Game-changer? On the Afghan minerals report

Recently, the New York Times dropped a bombshell article that began thus:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

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.

 
The huge caveat in the story is that Afghanistan has no heavy mining industry right now and probably wouldn’t be able to extract and process these resources in a cost-effective manner for at least a decade. Almost inarguably, this story is a game-changer in Afghanistan. The overarching question, is how will it actually change the “game,” and whether for good or ill.

For more on the growing economic importance of lithium carbonate, read this post that was co-incidentally published earlier the same time the article came out.

Is the report accurate and presented fairly (and does that matter)?

First things first. Is this report even accurate or is it overblown American military propaganda being presented as news? Probably closer to the latter, despite the prestige of the Times journalist who reported the story (who resisted allegations he’d been played). Brooklynbad, who had written the post on lithium I linked above, examined what a bunch of other bloggers and analysts were saying:

Marc Armbinder at The Atlantic:

The way in which the story was presented — with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less — and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war.

 
As was pointed out on the front page yesterday, the idea that there was vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan was known by the government for years. The article was presented, however, as if the United States struck “gold in them thar hills.” Kate Drummond at Wired:

But the military (and observers of the military) have known about Afghanistan’s mineral riches for years. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Navy concluded in a 2007 report that “Afghanistan has significant amounts of undiscovered nonfuel mineral resources,” including ”large quantities of accessible iron and copper [and] abundant deposits of colored stones and gemstones, including emerald, ruby [and] sapphire.”

Not to mention that the $1 trillion figure is — at best — a guesstimate. None of the earlier U.S military reports on Afghan’s mineral riches cite that amount.

Keep in mind that the article in question cites the proverbial “internal Pentagon memo” skillfully obtained, apparently. Generals and civilian officials from the Pentagon are willing to be quoted about the memo, with Petraeus saying, “There is stunning potential here.”

 
Ambinder’s piece, quoted briefly in that post, is probably worth reading in full to see why this is, as he puts it, an accurate story but not new information in any way that really changes the situation. However, he is making the point that this article was possibly being set up by the Pentagon and possibly the Obama Administration as part of a public opinion/information campaign.

Brooklynbad added the next day after reading the journalist’s defense of his article:

So, in summary, a Pentagon official sends a team of CIA guys to Afghanistan to come up with a valuation of the country’s wealth. They come back with $900 billion. A member of the team contacts a New York Times reporter to “tell him what they were finding.” Apparently, they thought the reporter was extremely interested in Afghan geology, although he has no history of such writing. Next, the reporter interviews all the people who contacted him. [And then writes the article saying this could “fundamentally alter … the Afghan war itself” …] Access at work. Why would any pajama-wearing blogger question that?

 
But, although the facts are theoretically believed to be accurate, if presented in a very misleading/propagandistic manner… that may not be relevant. In politics, war, and economics, perception is often what matters most. This article, if part of a larger information campaign and media blitz, does matter, even if it’s spin, because it affects perceptions of reality here and abroad — at least in the short-term, until people decide again that it’s probably unrealistic to expect much to come of these resources.

This is a powerful “news” story that shapes the narrative and even the facts on the ground. With that in mind, I’ve finally got around to analyzing what it means in this post. I had a brief discussion with a reader from Pakistan who generally shared my deeply pessimistic view of the news.

How does it affect Afghanistan?

Afghanistan doesn’t just lack a strong mining ministry, it lacks a strong anything in the central government. It government is a kleptocracy that is unable to extend its control outside the capital and a couple of regions and has unclear loyalties at this point (at best). Semi-stable regions with barely-functioning governments and significant natural resources are a magnet for transnational corporations that can afford to provide security for their operations. From the United States and Europe, that’s usually in the form of private military contractors as seen in South America and sub-Saharan Africa, but if China becomes interested it would probably copy its Sudan model and bring in People’s Liberation Army troops to protect its state-owned extraction operations. There’s going to be an incentive from profiteers to keep Afghanistan only somewhat stable — safe enough to operate with outside security, but not stable enough to collect revenues. The areas these resources were “discovered” is primarily in what is now Taliban-held zones.

