Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Riches: A Conveniently Timed Zombie StoryBy 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 whichfocussed 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 sceptical 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."
The timing is significant. In the last week, I've had several liberal think-tankers tell me privately that General McChrystal and the Pentagon's beloved COIN ideology are about to have what Gareth Porter terms a "2006 moment". With a slew of bad news about delays, unsuccessful offensives, unreliable local allies and offensives that cannot be called offensives in the past few weeks, those think-tankers expect President Obama to hold McChrystal, Petraeus and Mullen to their promise, as described by Jonathan Alter recently:
Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"
"Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.
"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.
"Yes, sir," Mullen said.
The president was crisp but informal. "Bob, you have any problems?" he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.
The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. "I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now," he said. No one said anything.
"Tell me now," Obama repeated.
"Fully support, sir," Mullen said.
"Ditto," Petraeus said.
Obama was trying to turn the tables on the military, to box them in after they had spent most of the year boxing him in. If, after 18 months, the situation in Afghanistan had stabilized as he expected, then troops could begin to come home. If conditions didn’t stabilize enough to begin an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces (or if they deteriorated further), that would undermine the Pentagon’s belief in the effectiveness of more troops. The commanders couldn’t say they didn’t have enough time to make the escalation work because they had specifically said, under explicit questioning, that they did.
There are careers on the line, not to mention the credibility of the whole counterinsurgency doctrine in which the Pentagon and its supporters have invested so much. As Marc Ambinder writes:
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.
But I think Michael Cohen is partly wrong about the intended audience for this NYT zombie story. Michael writes:
exactly how clueless are the leakers at DoD? Did they somehow think that this "blockbuster" story would change attitudes about Afghanistan after every day last week there was another article about precisely how bad the mission there is going? ...
There is nothing in this story that changes the fundamental incoherence of the current mission in Afghanistan. There is nothing here that will change the dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan and the reality of a corrupt, illegitimate Afghan government, an adaptable insurgent force and a June 2011 deadline for the commencement of US troop withdrawals.
The only thing this story shows is the desperation of the Pentagon in planting pie-in-the-sky news stories about Afghanistan and trying to salvage the lost cause that is our current mission there.
He is right as far as most of us unwashed peons are concerned. 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.
Update: Katie Drummond at Danger Room puts it bluntly: "No, The U.S. Didn’t Just 'Discover’ a $1T Afghan Motherlode":
One retired senior U.S official is calling the government’s mineral announcement "pretty silly," Politico is reporting. "When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970’s the [U.S. government], the Russians, the World Bank, the UN and others were all highly focused on the wide range of Afghan mineral deposits. Cheap ways of moving the ore to ocean ports has always been the limiting factor."
At least two American geologists have been advising the Pentagon on Afghanistan’s wealth of mineral resources for years. Bonita Chamberlin, a geologist who spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, "identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites," the Los Angeles Times reported in 2001. She even wrote a book, "Gemstones in Afghanistan," on the topic. And Chamberlin worked directly with the Pentagon, after they commissioned her to report on sandstone and limestone caves mere weeks after 9/11.
"I am quite surprised that the military is announcing this as some 'new’ and ’surprising" discovery,’ she told Danger Room in an email. "This is NOT new. Perhaps this also hints at the real reason why we would be so intent on this war…".
And James Joyner at the New Atlanticist has a good roundup of reaction as he warns "Beware the hype".
Update 2: readers will have noticed I originally day-dreamed my way to mentioning the wrong country in my post headline, mentioning Iraq instead of Afghanistan. A friend emails: "Man, I didn't even realize it, I just subconsciously blurred it all together. 'Oh, Iraq, Afghanistan, OK.' Somewhere Karl Rove just got a boner."
Just goes to show how pernicious that bit of framing was. And on that note, Dave earlier noted the similarity between this current story and past tales of massive oil reserves in Anbar that we were told would even out the factional inequalities in Iraq and make that nation a happy-happy-joy-joy land. And we've seen how all that oil out of Anbar has done that. Ummm....
Update 3: Josh Mull agrees with me about the target audience.
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).
And the Pentagon has now said that the specific figure is $908 billion. Because when you're working with zombies on such a large scale, a precise figure helps make the idea that it's all just lying around waiting for us (or China) to pick up a bit more believable, you see.
Update 4: I told you the VSPs would buy the narrative behind the story.
"Obama's war just became more important and more complicated at the same time," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who helped advise the administration last year when it was rethinking its Afghanistan strategy.
Riedel said that if the U.S. can provide the Afghans security and logistics to build up its mining capacity, Afghanistan's international stock will suddenly become more valuable. But there are a host of complications — competing industries and countries, corruption and war.
"If this was Pennsylvania, it'd turn out one way," he said. "But this is Afghanistan."
In other words, "we gotta stay now, or China wins!"
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