I say that the media discovered them because the front-page article in the New York Times today had upped the chatter quotient on mineral deposits in Afghanistan that were found a long time ago. The World Bank wrote about Afghanistan’s mineral development in 2004. China has already begun to mine in Afghanistan, with the Kabul government providing them the lease on a copper mine in 2007 (they have to build a power plant and a railroad to get the copper out of the mine and into the supply chain; nobody seems to be talking about the infrastructure challenges). And the Wall Street Journal reported on the Afghan mining industry and how it was inviting more bids for copper, iron ore and other mineral development in August 2009.
Yet it also has one of the largest untapped copper deposits in the world and substantial oil and gas deposits. “In five or six years we hope Afghanistan can stand on its own two feet through mineral reserves,” said Minister of Mines and Industries Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, a Russian-educated engineer who was appointed by Mr. Karzai.
Today’s article is the first I’ve heard about lithium, which is an important mineral in the future as it exists in almost all battery technology for electronics, including electric vehicles. But there has been no general lack of knowledge about rich mineral deposits in Afghanistan. Potential Western partners have not been enticed by the mineral development, to put it simply, because of the high-risk security situation. So the idea that this marks a new beginning for Afghanistan doesn’t strike me as credible. That would require a minimum level of security for investors to feel comfortable.
In addition, Steve Benen is correct that resource-rich states do not often have positive results for their citizens, and the conflicts arising from control of those resources often create repressive and violent regimes. Also, as we saw with the Chinese copper deal, Afghanistan has no infrastructure to speak of to deal with the needs for mining, including basic transportation. They couldn’t start pulling minerals out of the earth tomorrow.
And you have to wonder why the New York Times would print this report today. The Afghan war effort is faltering; in fact, the White House attacked the NYT for writing about Hamid Karzai’s loss of faith that NATO and the US can actually defeat Taliban forces. Karzai greenlighted the long-stalled Kandahar operation, but that will only raise the casualty level in the near term, and if the operation in Marja is any indication, the insurgency will not be defeated. All of a sudden, James Risen rides to the rescue with a report of untold riches in Afghanistan. A report that was already known for at least six years.
Afghanistan faces the same challenges today that they faced yesterday. Only the media has discovered new ones for them.
UPDATE: Good for Marc Ambinder for figuring out that Afghan mineral deposits have been well-known for a long time, and that this smacks of a Defense Department press operation.