For the Taliban, this is potentially great news. If they are willing to partner with outside companies/states, they could cut deals to take some of the profits in exchange for restraining local instability while continuing its war against the central government. Right now, they have basically been doing this for opium crops in many areas, taking what they had once banned and making it a very profitable cash crop to finance their operations. Clearly, moral qualms got thrown out the window at some point, since international money streams talk. If they think they could exploit this, whether or not they succeed, they will do their best to try. Even if they fail, it will increase national violence in the medium-term, if they try to seize and exploit the deposits.

(Added @ 10:31 PM) Afghanistan’s government certainly can’t develop this any time soon:

Moreover, before we get too excited about lithium and rare-earth metals and all that, Afghanistan could probably use some help with a much simpler resource: cement.

 
According to an article in the journal Industrial Minerals, “Afghanistan has the lowest cement production in the world at 2kg per capita; in neighbouring Pakistan it is 92kg per capita and in the UK it is 200kg per capita.” Afghanistan’s cement plants were built by a Czech company in the 1950s, and nobody’s invested in them since the 1970s. Most of Afghanistan’s cement is imported today, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. Apparently the mining ministry has been working to set up four new plants, but they are only expected to meet about half the country’s cement needs.

 
Why do I mention this? One of the smartest uses of development resources is also one of the simplest: building concrete floors. Last year, a team of Berkeley researchers found that “replacing dirt floors with cement appears to be at least as effective for health as nutritional supplements and as helpful for brain development as early childhood development programs.” And guess what concrete’s made of? Hint: it’s not lithium.

 

So, for the average Afghan civilian, this is just more bad news, not a much-needed development. As my reader put it, “this is just laying out the welcome mat” both for further Western presence and for a regional metals-mineral rush, as well as for ethnic clashes among the different Afghan (and Pakistani) populations of the various areas where these deposits are located. An alternative scenario from the Taliban grab presented above would be for the various minority ethnicities to fight over little pockets of metals and minerals near their traditional fiefdoms.

How does it affect the general region?

For Pakistan, this probably translates to more conflict and upheaval as well. There are a number of scenarios that would pretty much result in that outcome. India, which has an interest in acquiring lithium for batteries and other modern technological production, has tried to develop Afghanistan into a part of its sphere of influence for years to harass Pakistan and divide Pakistan’s military so as to prepare for an attack from both directions — or so the hardliner/conspiracy theorists in Pakistan claim. India could potentially try to get in on this. China might as well, given its investments in copper mining in Afghanistan, but it might be less interested than the United States expects.

Pakistan’s intelligence services has had close ties to the Afghan Taliban since they created them as a counterbalance to foreign influences there. It seems likely that Pakistani intelligence operatives would rush to take advantage of the situation if the Taliban makes a bid for control of the mineral deposits. In any case, a less stable Afghanistan and a longer war (if this delays an American exit) means continued spillover conflict in Pakistan and further American air attacks inside Pakistan as part of purported counterterrorism operations. It also seems likely that any interested corporations would try to use Pakistan as a connector to the outside world, including for bringing in supplies, until the hypothetical time when Afghanistan is developed enough to link back more to the capital than to Pakistan in the eastern areas where the deposits are concentrated.

How does it affect the United States?

Rosy scenario: Afghanistan, with continued United States funding and limited military assistance over then next fifteen years, develops a mining industry in a secure environment that provides the central government with a steady supply of revenue, enabling it to pay for its own security eventually, and then it becomes a stable democracy and a role model for the region — none of which was likely before this discovery and with US withdrawal — and therefore we must stay longer now.

More realistic scenario: The United States pro-war camp attempts to pressure everyone into signing onto an indefinite extension of the war, because suddenly it’s supposedly winnable and it will be our fault if we leave now, just when we could have turned things around and paid for the war magically with resources that don’t belong to us… and after all that, whether or not we stay, Afghanistan will fail to develop the resources anywhere near as early as hoped, if at all.

But there’s definitely going to be a lot of pressure in Washington now to use this report as justification to stay. Does it really change that this war is a lost cause for the United States (in my opinion)? No, I don’t believe it does. Nor do I cynically believe that the United States went into Afghanistan in the first place knowing we could get minerals and metals — that’s idiotic, since we didn’t know much of anything about Afghanistan until we went in, and we only went in because Bush couldn’t work out how to justify invading Iraq first after 9/11, which was his preference. BUT, it’s hard not to be cynical on the timing of the report, since the United States has not actually begun withdrawal and is at a point where gains that should have materialized by now from the second surge have failed to do so.

