Saturday, June 19, 2010

Afghan Mines, Reporter Whines

I was getting ready to write another column on the utter pointlessness of America’s ongoing Afghan mission when the New York Times’ James Risen broke the news on Monday that the United States had discovered “previously unknown deposits” of vast quantities of minerals in Afghanistan, including rare earth elements like lithium (vital in producing high-energy batteries for consumer electronics). In fact, Pentagon officials valued the deposits at a whopping $1 trillion and breathlessly proclaimed that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

It was an announcement that promised to breathe life into an otherwise faltering mission in Afghanistan – no longer were our troops fighting and dying to support a corrupt regime in a fight against a collection of tribal insurgents for control over a primitive narcostate; they were helping to secure vital resources badly needed by our modern society. The timing couldn’t have been better; in fact I thought it was a little too perfect, and I wasn’t alone. Almost immediately criticism over Risen’s story popped up on websites across the Internet; many focused on the fact that the “new” minerals survey had actually been produced in 2007 and was itself largely based on reports that dated back further than that, some to the time of the Soviet invasion three decades ago. Some sites went further, suggesting that the Times had been “played” by the Pentagon hoping to turn the Afghan narrative away from a stream of negative news including a failed peace council, rising insurgency in the south and more comments by Hamid Karzai that he didn’t think the US-led coalition could “win.”

James Risen took the high road in his response to his critics, calling them “bloggers” who are “sitting around in their pajamas” instead of doing “real reporting” like him (note to Risen, I am dressed as I type this). It’s tempting to turn Risen’s critique around, and to say his report is emblematic of the laziness of the mainstream media, which is content to sit back and be fed leads from administration officials rather than going out and pounding the bricks for their own stories; after all, there was nothing preventing Risen from doing his own account about Afghanistan’s economic potential separate from a Pentagon briefing. Or more on point, Risen could have questioned where the Pentagon got their “$1 trillion” figure, something he does not do in Monday’s story.

Keep in mind, natural resources only have value if you can get them out of the ground (or wherever) and deliver them to a customer willing to buy them. That’s a pretty doubtful proposition in landlocked Afghanistan, a country with very little infrastructure (Afghanistan’s two main cities Kabul and Kandahar were only recently linked by a modern highway), even Risen’s story notes that truly developing the minerals industry could take “decades.” To look at another example, some of the world’s absolute lowest labor costs can be found in the Central African Republic, but multinational firms aren’t lining up to build factories in the CAR because the country is smack in the middle of the continent, with little infrastructure, no sea access and a history of poor governance (sound familiar?). So while there may be a lot of minerals buried beneath the dirt of Afghanistan, without a viable way of getting them out of the ground and to market, you really can’t say its “worth” anything, let alone $1 trillion.

And of course even if the geological assessments are correct and the infrastructure can be developed to exploit the minerals, that still doesn’t guarantee a bring future for the Afghani people, since the country is likely to fall victim to something in international development circles called the “resource curse.” Simply put, while having a valuable resource (oil, diamonds, lithium, you name it) should put a country on the route to prosperity – since there’s money now to build roads, schools, hospitals, and offer employment to people at good wages; more often than not though quite the opposite happens, wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a small elite, while the rest of the population lives in poverty and are often oppressed by their government lest they upset the status quo (see Equatorial Guinea for a great example of the resource curse in action). With an Afghan government already notorious for its cronyism, it’s not likely they will behave in an egalitarian way with a sudden influx of mineral-based wealth. Of course that’s probably not the spin the Pentagon would like put on the Afghan story.
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