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Fresh Talking Point: Poor Afghanistan, They're Rich!

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I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

By now everyone has just about lost their damn minds about this New York Times article detailing Afghanistan's "discovery" of vast amounts of mineral wealth. Yes, it's way crazy old information (like the 70's old). Yes, it's Soviet Pentagon propaganda. If you've been reading us here, you already know ISAF's counter-insurgency strategy is a flaming wreck, and you already know what they're going to do about that. Propaganda and misinformation are all part of it.

But if your reaction has been typical, that of only sneering derision and snide condescension (guilty!), you've missed the point. Part of understanding propaganda is knowing its intended audience. We do this automatically when, say, Iranian President Ahmadinejad blames evil CIA spies for whatever it is that's bothering him that day; unemployment, tummy ache, whatever. We understand right away that this is not about us, about Americans. Rather, it's aimed at a domestic Iranian audience with very real fears about foreign interference. Only in the case of Afghanistan's minerals, we're personalizing it, assuming it's aimed at us. It's not for you, though. This propaganda has a very specific audience, and so far it's working perfectly.

Steve Hynd picks up on it [emphasis mine]:

However, guaranteed U.S. access to "strategic reserves" of "strategic minerals", where possession is nine tenths of the game and the resources are just as valuable still in the ground as mined and processed for market, is a heady brew to mostly-hawkish senior policymakers and Very Serious think-tankers, especially if the end of the sentence goes 'and China doesn't get them". Risen's stenography isn't aimed at us, but at them and will be used to add some geopolitical weight to the arguements McChrystal and others are already beginning to make as to why they should be allowed to break their promise to Obama and the U.S. should stay in Afghanistan a few years longer.

This story is aimed at the elites who make the wars. The Pentagon has handed the hawks in Washington a powerful factoid to be used and re-used endlessly in pursuit of their war.

How do we know this? Well, there are some very obvious clues. The article is loaded with crunchy, fact-y bits that appear substantive, but in reality have nothing to do with what's actually at stake. Does it matter that they have rare-earth minerals and lithium for laptops and so on? No, it doesn't matter if they struck the mother lode of chocolate ice cream. As Blake Hounsel writes, they don't even have concrete, much less a sophisticated, multi-billion dollar mining industry capable of extracting, processing, and marketing these minerals to international companies. They want it to look like a lot of information ("Wow, lookit all the minerals!") but not actually answer any real questions ("Wait, can they even get it?").

Think-tankers love this kind of crap. They'd like nothing better than to somehow fit COIN and iPads (like most in the media, they're commercial shills for both) into the same article. If you like your Macbook and your Prius and that application that makes your telephone fart, well, you'd better support our batshit crazy idea of invading and bombing Afghan into a peaceful democracy. Otherwise the Chinese will steal all of that copper, and they don't give us anything (except everything).

But it's better than that. You also have gems like this:

In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey's library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

Neato, it's just like Tom Clancy! Soviet resource wars, hidden documents - it's all so exciting. And it even contains the secret weapon that bleeds the heart of every think-tanker and foreign policy wonk everywhere: the courageous, pro-American snitch. God bless you for "protecting" information that everybody already knew, "small group of Afghan geologists." And thank you, thank you, for keeping it a secret during your darkest eras and revealing it only when the American invaders arrived. I can only assume all Afghans are just as grateful for your selfish attempt at stifling development as we are!

We love to imagine the brown people we're obliterating with missiles secretly know of our righteousness, deep down on the inside. Oh, that smart local, he secretly knows we're the good guys! If you've ever read Richard Clarke's epic, high fantasy novel Scorpion's Gate, you already know this character. In it, a Saudi oil prince secretly falls in love with American democracy and carries out a coup, pretty much turning Saudi Arabia into Switzerland overnight. Of course, this is about as believable as some old, white Tea Partier in Oklahoma secretly reading the Hadith and the collected works of Sayyid Qutb in his basement, but whatever, foreign policy hawks never get tired of fetishing their own pet locals. Those Afghans know the truth, we're the good guys!

