Wired and Politico: Timing of Revelation of Lithium in Afghanistan “Too Convenient”


A New York Times article yesterday concerning vast, “recently” discovered mineral deposits in Afghanistan has set off a wave of both tentative hope and pessimistic suspicion. U.S. officials are touting the nearly $1 trillion in untapped resources as a game changer for rebuilding the opium-based Afghan economy. Given the extent to which opium farming plays into Afghanistan’s corrupt government, a transition from farming to mining could yield significant dividends in the American-lead Afghan War. However, it is this very fact which is leading some to question the timing of this announcement as “too convenient,” coming as it does on the heels of the not-so-impressive U.S. offensive in Marja and only a week after the war in Afghanistan became America’s longest war.

The opening paragraphs of the New York Times article lavish excited attention (and who can blame the writer?) on the positive implications of this discovery, going so far as to quote an internal Pentagon memo predicting that the war-torn country could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” (Lithium, if you don’t know, is a key ingredient in the production of batteries for laptops, cell phones, and iPods.)

The previously unknown deposits – including huge viens 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.

According to the New York Times, the basis for this discovery is a collection of decades-old survey charts created by Russian mining experts during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the decades since, through the Russian withdrawal and the rise and fall of the Taliban, the charts have been hidden and lost and found so many times that it would arguably make for a good National Treasure screenplay. However, the article is clear that by 2007, U.S. officials were well aware of the  mineral wealth in Afghanistan, which begs the question why this information is only now becoming common knowledge. The U.S. has sat on intelligence before (see Iran’s Qom nuclear facilities and the Obama Administration’s dramatic reveal last September), but how long have U.S. officials been keeping knowledge of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to themselves?

It is this exact question which concerns Wired Magazine blogger Katie Drummond. Today, in Wired’s international security blog, The Danger Room, Drummond investigated the extent to which U.S. officials knew about Afghanistan’s untapped resources. Overwhelmingly, her sources prove that this discovery is not news. Drummon highlights the stories of Bonita Chamberlin, a seasoned Afghanistan geologist, and Jack Shroder, a University of Nebraska geologist, both of whom have had longtime relationships with the Pentagon and have, since 2001, been open about Afghanistan’s resources.

In a similar vein, Politico today quoted a retired former senior U.S. official in describing the “discovery”:

The ‘discovery’ of Afghanistan’s minerals will sound pretty silly to old timers,” one retired former senior U.S. official based in Afghanistan writes. “When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970’s the [U.S. government], the Russians, the World Bank, the UN and others were all highly focused on the wide range of Afghan mineral deposits. Cheap ways of moving the ore to ocean ports has always been the limiting factor.

Politico, though, goes further, directly attacking the Pentagon’s timing as an attempt to put a rare bit of positive spin on the otherwise increasingly grim situation in the Middle East:

Some detect an echo of Petraeus’ effort to “put a little more time on the Washington clock” for the Afghanistan surge as he once described his public relations strategy to buy time in the U.S. for the Iraq surge.

Given America’s lengthy, drawn out efforts in Afghanistan, who can really blame U.S. officials for wanting to salvage some good news from the persisting struggle. Hopefully, though, officials’ new found excitement over this “discovery” will signal the beginning of serious efforts to develop the Afghan economy. That said, it’s hard not to see this as simply a publicity stunt.

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