Afghanistan: Is miraculous $1T mineral discovery just war PR ops?


American news media was all aflutter yesterday over a story by James Risen in the New York Times about an Immaculate Detection of massive mineral wealth in US-occupied Afghanistan. Finally, some positive news from America's longest-running war in history! Afghanistan is suddenly poised to become "the Saudi Arabia of lithium." Let's occupy the place forever, and say farewell to our dependence on foreign lithium for iPhones and Blackberrys!

A handful of essential follow-up reads: Armbinder in The Atlantic, a Christian Science Monitor post by Ben Arnoldy, Blake Hounshell in Foreign Policy, and this Wired Danger Room item by Katie Drummond, all of which point to documents on the "Afghan motherlode" dating back to 2007 and earlier.

[T]he 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. And it might be prudent to be wary of any data coming out of Afghanistan’s own Mines Ministry, which “has long been considered one of the country’s most corrupt government departments,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

And the timing of the “discovery” seems just a little too convenient. As Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy notes, the Obama administration is struggling to combat the perception that the Afghan campaign has “made little discernible progress,” despite thousands of additional troops and billions of extra dollars.

No, the U.S. Didn't Just 'Discover' a $1T Afghan Motherlode (Wired News)

Oh, and the graphic above this piece is a US Geological Survey Geologic and Mineral Resource Map of Afghanistan from... 2006. Here's a PDF.

Update: James Risen was upset by critical reaction to the New York Times piece. In an interview with a Yahoo News blogger (heh), he said he thinks bloggers sit around "jerking off into their pajamas." The quote was edited to be more family-friendly. Risen later apologized for the outburst, saying he was taken aback by all the internet criticism. The Yahoo item is a good read, Risen is no slouch, and sometimes nuance is lost online. But as a blogger, I choose to remain personally and irreparably offended by the remark 'til the end of all time (or 'til we get out of Afghanistan, whatever comes first).


  1. Maybe the Pentagon is trying to lure the Chinese into intervening in Afghanistan.

    May as well give the next great superpower a chance at sticking their hands into the Wood Chipper of Empires.

    1. The Fargo wood chipper reference is great! I’m always reminded of the horrors of the ‘Great Game’ reflected inTennyson’s poem The Charge of the LIght Brigade.

      “… Into the valley of Death
      Rode the six hundred. ”

      and the haunting beauty of the land itself before the Russians came (again) in 1979 as shown by Roland and Sabrina Michaud who were there 14 years taking photos. see: Caravans to Tartary

      1. The Crimea is in Afghanistan?

        Incompetent military command is on thing, but it pales before the over-extension of your entire nation’s capacity.

        Afghanistan has long been the exemplar of the latter.

  2. Care to guess what’s generally considered the most resource rich country in the world? Here’s a clue: while tons of wealth has been made in the country and removed from it, it’s citizens remain extremely poor. Just some of those “freedoms” the struggling world hates the West for…..

    1. The Congo? Nigeria?

      In any case, yes, it is likely that the working stiffs of Afghanistan won’t benefit from the exploitation of this mineral wealth.

      The benefit, and I think it is a real one, is that the commodity that enriches the warlords and corrupt government will be a useful mineral rather than opium.

      And maybe, hopefully, this will lead to the land being used to grow food and fiber crops rather than poppies.

  3. A trillion dollars doesn’t seem all that impressive… We’ve spent triple that amount of money just blowing them up.

  4. Look, for several decades now the conventional wisdom about Afghanistan was that heroin was the only thing that can be exported profitably out of that landlocked, remote, and infertile country. Now we know they have stuff worth mining. Which means they have a potential source of hard currency with which to build a more comfortable, stable country.

    Clearly this news is proof of a conspiracy…

    1. No, it’s not “now we know”. This thing stinks to high heaven. Sounds like BS PR to me (which is what all PR is).
      As for WE having something worth mining, let’s not forget that WE don’t own this country. As noted above, this country is a wood chipper for empires.
      We should get the fuck out of there and never look back.

  5. This is not new knowledge–Afghanistan watchers have known about the resources there for awhile–so the manner of its “sudden” publication is a little eyebrow-raising.

    But: Afghanistan is a land-locked, unstable, rugged country with no transportation infrastructure. That trillion bucks is going to stay in the ground for a long, long time…at least until Bolivia runs out of Lithium. Then, the best choices for seaport access will be Pakistan…or Iran.

    No blood for cell phone batteries!

    I keed.


  6. it can only get worse. Afghanistan has all the ingredients of a perfect dystopian nightmare.

    Valuable natural resource – check.
    Corrupt government – check.
    Corporate greed – check.
    Private mercenary security forces – check.
    Warlords – check.
    US military drones – check.
    Wiley and elusive insurgents – check.

    This is turning into Bruce Sterling novel. The “Graveyard of Empires” has such a literary ring to it.

    I’m going to go make some popcorn.

