I have been wondering for a while just what we — the west in general — are doing in Afghanistan.
Iraq was pretty obvious: oil. (Don't listen to the mouth, watch the hands.) It wasn't anything as crude as grabbing the oil — stealing around ten billion tons of anything is pretty much impossible — but about exerting control over the manner in which it is sold in order to maintain a competitive advantage (a choke-hold on energy supplies) over economic competitors such as Germany and China. That was the core vision of the Project for the New American Century think tank in the late 1990s, and those folks later formed the top tier of the previous administration.
But Afghanistan? A fly-bitten wilderness with a rep for chewing up and spitting out invaders: so hostile that neither Pakistan nor Iran had any interest in trying to bite off chunks? It was once a second-tier Soviet satellite state; not hugely prosperous or progressive but vastly more modern and enlightened than the hell-hole familiar to us from news coverage today. Leaving aside the issue of how it was systematically turned into a suppurating wound on the southern frontier of the former Soviet empire by the judicious application of US government aid to radical Mujahedin elements — it's darkly amusing to re-watch the James Bond movie The Living Daylights in view of subsequent events — the only obvious western interest in Afghanistan, post-2001, lay in nailing Osama bin Laden's headquarters group and depriving Al Qaida of the ability to use the relatively lawless area as a safe training ground.
So why have we been re-enacting Vietnam 3.0 there for the past nine years?
The New York Times comes up with a valid-sounding reason, going forward, for maintaining an imperial outpost in Afghanistan: "The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves ... including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium ... The mineral deposits are scattered throughout the country, including in the southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan that have had some of the most intense combat in the American-led war against the Taliban insurgency."
Note the presence of lithium in that list. It's a vital raw material for high-capacity rechargable batteries, used in everything from mobile phones to hybrid or electrically-powered automobiles — and there's a growing worldwide shortage of the stuff. There's no intrinsic shortage of lithium, but high grade mineral sources are hard to find — it's mostly bound up in other mineral deposits, in very low concentrations. Half the known exploitable reserves are in Bolivia (at least, before this new discovery).
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the inductive jump from oil:old burning-stuff-to-keep-warm economy to lithium:new post-carbon alternative energy economy. And by applying the PNAC's equation of control over energy reserves with maintenance of competitive advantage (by applying the choke collar to rivals), it's fairly likely that, coming at this time, the discovery of Lots of Lithium in Afghanistan will be used to reinforce western support for an increasingly unpopular war of occupation.
Two other points occur to me.
Firstly: are these reserves truly "new" discoveries? Or were they, perchance, identified as possibilities by earth resources satellite overflights at some point in the 1990s, but written off as unexploitable due to lack of access?
Secondly: disaster capitalism, anyone? (Clues to watch for include: sale of long-term mineral concessions to western multinationals, justification that "exploitation of mineral reserves will enable us to rebuild Afghanistan", continued maintainance of a large military peacekeeping presence to protect the mine workings, destruction of civil institutions and rival social power bases by — no, wait, that already happened.)
I hope I'm being too cynical here, or that the NYT are over-egging the pudding in this news story. But I'm afraid we're getting confirmation that Afghanistan is the second nation to be systematically trashed by the Bush administration in pursuit of energy-control politics.