The New York Times reports on the discovery by American geologists that Afghanistan contains "vast riches" in untapped mineral deposits: at least $1 trillion worth -- including huge troves of lithium, "a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys," as the paper breathlessly relates.
Unfortunately, given the realities of our world, one's first reaction to such news is not a cheery "How nice for the Afghan people!" but rather a heart-sinking, dread-clammy "Uh oh." For what this discovery almost certainly portends are many more decades of war, warlordism and foreign intervention, as the forces of greed and power fight like hyenas to tear off the juiciest chunks of this windfall.
It also guarantees many more years of American military occupation (in one guise or another); there is absolutely no chance that our Beltway banditti (and their corporate cronies) are simply going to walk away from a stash like this, not when they've already got "boots on the ground" -- and billions of dollars in war pork invested in the place. It's payback time, baby! (Or rather, double-dip time, as most these "investments" are just pass-throughs of public money to private profiteers). And hey, finder's keepers and all that, right?
The Times story is the usual splattered mess of regurgitated Pentagon PR and imperial spin, with a few small bits of pertinent information here and there.
The story first displays its "savvy" cred by noting the possible downsides of the find. ("Hey, we're not just cheerleaders, you know!") It could make the Taliban fight even harder. It could exacerbate the corruption of the American-installed Afghan government. It could set off conflicts between Afghan tribes and warlord factions to control the mining. It could wreak environmental ruin. And it seems it could tempt grasping greedy foreigners to prey upon the war-ravaged Afghans and steal their wealth:
At the same time, American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.
Oh yes, the great danger is that China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan's mineral wealth! They've already got one copper mine and they want more, the greedy bastards!
This passage gives us a vivid display of the quintessential NYT stew of PR, spin and tiny fragments of reality. First comes the head fake toward the Yellow Peril, then we get a bit of truth: the Washington believes the United States should dominate the development of Afghanistan's mineral wealth, "given its heavy investment in the region." China can't have it, because we've got it. We've spent a lot of money and we've killed a lot of people to get it (including wads of our own cannon fodder) -- and by God, we're going to keep it!
Of course, the Times accepts this as the natural state of affairs. The possibility that the mineral find might exacerbate the rampant American corruption in the Afghan war is not mentioned, or even hinted at. The idea that it will make the Pentagon fight harder -- and nastier -- to secure control over the stash is not even considered.
Instead, we get another bashing of the Afghan government for its corruption -- as if this is occurring in some kind of vacuum, as if the billions of dollars being siphoned off, socked away or spread around to cronies by the American-appointed, American-backed, American-supplied Afghan officials were not being doled out to them by .... the Americans, who are happily kicking back billions more to their own cronies, contractors and profiteers.
We also get -- yet again -- the myth that the American empire acts solely out of altruism. American officials, we are told, are gearing up to help the Afghans exploit the find with technical expertise, business plans and industry contacts. But strangely enough, this kindness is not being provided by, say, the State Department or some aid agency; it is being carried out by ... the Pentagon. It is the Pentagon that is "helping Afghan officials arrange to start seeking bids on mineral rights by next fall" and facilitating the development of the trillion-dollar cache.
In other words, the warlords of a foreign power will develop the mining operations in order to keep them out of the hands of, er, foreign powers and warlords.
Another nugget of truth buried deep in the story is the fact that the "discovery" of the huge trove of mineral deposits was actually made a few years ago. It is being trotted out now because the Obama Administration needs some good news about its ever-expanding quagmire in Central Asia -- and perhaps also to send a signal to its corporate backers and foreign allies (such as Britain, now making noises about possibly winding down its Afghan involvement) that the game is most definitely worth the candle.
And worth the lives of thousands and thousands of more Afghans -- and Pakistanis, Americans, Britons and others -- in a mad, murderous mineral scramble. The Pentagon businessmen say that Afghanistan could become "the Saudi Arabia of lithium" -- but it is far more likely to become "the Congo of Central Asia": a zone of decades-long, hydra-headed, multi-sided, society-gutting, atrocity-producing, money-grubbing war over "vast riches" of mineral deposits.
But hey: as long as the BlackBerries and laptops keep rolling in, who cares, right? Those things are just so darn cool.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on June 14, 2010.