting in its tail,” Will concluded.

The German publication Spiegel had a slightly different take on the affair. “Was the ‘sensational find’ of large natural mineral resources in Afghanistan reported by the New York Times last week a PR trick by the United States government?” it asked. “Or was it a clever chess move by Afghan Mining Minister Waheedullah Shahrani?

“Both had good reason to announce the surprising news. US President Barack Obama is lobbying Congress for a further $33 billion for the military mission in Afghanistan, so the reference to Afghanistan’s ‘stunning potential,’ as General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, put it, comes at a highly convenient time.”

A commentary carried June 17 in Beijing, citing unnamed observers we can presume to be Chinese officials, noted that the minerals announcement “may function as a double-edged sword for the Central Asian country and it will likely justify continuous US engagement in Afghanistan’s rebuilding process.” According to the new agency Xinhua, Wu Dahui, with the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the well-timed report will help justify the US presence in the country.” Washington has insisted that the stability of Afghanistan relies on its economic rebuilding. The announcement was timed to prove that the US can gain strategically from its involvement in rebuilding the war-torn country. The resources in Afghanistan would feed the US’ demand to boost its economy,” Wu said.

A couple of years ago correspondent Rex Dalton wrote in Nature magazine, “Using the phrase that has been a byword for conflict in the region since the days of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, World Bank mining engineer Michael Stanley says: ‘We are into a new phase of the Great Game’.” It is being replayed over 4,000 miles across the land mass and sea lanes stretching from Europe’s Eastern edge to the Pacific on what might be called the Great Mineral Highway.

All types of valuable rocks – not just the lithium needed to power your digital camera - are being coveted. The same day the Afghan mineral resources story broke PBS followed up its report with a special on types of “rare earth,” complete with descriptions of their value, showing scenes of them being strip mined in Mongolia and filled with alarm that China is cornering the market. One commentator grew somewhat emotional as he warned that if you do not have access to rare earth you can forget about green technologies.

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Actually, the people of Afghanistan might well look to the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico before they rush to sell the mineral rights to foreign multinational corporations extending into perpetuity. One thing about minerals is that they are worthless unless there is the infrastructure and investment capital. There is certainly no guarantee that having huge stores of valuable minerals beneath the ground means peace and prosperity for poor countries. Rather it often means an influx of foreign companies, massive bribery and corruption, increased wealth inequality and environmental degradation. One has only to look at “blood diamonds” and “blood minerals” in Africa - the coltan (cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers), and cassiterite mining in the Congo. Inviting the multinationals in can be a costly Faustian bargain.

Reporting from Nigeria last week, the Financial Times had this comment on the reoccurring flare up of violence and political upheaval in the Niger delta: “The motivation for young men to take up arms is simple. ‘There are no jobs, nothing for us,’ says Paul, 22, a fighter in Bayelsa state. Crude spills have poisoned long stretches of the creeks where the locals fish, wash and worship.”

“The Niger Delta, where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates,” the New York Times reported last Thursday. “The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.” The story said the delta “has suddenly become a cautionary tale for the United States” having witnessed spills of almost 11 million gallons a year over the past 50.

However, mineral wealth can hold out the possibility of meaningful economic development, including employment for the young. While copper has been mined for a long time and has many industrial and construction uses, it is also indispensible for modern high technology. In the 1960s Soviet and Chinese surveyors located a copper source in Afghanistan’s Logar province. Today China Metallurgical Group, a Chinese government-owned conglomerate based in Beijing, operates a huge mining complex at Aynak, south of Kabul.

According to a report by the McClatchy newspaper chain, the planned operation includes, “an on-site copper smelter, a $500 million generating station to power the project and augment Kabul’s electricity supply, a coal mine to fuel the power station, a groundwater system, roads, new homes, hospitals and schools, and a railway line from the country’s northern border with Uzbekistan to its southeastern border with Pakistan.” The projection is that soon the workforce at the complex will be entirely Afghan and to that end Afghan students are studying in China and Chinese language courses are underway in Afghan universities.

“When you have men who don’t have jobs, you can’t bring peace,” Abdel Rahman Ashraf, a German-trained geology professor who’s Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s chief mining and energy adviser, told McClatchy. “When we take money and invest it in a project like Aynak, we give jobs to the people.”

“Indeed, the project could inject hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties and taxes into Afghanistan’s meager coffers and create thousands of desperately needed jobs,” noted the correspondent Jonathan S. Landay.

“What happens at Aynak could eventually serve as a model for developing Afghanistan’s other natural resources, ranging from mineral wealth to reserves of coal and petroleum,” Dalton wrote in Nature in 2007, before the Chinese firm won the contract bidding. It surely is a better prescription for bring peace, development and security than continuing a ruinous and seemingly unending war.

Like an echo of the war in Southeast Asia, Washington is conjuring up light at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan. “I think that we are regaining the initiative,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel last week in Washington. “I think that we are making headway” NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said. “Tough fighting is expected to continue, but the situation is trending in our favor as more forces flow into the area,” adding “It has to be tougher perhaps before it goes easier.”

“Whether or not Obama adheres to his announced deadline matters less to the Afghans than it does to us,” Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post June 18. “U.S. casualties are increasing, as was anticipated; Obama has tripled U.S. troop levels since he took office; and the battle for Kandahar will be bloody. Our European allies are squirming, balking, complaining and looking for the exit. As time goes on, this will become even more of a primarily American war.

“The question is how much more the war will cost in precious young lives and scarce resources. Obama won the nation’s forbearance by making a promise that the inevitable withdrawal of U.S. troops would begin next year. Americans should expect him to keep his word - and insist that he does.” Lithium aside.

Carl Bloice

Crossposted with permission from The Black Commentator.