There’s Information Operations in Them Thar Hills: A Resource Curse for the Hindu Kush
So the NYT picks up a story that a lot of Afghanistan observers, (even amateur, pajama-clad bloggers, such as myself!) already knew – Afghanistan, having spent the past few decades in various forms and intensities of warfare, has large amounts of unexploited minerals and ores, including fuel of the future, lithium. At a time when the United States is suffering the direct consequences of its petroleum addiction, the discovery of the fuel of our post-oil future in Afghanistan is dripping with potential for rhetorical relish. Linking the war on terror with kick-starting a globalized Afghan economy with the mission to end our fossil fuel addiction, the narrative is ripe for the administration (and Thomas Friedman, for that matter) and its mission.
That answers why the US Geological Survey is whipping the NYT and the rest of the media into a frenzy now – of course nobody saw the BP disaster coming, but as the tragedies of recent NATO deaths and pitfalls of the Afghan peace jirga have shown, there are plenty of reasons for pessimism about the Afghanistan campaign, and whatever good news about Afghanistan’s prospects is certainly politically expedient as the doubts about McChrystal and Obama’s strategy sink in. To be fair to the NYT, any pressure or nudging on the timing of this report likely came from the government, and who can blame a reporter for running with it? As for the intended audience, time will tell who this story wins over. IO ploys such as this can backfire, and already some segments of the public are decrying a war for minerals, or questioning American motives.
Turning to the sharp end of geopolitics and the Afghan war, however, the idea of shedding blood for iron is so imprudent that wholly cold-blooded strategists would reject it outright. Even if the US were to win the war and secure the unexploited deposits, Afghanistan would still be landlocked and bereft of transportation infrastructure. Unless the US wants to use Afghanistan as the world’s least conveniently located strategic ore reserve, it will need to find a way to get those ores to its own markets. But Afghanistan has no viable highway or rail infrastructure to support such an effort. Where would these hypothetical commercial arteries even go? Sending them through terror-wracked and potentially hostile Pakistan is, to understate, suboptimal. Sending them through Iran is an even worse option for would-be American mineral barons. Dreams of a new silk road through post-Soviet Eurasia is also an inefficient and geopolitically disadvantageous route, and the idea of sending all these resources through China would merely strengthen the enemy in the eyes of our strawman plotters.
Unfortunately for the real US and Afghan governments, these are real problems, not just hypothetical ones. The war-torn and underdeveloped transportation infrastructure and Afghanistan’s isolation from world markets are serious problems. Worse for Afghans and the counterinsurgents, however, are the familiar consequences of the resource curse. Afghanistan will need huge amounts of foreign investment, training, and for the immediate future, a lot of foreign labor, and a government counterparty to manage all these deals. This will provoke as much violence as it will prevent, as officials cash in on mining company kickbacks, and the flow of mineral revenue stunts the development of a healthy relationship between the tax-paying citizen and the government whose salary he theoretically pays. While foreign military and development aid already present this problem, nobody should be eager to make a client state a rentier state. This is all glossing over the slim chances that any wealth would enrich broad segments of the Afghan population. As Andew Exum laments, experience points towards a bloody future for poor, stagnant economies flush with resources. Yes, there are exceptions, as an FP piece points out – but internecine violence was not wracking Chile and Botswana when their geese began laying golden eggs. This survey may well be a tragedy for those who live above the riches.
Beyond the Afghan campaign, which will eventually end, the geopolitical and geoeconomic trends this report highlights have strategic implications for America. As the story notes, a Chinese company has already moved in to mine Afghan copper, one Afghanistan’s major industrial projects. This should surprise nobody, China is a neighbor, hungry for resources, and far more willing to go into the troubled lands where Western companies would flinch, and Chinese companies can bribe local officials not with the support, not the reluctance, of their own government. In the logic of realpolitik, the prime great power beneficiary of our counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will be China – if we succeed, NATO soldiers have pacified Chinese gold mines, and if the mission is more costly than we expect, then there is more US debt to buy and less money and political attention the US can devote to managing China’s economic and political rise. Advocates of American intervention are right, American power provides global public goods. Whether publicizing the potential world gains of American action will encourage China, Pakistan, India, and other potential benefactors to contribute more to the effort in Afghanistan, as the current administration hopes, or merely reinforce the case for free riding remains to be seen.