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.
let's talk about Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. Remember the chatter
earlier this year about how he'd gone crazy, threatening
to join the Taliban and all that? That discussion died down a little after
Karzai checked all the right boxes during his May visit to Washington.
came the "peace jirga" -- after which Karzai abruptly fired his intelligence
and interior ministers, reputed to be two of the most competent members of his
cabinet (technically, they resigned).
The intelligence minister, Amrullah Saleh, told his side of the story Friday in a jaw-dropping interview
with the Times. According to Saleh,
Karzai no longer believes the West can win the war and is looking to cast his
lot with Pakistan and the Taliban; an unnamed source told the paper that
Karzai had suggested that the Americans had carried out a rocket attack on the
peace jirga. Karzai has apparently also asked the United Nations to remove
Mullah Omar from a key U.N. blacklist.
that Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI, is still deeply
involved with the Afghan Taliban (yeah, blow me over with a feather) despite
heated denials to the contrary.
the drive for Kandahar looks to be stalled
in the face of questionable
local support for Karzai's government, the Taliban is killing
local authorities left and right, and the corruption situation has
apparently gotten so bad that the U.S. intelligence community is now keeping
tabs on which Afghan officials are stealing what.
short, things don't look good for the United States ... which makes me suspicious
of the timing of this attention-grabbing James
Risen story in the Times, which
opens with this mind-boggling lede:
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."
about a game changer. The story goes on to outline Afghanistan's apparently
vast underground resources, which include large copper and iron reserves as
well as hitherto undiscovered reserves lithium and other rare minerals.
little more carefully, though, 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
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
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 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.
get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it's been through over the last three decades.
(a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this
story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to
develop these resources in a useful way. It's also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will
take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous
before we get too excited about lithium and rare-earth metals and all that,
Afghanistan could probably use some help with a much simpler resource: cement.
to an article
in the journal Industrial Minerals, "Afghanistan
has the lowest cement production in the world at 2kg per capita; in
neighbouring Pakistan it is 92kg per capita and in the UK it is 200kg per capita." Afghanistan's
cement plants were built by a Czech company in the 1950s, and nobody's invested
in them since the 1970s. Most of Afghanistan's cement is imported today, mainly
from Pakistan and Iran. Apparently the mining ministry has been working to set
up four new plants,
but they are only expected to meet about half the country's cement needs.
Why do I
mention this? One of the smartest uses of development resources is also one of
the simplest: building
concrete floors. Last year, a team of Berkeley researchers found that "replacing
dirt floors with cement appears to be at least as effective for health as
nutritional supplements and as helpful for brain development as early childhood
development programs." And guess what concrete's made of? Hint: it's not
UPDATE: Missed this Wall Street Journal story earlier. Money quote:
[T]he Mines Ministry has long been considered among Afghanistan's most
corrupt government departments, and Western officials have repeatedly
expressed reservations about the Afghan government awarding concessions
for the country's major mineral deposits, fearful that corrupt
officials would hand contracts to bidders who pay the biggest bribes --
not who are best suited to actually do the work.
UPDATE2: More here.