This brings me to my last area of analysis, which is also related to what affect this report will have on the United States.

Do we have a past parallel to this situation?

There’s a bit of a deja vu here, which is perhaps a bit of a good thing, as well as a bad thing. I didn’t discover this myself (I saw it first on The Daily Show), but I looked it up to confirm. In the final years of the Vietnam War, an oil company was given exploratory rights to look for oil off the coast of ‘Nam. In the early 1970s, just as the United States was theoretically trying to pull out, the American news media exploded with reports that there were vast underwater oil fields in South Vietnam’s territorial waters, which continued periodically until North Vietnam overran the South a few years later, at which point it was moot for the United States.

It seems like a pretty big coincidence that just as the Vietnam War, which was for years our longest war, was possibly going to be wrapped up, there was a “discovery” of lots of oil, which meant we couldn’t let South Vietnam fall to the Communists! Or in these very credible words in the New York Times in March 1971:

Secretary of State William P. Rogers said today that reports of large oil deposits off the shore of South Vietnam “have absolutely no effect on United States policy.”

 
Of course not.

And it’s a pretty gigantic coincidence that just as the War in Afghanistan surpassed the Vietnam War’s length in US involvement of ground troops with a year to go before the pullout is scheduled to begin, the Pentagon and Afghan government suddenly tell the New York Times that there’s a massive mineral deposit in one of the most at-risk zones in the country. As with the Vietnam oil sites, we knew about the Afghan deposits for at least a few years before somebody decided to hype them to the media. Even more conveniently, they tell us that the deposits are worth at least $1 trillion, which happens to be exactly the same amount that the war has now cost the United States, as of a few weeks ago.

On the good side, if Vietnam is any example, this “discovery” won’t really do much to keep us from leaving Afghanistan eventually. But it seems likely to drag it out to an even bitterer end. We can only hope not.

 
This piece was originally published at Starboard Broadside.

A legacy of the Rwandan Genocide

It can be tough to criticize the liberators, the people who stop a genocide. They are heroes to many, and it’s easy to disregard the people who disagree as the oppressors. Hell, it took us long time in the United States to begin coming to terms with some of the inhuman military actions we took in World War II while liberating Europe and Asia from brutal, genocidal regimes. Rarely are the liberators perfect or unsullied.

In late October 1990, the “Rwandan Patriotic Front,” a ethnic Tutsi minority rebel army suddenly stormed the Rwandan border from Uganda. Once the invasion began Uganda felt compelled to support it. The rebels were largely Rwandan only by parentage and were seeking the right of return and political control of the country after what they saw as decades of injustice by the Hutu majority in the post-colonial period. The authoritarian Hutu-controlled government of Rwanda went into a state of emergency and began crackdowns and reprisals, and elite Zairian and French troops quickly arrived to back the Hutu government. The invasion was a failure and the rebels retreated, with their leadership disintegrating especially as Uganda’s government arrested some of them. Another RPF leader, Major Paul Kagame, was immediately recalled from the United States, where he had been receiving extensive military training during the preceding months, and he took command, planning out a guerrilla long-war strategy. By 1992, the Rwandan regime had been forced to enter a cease-fire settlement with the rebels, although the rebels remained in a weak position. After several months the RPF invaded again because the government was allegedly conducting “small” massacres, but French troops arrived again to arm and support the regime, which ended the invasion and resulted in another cease-fire, this time with UN peacekeepers and a plan for power-sharing. It must be noted that well over a million Hutu civilians had become displaced during the conflict due to RPF massacres.