Now that we're clear who this propaganda about Afghanistan's minerals is aimed at, is it working? See for yourself:

in emerging and underdeveloped states, weak legal systems and official corruption create incentives for powerful people to exploit those resources, rather than allow mineral wealth to fuel national renewal. Think Congo or Sierra Leone. It's easy to tick off the ways in which what political scientists call the "Resource Curse" applies to Afghanistan: a tenuous legal structure; warlordism; war; foreign interventionism; corruption throughout the political system; an uneasy and unstable relationship between provincial and national authorities; and an uneasy and unstable relationship in provinces and districts with instruments of local governance as well as national governance.

Yay, the "Resource Curse." It's one of those well-intentioned western excuses, dripping with irony and ignorance, used to insult other countries and hopefully justify a reason to bomb them. The sales pitch goes something like this: "Why, hold up there Ira -er, Afghanistan. Looks like you got a case of the failed state. Yessir, on account of the resource curse, that is. Luckily, we can sell you the cure! Y'see, it's called counter-insurgency..."

But there's a couple problems with this. Right away, it's not a "curse." A curse implies that it's somehow mystical, a supernatural affliction. Turning into Dracula is a curse. Discovering vast mineral wealth is not a curse. It's not a magical mystery why Afghanistan, or any other country, suffers from this so-called curse. Ackerman was quite clear: "Tenuous legal structure; warlordism; war; foreign interventionism; corruption." Well gee whiz, how do you suppose that stuff happened? Foreign intervention? War? Are we so stupid that we don't realize what we're saying? War is a deliberate policy we choose, we fund, and we carry out. It's not "oops, I guess Afghanistan is cursed." We did that.

But this obliviousness is also where we see the exact impact of the mineral propaganda. This isn't "pro-war" propaganda so much as it is feeding excuses for why the war is failing. A failing war simply implies more war as icing on the cake. Remember, you can never blame the COIN strategy, it is sacred. But you can blame everything else, including Afghanistan itself. Andrew Exum spells it out for us:

But counterinsurgency strategies rest on the assumption that you can eventually weaken anti-government forces and reduce levels of violence to the point where a political process can take place in more peaceful circumstances. We now have one trillion fresh reasons why this assumption might not be valid for Afghanistan. I am not yet sure what this means for either U.S. and allied interests or the current strategy. I more or less agree with today's editorial in the New York Times that our current strategy "still seems like the best chance to stabilize Afghanistan and get American troops home." But as the editorial noted, the news last week from Afghanistan was terrible. And I'm not sure this week's news is any better.

Got that? COIN isn't the problem, no, that's our "best chance." The problem is how crappy Afghanistan is, and now they have "one trillion fresh reasons" to fight about something. Damn those ingrate Afghans, always wanting an equitable stake in their country's resources. We're just trying to move in with guns and bombs and dominate their wealth for our narrow corporate interests, you'd think they'd be nicer about it. If only their crooked government that we support wasn't so corrupt and incompetent, like President Obama and his friends from Goldman Sachs.

See, Afghanistan is war torn, so that's why our war isn't working. Clearly the solution is more war. Voila! Resource Curse!

As we see, this isn't some every day propaganda trying pitifully to sell a trillion dollar debt-war to a nation of unemployed. This is a very specific talking point explicitly targeting the foreign policy community, all as a part of the Pentagon's blame game. It makes the Pentagon appear desperate, sure, but this isn't a joke, some embarassing gaffe by the PR department. This is very real and very effective military propaganda. Blame everything, blame the Afghans, blame their lithium, just please don't blame the war.

Want to save the princess and free Afghanistan of its mystical resource curse, also known as pressuring congress to end the war? You can do that. Join us on Rethink Afghanistan's Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.

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