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Afghanistan’s Mineral “Riches”: A scheme to sell us on another decade of occupation?

The story came from the Pentagon

By Steve Hynd | June 14, 2010

Last night, the New York Times’ James Risen “broke” what the mainstream media are insisting is a blockbuster story about Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth – not just iron and copper but strategically significant minerals like lithium and all told valued at around $1 trillion.


Only…not wow. When the NYT published Risen’s story to the web last night, I tweeted “What a convenient time to find $1 trillion, eh?” and “Just as McChrystal’s in big trouble, liberal thinktanks starting to shift anti-war, Pentagon publicizes $1 trillion Afghan treasure trove,” because this is a zombie story, resurrected yet again for political purposes.

Afghanistan’s mineral riches were well known to the Soviets in 1985 and a US government Country Study in 2002 went into detail about their knowledge. By 2005 the US Geological Service was being publicly exuberant in its assessment of Afghanistan’s mineral resources (PDF). It published other public reports about the “Significant Potential for Undiscovered Resources in Afghanistan” in 2007, one of which focussed on non-fuel minerals. In 2008, it was Afghan reserves of oil and gas that was making the news and in 2009, as Reuters was reporting on Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth and McLatchy was noting China’s interest, rights to the vast iron deposits were already up for tender.

Blake Hounshell is just as skeptical as I am, writing last night:

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 a report 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 photographs.

Nowhere 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 current 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.

Don’t 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.

But I’m (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 capital investment.

Exactly. These reserves are very real but they don’t help Afghanistan right now one bit and they’re unlikely to really help Afghanistan down the line since the evidence says that corrupt societies that suddenly find themselves in possession of mineral wealth only get more corrupt. So, unless you’re willing to encompass the conspiracy theory that the US invaded Afghanistan, at a cost of $1 trillion and rising fast, so that one day some corporations might make a few billions (and some will) we have to ask what was the point of resurrecting this zombie and painting it up so fine for Mardi Gras?

Well, although Risen’s lede says the news came from “senior American government officials” it’s easy to see which agency wants us reading about massive strategic reserves in Afghanistan right now. The story came from the Pentagon. Risen quotes extensively from Paul A. Brinkley, “deputy undersecretary of defense for business and leader of the Pentagon team that discovered the deposits” and has General Petraeus saying that “There is stunning potential here…I think potentially it is hugely significant.” … Full article

June 14, 2010 - Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Militarism


  1. Another 100 yrs of war, more troops please Mr Obamau. Bin Laden.

    Comment by abe nagano | June 15, 2010

  2. McChrystal deserves credit for having done one thing right — he covered up how some jealous officers set up Pat Tillman to come under friendly fire — that’s why McChrystal got his current posting: Washington loves guys who can hide the truth

    Comment by henry | June 15, 2010

  3. China has had the mineral claims it wanted in Afghanistan for years.
    This is all based on public Russian data from the 1980’s.
    China “won” when the actor-Reagan- started cutting taxes of the rich & corporate constraints, which put the “west” on the path to now,which is interestingly the first three letters of: NOWHERE.

    Comment by mot | June 15, 2010

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