On Monday, the New York Times reported on a Defense Department memo claiming that under Afghanistan's hard terrain lays nearly a $1 trillion in mineral deposits. These minerals include large veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium, a vital component of computer batteries. But the reality of this story is that it is more of a propaganda campaign or "information operation" than it is real news. Yes, it is true that these minerals do exist in Afghanistan but it is by no means news. The U.S. Geological survey made the discovery back in 2007. However, the U.S. government is pushing the story now because the coalition here has been rocked by some particularly bad press here the past week (Ironically from the New York Times. This causes me to wonder if the Times is attempting to buy its way back into the good graces of the Embassy in Kabul.) The most damaging of this press were comments attributed to President Karzai about the West not being able to win in Afghanistan. This story is similar to ones that preceded the Iraq War when the Bush administration claimed that Iraq's oil wealth would pay for all the costs of reconstruction.
The reason why news of these vasts deposits is no need to celebrate is simple. The minerals are worthless unless you can actually get private companies to come in here and mine them. And with the security situation what it is that is not likely to happen any time soon. Afghanistan, for instance, would be a great country to run oil pipeline through, stretching from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and then on to China as well. However, despite a great deal of effort on the part of a U.S. company called Unocal, they were never able to negotiate enough treaties with all the tribes and Taliban to agree not to blow up the lines or siphon oil from them. The one country with a mining contract in Afghanistan right now is China, which now owns the largest copper mine here. They don't care about their people dying so it works out well for them.
The Taliban can't really mine anything so we don't really have to worry about them getting this revenue as they simply aren't organized enough, not to mention the literate enough. Furthermore, you can tell that the majority of the deposits are located in Northern, Western and Central Afghanistan, all areas where the Taliban is not strong. The Taliban makes the majority of their money through taxes, which they are pretty good at collecting. They front farmers the money to buy opium poppy seed. They then take a percentage of the farmers cut when he sells his product to the local drug lord. They then also tax the drug lord for the right to move his product through areas they control. It is very mafia-like both in the government and the black market.
The other really bad thing about all these mineral deposits being discovered is that its really just one more thing for the government here to exploit for bribes. The Chinese got their copper mine for a song simply by paying a few million to the right ministers. (The minister of mines reportedly got $30 million for just himself). The mine itself is worth billions.
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