Commentary Magazine


Is the Afghan Gold Rush Good News for Obama or Afghanistan?

Over the past few years, some left-wing critics of the Bush administration may have wondered whether Washington would have prioritized the war in Afghanistan over the one in Iraq if, instead of being a mountainous wasteland, Afghanistan had been sitting on vast oil deposits. While the idea that the war in Iraq was fought for oil was a cherished leftist myth, there seemed little reason to fight in Afghanistan from a Marxist economic perspective.

But with the news today that the United States has newly discovered nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan, paranoid left-wing fantasy-spinners won’t be the only ones rushing to reevaluate the conflict there. According to U.S. officials quoted in the New York Times:

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe. An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

While these discoveries may represent a great hope for the future of Afghanistan – and a way for its people to shake off the notion that the only viable careers involve bloodshed or opium-growing — the chances that it could also create even more mischief, mayhem, and misery for that country are all too apparent.

The national government of President Hamid Karzai and local warlords will bitterly fight for control of the new mining opportunities. And don’t think the Taliban won’t be prepared to contest the areas where riches are under the ground.

And the potential for trouble from foreigners storming into the region to exploit these resources is also considerable. Except in this case, it won’t so much be a Yukon-style gold rush with wily prospectors straight out of a Jack London novel but, as the Times noted, a neighboring Chinese government looking to expand its sphere of influence.

Though the discoveries made by a team of Pentagon officials and American geologists – working from new maps charted by the United States Geological Survey – have produced results rightly considered both “amazing” and “promising,” the article goes on to state the difficulties of developing resources in a country with no heavy industry or mining infrastructure. A bloody war won’t make it any easier. But the really troubling aspect of this announcement is why the administration chose to leak the story — especially when even the preparations for mining for these minerals are clearly in the distant future, and when the Afghanistan government is far from ready to make such preparations.

The answer may come within the story itself: “The Obama administration is hungry for some positive news to come out of Afghanistan,” even though the announcement may complicate both the war and Washington’s delicate relations with the Karzai government. While the story was bound to come out sooner or later, it could be that this administration, which is such a ferocious foe of leaks to the media from government sources, let this particularly strategic piece of information slip to bolster its sagging poll numbers and to gain new support for the war.