Afghanistan Mineral Riches: Beware the Hype
By James Joyner
June 14, 2010 "Atlantic Council" -- News that "United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself" should be taken with several doses of salt.
James Risen of the NYT broke the story, which has the security blogosphere buzzing. It gushes,
But, as Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell points out, the discovery in question dates to 2007, has been widely documented on US government websites for years, and the $1 trillion figure seems to have been conjured from thin air. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder points to evidence that the Soviets had documented this trove way back in 1985!
Katie Drummond of Wired's Danger Room adds, "it might be prudent to be wary of any data coming out of Afghanistan’s own Mines Minestry," citing a Wall Street Journal report noting it “has long been considered one of the country’s most corrupt government departments."
That this story has gotten front page placement in the country's top newspaper has Mother Jones' Kevin Drum, OTB's Doug Mataconis, and others questioning the timing. Ambinder, noting the on-the-record quotes from the highest levels of the U.S. military, goes so far as to characterize this as "a massive information operation."
Aside from the fact that the news isn't actually new and that there's good reason to believe that the potential benefits are being wildly exaggerated for political reasons, we should also be skeptical of the idea that Afghanistan is going to suddenly leap forward several centuries into modernity by virtue of a natural resource find.
First, as Matt Yglesias of the Center for American Progress notes, it's quite likely that the actual extraction will be performed by non-Afghan companies who bid on the mineral rights at a fraction of their actual value.
Second, given the corruption that is endemic in the Afghan governance culture, it's quite likely that most of the money will be skimmed off the top rather than benefiting the Afghan people.
Third, there's real reason to worry about a developing country relying on resource extraction to build their economy. CNAS senior fellow' Andrew Exum points to Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion and sees dark days ahead for the NATO coalition effort:
The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman, noting that "Afghanistan’s economy is based around opium and foreign aid," agrees:
Let's hope that retired Green Beret and DoD senior executive Pat Lang is right that "the lives of ordinary Afghans will be profoundly changed perhaps for the better." After decades of war and centuries of poverty, it would be wonderful. But a lot needs to go right for the rosier side of the perhaps to come true. And there's not much in Afghan history that would lead me to bet on it.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.