  7. Quick answer, yes of course. These are not “new”, nor are they any reason to stay in Afghanistan any longer.

  8. If I remember correctly, Afghanistan currently exports around $60 billion in opium per year. Assuming this amount doesn’t continue to increase, in roughly 17 years they will have exported the equivalent value which could be derived from strip mining all of Afghanistan.

  9. Veeeeeeeeeery interesting. I was just reading about how half the world’s lithium is in Bolivia.

    Alas for the West and it’s craving for batteries, Evo Morales won’t turn his salt lake upside down by selling the raw materials … insisting instead on keeping the industry to produce them in Bolivia.

    As a side benefit, they’ll have some way to make money besides growing poppies. And all the pollution will definitely make Afghanistan more like a developing nation (unless they emulate the human resources methods of Myanmar or Dubai).

    I wonder whether they’ll decide to make the same “bargain” that India made with the British??

  10. “Let’s occupy the place forever, and say farewell to our dependence on foreign lithium for iPhones and Blackberrys!”

    It would STILL be ‘foreign’ Lithium, actually, regardless of whether it via our illegal war and illegal occupation of Afghanistan.

  11. “It would STILL be ‘foreign’ Lithium, actually, regardless of whether it via our illegal war and illegal occupation of Afghanistan.”

    It’s “ours” because we are an invading military force just as we allow Afghanistan to grow poppies for the drug trade on our military’s watch.

  12. Afghanistan, like many mountain kingdoms is rich in minerals because the mountain building process exposes igneous and metamorphic rocks in which many of those minerals form because of elevated temperature and pressure and abundant hydrothermal fluids. It’s a historical source of the brilliant blue pigment lapis lazuli, the resource of well- patroned Renaissance artists.

  13. Oh yeah, I forget … the NEW!!ness of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth wasn’t news back when its Lapis lazuli was first being mined – 6000 years ago.

    An 1879 journal (Black,Society of Arts, p124) reports that “It is impossible for any one to read many of the records of travel through Afghanistan without being struck with the remarkable evidence of mineral wealth which constantly occurs. Silver, gold, iron, lead, copper, antimony, sulphur, nitre, and coal, all abound, and very few of these are worked, owing to the want of energy and skill of the people, the unsettled state of the country, and also to a peculiar superstitious dread they have of penetrating into the bowels of the earth.”

    The kind of dread, perhaps, BP executives are experiencing in their sleep?

  14. The first thing I thought of was how Afganis would be made into slave labor by corporate greed (like African diamonds) and this won’t be of much benefit to the average man and woman.

  15. Phase 3 in the US military’s plan to conquer Afghanistan. Find a way to make them all so rich that they become fat and sedentary. They start drifting away from their religious and cultural beliefs to TV and other distractions. Eventually they will become individually soft, weak, and self-centered. Their conversion to Americans will be complete!

  16. Supposedly an internal Pentagon memo stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and they’ve undoubtedly been trying to make that prediction come true. With Karzai (like King Fahd) we have a puppet dictator in place who will have a “special relationship” with U.S. government, intelligence agencies, and corporations (even as Afghanistan inevitably takes a more prominent role in funding war, counter-insurgency, and/or false flag operations). Perhaps now is a good time to reduce consumption of Lithium and other minerals?

  17. There’s just something so Dr. Evil with the big even round number all of a sudden.

    And Stefan Jones @1: You may be right, but China has a way of being the exception that proves the rule. They have the capacity to build a railroad there, the surplus army to occupy, and the will… to simply clear the place.

    “Afghanistan has always been a part of China, back to the days of the silk road, so shut up or try negotiating for your cheap lithium out of Bolivia.”

    Hope it don’t happen that way.

  18. I’d rather not have another “Saudi Arabia” to deal with considering that the first one had a lot more to do with 9/11 than Afghanistan ever did.

    1. “I’d rather not have another “Saudi Arabia” to deal with considering that the first one had a lot more to do with 9/11 than Afghanistan ever did.”

      The people who make these decisions for you smooch with Saudis on a regular basis.

  19. From the Times article:
    “In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country.”

    No one said they just found anything.

  20. Now we have MMCs? Really?
    Minerals of Mass Consumption?
    How’d that work out for the last administration?

  21. Come-on, gang, State and the Pentagon have joined forces to present a tasty mineralogical souffle to Wah Chang: Afghanistan. We’ll pull guard duty and stuff like that for the next five years in exchange for, let’s say, US$ 950 billion of our debt. Obviously there shall be options to extend …

  22. “It’s a historical source of the brilliant blue pigment lapis lazuli, the resource of well- patroned Renaissance artists.”

    It’s been the source of lapis for at least 6000 years – it’s where the Sumerians got it.

  23. Risen = jealous because he can only make salient points when he refrains from jerking off? Also jealous because casual Fridays aren’t casual enough for him to work in pjs?

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