Ambinder: Mineral Miracle? Or a Massive Information Operation?

June 15, 2010

by Michael Leon

Marc Ambinder has an interesting take on the $trillion mineral blockbuster.

By Marc Ambinder

Were it not for the byline of James Risen, a New York Times reporter currently in a legal battle with the Obama administration over the identity of his sources, a second read of his blockbuster A1 story this morning, U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan, would engender some fairly acute skepticism. For one, a simple Google search identifies any number of previous stories with similar details.

The Bush Administration concluded in 2007 that Afghanistan was potentially sitting on a goldmine of mineral resources and that this fact ought to become a central point of U.S. policy in bolstering the government.

The Soviets knew this in 1985, as a 2002 history of the region’s economy shows:

Afghanistan has reserves of a wide variety of nonenergy mineral resources, including iron, chrome, copper, silver, gold barite sulfur, talc, magnesium, mica, marble, and lapis lazuli. By 1985 Soviet surveys had also revealed potentially useful deposits of asbestos, nickel, mercury, lead, zinc, bauxite, lithium, and rubies.

The Afghan government in the mid-1980s was preparing to develop a number of these resources on a large scale with Soviet technical assistance. These efforts were directed primarily at the country’s large iron and copper reserves. The iron ore deposits contained an estimated 1.7 billion tons of mixed hematite and magnetite, averaging 62 percent iron.

 These reserves, among the world’s largest, arelocated at Hajji Gak, almost 4,000 meters up in the Hindu Kush, northwest of Kabul in Bamian Province. Development started in 1983, and because the Afghan authorities had put forth no plan to establish an iron and steel industry, the output appeared destined for the Soviet steel mills in Tashkent.

A former senior State Department official said that regular discussions between the U.S. and the Karzai government over how to best exploit the resources for potential future use were ongoing when he was privy to those discussions around 2006.

By 2009, the government had already begun to solicit bids for various mining opportunities.

Jonathan Landay of McClatchy was on to the geopolitical importance of Afghanistan’s mineral reserves in 2009, writing that China’s thirst for coal might be the key to regional stabilization.

Already, there are accusations that the REAL reason the US is in Afghanistan is because WE want to exploit those mines. That’s a passable but facile interpretation of what’s going on here.

The way in which the story was presented — with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less — and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war.

 Indeed, as every reader of Jared Diamond’s popular works of geographic determinism knows well, a country rich in mineral resources will tend toward stability over time, assuming it has a strong, central, and stable government.

Risen’s story notes that the minerals discovery comes at a propitious time. He focuses on lithium, a critical component of electronics. One official tells him that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” — a comparison to oil. (I can see it now: “We must wean ourselves off our dependence on foreign lithium!”)

The general perception about the war here and overseas is that the counterinsurgency strategy has failed to prop up Hamid Karzai’s government in critical areas, and is destined to ultimately fail. This is not how the war was supposed to be going, according to the theorists and policy planners in the Pentagon’s policy shop.

What better way to remind people about the country’s potential bright future — and by people I mean the Chinese, the Russians, the Pakistanis, and the Americans — than by publicizing or re-publicizing valid (but already public) information about the region’s potential wealth?

The Obama administration and the military know that a page-one, throat-clearing New York Times story will get instant worldwide attention. The story is accurate, but the news is not that new; let’s think a bit harder about the context.

– Marc Ambinder is the politics editor of The Atlantic. He has covered Washington for ABC News and the Hotline, and he is chief political consultant to CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @marcambinder

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