This is sure to end well: Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral resources

Paul Raven @ 14-06-2010

Looks like my cynicism gland gets an early boost this week, as the New York Times reports that the US government has discovered Afghanistan holds an estimated US$1 trillion in previously untapped mineral deposits [via MetaFilter].

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.

Looks like I’m reading from the same page as Charlie Stross:

Note the presence of lithium in that list. It’s a vital raw material for high-capacity rechargable batteries, used in everything from mobile phones to hybrid or electrically-powered automobiles — and there’s a growing worldwide shortage of the stuff. There’s no intrinsic shortage of lithium, but high grade mineral sources are hard to find — it’s mostly bound up in other mineral deposits, in very low concentrations. Half the known exploitable reserves are in Bolivia (at least, before this new discovery).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the inductive jump from oil:old burning-stuff-to-keep-warm economy to lithium:new post-carbon alternative energy economy. And by applying the PNAC’s equation of control over energy reserves with maintenance of competitive advantage (by applying the choke collar to rivals), it’s fairly likely that, coming at this time, the discovery of Lots of Lithium in Afghanistan will be used to reinforce western support for an increasingly unpopular war of occupation.

Charlie expresses his hope that he’s being overly cynical; it’s a hope I share, but not one I’d like to put money on. But here’s Thomas Barnett with a slightly different take on the situation:

Before anybody gets the idea that somehow the West is the winner here, understand that we’re not the big draw on most of these minerals–that would be Asia and China in particular. What no one should expect is that the discovery suddenly makes it imperative that NATO do whatever it takes to stay and win and somehow control the mineral outcomes, because–again–that’s now how it works in most Gap situations like Africa.  We can talk all we want about China not “dominating” the situation, but their demand will drive the process either directly or indirectly.  There is no one in the world of mining that’s looking to make an enemy out of China over this, and one way or another, most of this stuff ends up going East–not West.

[…]

Here’s the simplest reality test I can offer you:  if we’re just at the initial discovery phase now, we’re talking upwards of a decade before there will be mature mines.  Fast-forward a decade in your mind and try to imagine the US having a bigger presence in Afghanistan than China.  I myself cannot.

Start with that realization and move backward, because exploring any other pathway will likely expose you to a whole lotta hype.

A rather more optimistic viewpoint than my own (and, to judge by the content of my Twitter feed, a lot of other people’s). We’ll just have to wait and see… which will certainly be an easier experience for us Westerners than for the poor Afghanis. Better make some more adjustments to that perpetually mutating narrative, eh?

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One Response to “This is sure to end well: Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral resources”

  1. jimmy says:

    there’s an interesting post about giving resource wealth royalties to all afghanistan’s citizens here
    http://spectregroup.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/like-they-do-in-alaska/