The announcement of the discovery of over a trillion dollars worth mineral wealth in Afghanistan is a godsend to proponents of the long war. Right now the U.S. and its allies are just flailing around battling the Taliban without any kind of mission other than propping up the weak and corrupt Karzai government and the warlords that support it. Certainly the effort to get Osama bib Laden (remember him?), the cause of all this, is as dormant as a hibernating bear in winter.
Now we have an excuse to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely or even perhaps make it the 52nd state (right after Iraq). After all, if Afghanistan is going to be the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” we wouldn’t want that mineral wealth to fall in the hands of the Taliban, now would we (even though there’s no mining industry in Afghanistan to speak of)? Like it or not, natural resources play an enormous role in the formulation of U.S. policy whether they are strategic minerals, oil, or natural gas. Lots of people in the West have cellphones and Blackberrys dependent on lithium which Afghanistan has in abundance.If men and women can die to make sure we can drive our cars, then they can also die to make sure Americans can still tweet.
Of course the Taliban know this too, which means they now have no incentive whatsoever to stop fighting. If Saudis can get away with their poor human rights record because of their oil, the Taliban can bet the West will look the other way at their burqa empire while they eagerly snap up the lithium needed to power the world in the 21st century. And if the U.S. thinks the Afghan government of today is prepared to handle any new mineral wealth, one only needs to point out the Congo, Nigeria, or Indonesia as as examples of resource-rich but unstable polities where the resources make men or nations too greedy to properly benefit the people who live above them. Indeed, for every Saudi Arabia or Kuwait that got rich with oil because of their small populations and efficient monarchies, there’s a Congo that was either ruled by a despot making sure he and his family got the bulk of the wealth from such resources or descended into anarchy as rebels or other nations tried to take advantage of resources a weak central government could not control. Other resource-rich nations like Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Gabon fit one of these two poles of the mineral wealth, and Afghanistan would certainly be in the latter category.
Before yesterday’s announcement, Afghanistan’s strategic value seemed to be as a central nowhere touching everywhere important in Asia. Now that underneath and within all that rock and dirt are things quite valuable to outside powers and to the greedy and ambitious inside the country, the everyday misery of the ordinary Afghan caught between Islamic extremists, rapacious warlords, corrupt officials, and foreign troops will only get worse.