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    South Asia
     Jun 16, 2010
Pentagon strikes it rich
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - The timing of the publication of a major New York Times story on the vast untapped mineral wealth that lies beneath Afghanistan's soil is raising major questions about the intent of the Pentagon, which released the information.

Given the increasingly negative news that has come out of Afghanistan - and of United States strategy there - some analysts believe the front-page article is designed to reverse growing public sentiment that the war is not worth the cost.

"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 republicizing valid (but already public) information about the

 

region's potential wealth?" wrote Marc AmBinder, the political editor of The Atlantic magazine, on his blog.

"The way in which the story was presented - with on-the-record quotations from the commander-in-chief of CENTCOM [General David Petraeus], no less - and the weird promotion of a deputy assistant secretary of defense to under secretary of defense [Paul Brinkley] suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war," he added.

The nearly 1,500-word article [1], based almost entirely on Department of Defense sources and featured as the lead story in Monday's "Early Bird", a compilation of major national security stories that the Pentagon distributes each morning, asserted that Afghanistan may have close to US$1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits. These include "huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium", the story said.

Afghanistan's total annual gross domestic product last year came to about $13 billion. That contrasts with an illegal narcotics export trade estimated to be worth $4 billion a year.

One "internal Pentagon memo" provided to Times author James Risen predicted that Afghanistan could become "the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium', a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberrys".

"There is stunning potential here," Petraeus told Risen in an interview Saturday. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant," he said of the conclusions of a study by a "small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists".

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose recent efforts to begin a reconciliation process with the insurgent Taliban have been criticized by the Pentagon, quickly seized on the report. In a hastily arranged press briefing on Monday, Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the report was "the best news we have had over many years in Afghanistan".

Other commentators, however, suggested the news about Afghanistan's underground wealth was not all that new. The worth of Afghanistan’s mineral resources are worth $1 trillion, Karzai said in January, according to Bloomberg.

As noted by Blake Hounshell, managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, the US Geological Service already published a comprehensive inventory of Afghanistan's non-oil mineral resources on the Internet in 2007, as did the British Geological Survey (BGS). Much of their work was based on explorations and surveys undertaken by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Stan Coats, former principal geologist at the BGS, who carried out exploration work in Afghanistan for four years, injected a note of caution. "Considerably more work needs to be carried out before it can be properly called an economic deposit that can be extracted at a profit," he told The Independent newspaper. "Much more ground exploration, including drilling, needs to be carried out to prove that these are viable deposits which can be worked."

But, he added, despite the worsening security situation, some regions were safe enough "so there is a lot of scope for further work".

The $1 trillion figure in the New York Times article is based on a simple tabulation of the previous estimates for each mineral according to its current market price, according to Hounshell.

So, the question for many observers was why the article, which dominated much of the foreign news in the network and cable broadcast media during Monday's news cycle, was published now?

The Pentagon memo may have been an effort to attract international interest in the mining sector before the auction in the next few weeks of the 1.8 billion-ton iron-ore field in Hajigak, which could be worth $5 billion to $6 billion, according to the British-based Times. The development of the country's largest known iron deposit has been hampered by the war and weak institutions.

The memo coincided with a visit to India by Wahidullah Shahrani, the new Afghan minister of mines, to solicit bids for Hajigak after a planned tender was canceled last year because of a lack of international interest, the Times reported. Shahrani was appointed with US backing in January after his predecessor was sacked for allegedly taking bribes from a Chinese mining company - a charge he denies.

Afghan and Western officials want more companies to bid for Hajigak and other deposits to prevent China from gaining control over Afghanistan’s natural resources through bids subsidized heavily by Beijing, the Times said. American and European companies have alleged that underhand methods were used by Beijing to get contracts, it said.

China’s state-owned Metallurgical Corp of China won a license in 2007 to develop the Aynak copper field, Afghanistan's richest known deposit of the metal, where mining had been blocked by war in the 1980s, Bloomberg reported. The deposit holds 11 million tons of copper metal, according to a 2008 statement from Jiangxi Copper, a partner in the project, cited by Bloomberg.

The existence of the minerals also raises questions about foreign motives for involvement in the Afghan conflict. Afghans have complained that the West is really after its natural resources, just as many Iraqis contended that the US invasion of their country was about controlling the oil wealth (115 billion barrels of proven reserves, third in the world after Saudi Arabia and Iran).

The New York Times' Risen suggested an answer in his story to the question of the timing of the Pentagon memo, noting "American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan".

Indeed, US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) casualties have risen sharply in recent weeks; a four-month-old counter-insurgency offensive to "clear, hold and build" in the strategic region around Marjah in Pashtun-dominated Helmand province appears to have stalled badly; and a planned campaign in and around the critical city of Kandahar has been delayed for at least two months.

The latest polling shows a noticeable erosion of support for Washington's commitment to the war compared to eight months ago, when President Barack Obama agreed to the Pentagon's recommendations to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to bring the total US military presence there to around 100,000 later this summer.

Moreover, what little support for the war remains among the publics of Washington's NATO allies - never as high as in the US in any event - is also fading quickly. NATO and non-NATO countries, excluding the US, currently have about 34,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan.

On the eve of a NATO ministerial conference in Brussels last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that Washington and its NATO allies had very little time to convince their publics that their strategy against the Taliban was working - a message that has since been strongly echoed by the coalition's commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and by Petraeus.

Indeed, the administration is committed to a major review of its strategy in Afghanistan at the end of the year, and Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing US troops in July 2011.

Obama is already coming under pressure from right-wing and neo-conservative media - some of which have been cultivated by Petraeus, in particular - and Republican lawmakers to delay that date.

That view was seconded last week by former Petraeus aide, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl (retired), a counter-insurgency specialist who is now president of the influential Center for a New American Security.

Nagl worked closely with Petraeus in authoring the much-lauded 2006 US Counter-Insurgency Field Manual, which stressed the importance of efforts to influence media perceptions in any counter-insurgency campaign.

"The media directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counter-insurgents, their operations and the opposing insurgency," they wrote. "This situation creates a war of perceptions between insurgents and counter-insurgents conducted continuously using the news media."

In that respect, the appearance of the Times story on Monday looked to many observers like part of an effort to strengthen the case for giving the counter-insurgency effort more time.

In an interview with Politico's Laura Rozen on Monday, former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani said he had commissioned the assessment of Afghanistan's mineral wealth. "As to why it came out today ... I cannot explain," he said.

Notes
1. U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan


Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

(Inter Press Service with editing by Asia Times Online.)


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