And I Thought It Was About Oil

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: salicio / flickr

Photo: salicio / flickr

The New York Times reported on June 14 that the U.S. has identified “vast mineral riches in Afghanistan.” Here, from James Risen’s article, is the first paragraph.

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.

It goes on to say that the “previously unknown deposits” of minerals, including energy-rich lithium, were “discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists.”

If you know someone who has bipolar disorder, it’s likely s/he is treated with lithium carbonate. But the soft, silvery substance may some day replace oil as the world’s most precious mineral. Lithium hydride is used in the production of nuclear weapons. It’s combined with aluminum to make airplane bodies. And, of course, we know it as a component in the best of the batteries that power our laptops, cell phones, and BlackBerries. There’s talk of building lithium batteries to power our automobiles.

Bye bye, oil; hello, lithium.

Turns out the discovery is not new and the group doing the discovering was not small.

An article on The Huffington Post about lithium’s importance, published the day before the NYT story broke may prove to be the most prophetic writing ever seen on the Web.

Weekday mornings, my radio goes on at 6 a.m., tuned to the local NPR station. I give myself a lazy half-hour in bed, listening to the news. When I heard the Afghan-mineral segment I said to my still half-asleep husband something best rendered here as, “No kidding.” An entire scenario was assembling itself in my head as I listened. Here are the elements.

  • We’ve been hearing for weeks about the corruption of Afghanistan’s so-called government. We’ve even been treated to the story that the country’s president has threatened to go over to the Taliban if things don’t go his way.
  • American enthusiasm for engagement in Afghanistan bids fair to vanish as the US reveals itself unable to keep the Taliban from killing civilians, let alone keep our own drones from killing civilians.
  • Nobody thinks Afghanistan has the skills, the technology, or the cohesiveness to extract a trillion dollars worth of minerals on its own.
  • But such extraction could, over a few decades, transform Afghanistan into a prosperous nation.
  • Except that China would give a few eye teeth, among other things, to get its hands on this wealth.
  • Between the Chinese and the graft-ridden Afghan government, there’s no way the proceeds of mineral extraction would enrich any but the Chinese and the graft-ridden Afghan government.

Am I a conspiracy-crazed cynic, or is this the perfect scenario for the US to stay in Afghanistan until hell freezes over? Who’s better than Americans at exploiting what Earth has to offer? Who’s better than Americans at pretending to be on the side of the poor? What red-blooded American, faced with an update of the Bush rationale — If we don’t stay there, the Chinese will come – will face down the government and say, “Well, let them”? (Actually, I know a few quite well, but the operative word there is “few.”)

Repeated here is that first paragraph of the NYT story, this time with emphasis added.

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.

I rest my case.

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