In April 1994, the presidential plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile of unknown source and the Hutu generals initiated a violent coup within hours and began political purges. Within days, the general massacres of Tutsi civilians were rolling along as the Hutu hardliners had planned for months, and around a dozen Belgian UN troops were killed, prompting Western nations to send in rescue troops to evacuate all their personnel, leaving the ordinary Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) to their fate. Over the course of the next three months, the Rwandan military and an extremist militia committed systematic genocide, killing one person approximately every five minutes on average. (The final victim count was estimated at 800,000 to well over a million. The RPF puts the figure at 937,000).
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Legal Underpinnings for a Papal Resignation

The New York Times published an interesting article by Daniel Wakin titled, “Do Popes Quit?” on the issue of whether a Roman Catholic Pope can resign, which is different from whether a Pope should resign. The issue has arisen in recent weeks as mounting evidence suggests Pope Benedict XVI (a.k.a. former Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich) improperly handled sexual abuse allegations against priests under his jurisdiction in Munich for many years.

At least two previous Popes have resigned, but the most recent was in the early 15th century, when the position was as much a secular European monarch as spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. In fact (I went and looked this up), Gregory XII’s resignation in 1415 was arguably done entirely for the sake of political consolidation of the Church at the end of the Great Schism, during a period of great systematic upheaval in Europe as the concept of sovereign states was emerging in parallel to the existing Church geo-political structure. However, even though he “resigned” and left office, Gregory was not replaced until after his death in 1417, probably to ensure that there was absolutely no question of who was Pope, since he had resigned to conclude a dispute between several factions of “rival Popes.”

As the Times points out, especially with Popes living to be older and older these days, there would be serious questions as to the legitimacy of a new Pope if the previous one had resigned but was not deceased yet. The problem from 1415 would be repeated and potentially worse now for the Church. An ex-Pope would still have a very large following, especially among many of the Cardinals who elected him, and unless he went off into solitude like Gregory XII, an ex-Pope’s public statements would be taken as the word of God and official Church doctrine by his remaining adherents, even if it contradicted or undermined the positions of the sitting replacement Pope. It’s like a former US President openly criticizing the new administration endlessly because he’s around and available for comment, except about a hundred times worse, since devout followers believe the Pope is speaking as God’s own corporeal representative on Earth.

But what about the legal doctrine and precedent? Can a Pope really just resign? Here is what Wakin found:

While it does not apply to Benedict, another reason for papal resignation was widely discussed in the Vatican in the years before John Paul II’s death in 2005. Several cardinals openly raised the possibility in the event John Paul became too ill to govern.

One of those cardinals was Joseph Ratzinger. If John Paul “sees that he absolutely cannot do it anymore, then certainly he will resign,” the cardinal was quoted as saying in the weekly publication of his old archdiocese, back in 2002.

 
That would be ironic if he helped set up the justification for his own resignation, but Wakin notes that he walked that back later…

Two years later, he gave some insight into his conception of the papacy in an interview with the Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana. “The pope is chosen for life because he is a father, and his paternity goes beyond his function,” he said, paraphrasing Pope Paul VI.

John Paul himself entertained thoughts about resigning. In his last will and testament, he wrote, “Providence has seen fit for me to live in the difficult century that is departing into the past, and now in the year in which I reach my 80s, one needs to ask oneself if it is not the time to repeat with the biblical Simeon, ‘Nunc dimittis.’ ” The Latin was a reference to a Gospel passage in which Simeon says, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”

John Paul was responsible for two recent but fleeting references to papal resignation in official church policy. A revision of the code of canon law issued under him, in 1983, says, “If it happens that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”

In John Paul’s 1996 constitution on papal succession, “Universi Dominici Gregis,” he made a reference to “the death or valid resignation of the pope” as he set limits on the College of Cardinals’ actions after either event. In any case, it might be no surprise that the leader of a worldwide church of one billion people would at least think about throwing in the towel. Pius XII reportedly planned to resign if the Nazis invaded the Vatican, and some believed that Paul VI, weighed down by the office, contemplated the idea, according to “101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy,” by Christopher M. Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in Union, N.J.

 
So it sounds like John Paul II clearly laid forth the legal possibility for a Pope to resign and even established some procedure for that. But other than defining “valid resignation” as legally equivalent to death, he didn’t explain any circumstances, I guess. And functionally, of course, as I explained above, resignation is very different from death, in that the person is still around even if no longer legally in the position. One wonders if Benedict would have to go back to being Ratzinger or if he’d be like an ex-President who gets many of the trappings of the office and an elevated “former” status.
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