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Geopolitics in the raw

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.

206 Comments

1:

Don't forget the gas! While he was still only the acting president, installed by Washington before his first (and more or less legitimate) election win, Hamid Karzai signed a deal to let a gas pipe cross Afghanistan [BBC News - 2002].
It's all about the access to the materials, which doesn't make your point about rare metals any less legitimate, but when it comes to the Bush administration check for the petrochemicals first - anything else is just icing.

2:

Yeah, the minerals thing may well be a pleasant aftertaste, but Afghanistan was about the carbon economy. It was just a strategic place to put infrastructure, rather than a source of extraction.

3:

Lately, I've begun to doubt if it is even possible to be too cynical when discussing global politics. This is just about the worst thing that could have happened to Afghanistan. It means it will never be free of foreign control. And it also mean than any sort of monster will be allowed to rule, even nurtured, provided the lithium, or whatever the Spice du jour is, keeps flowing.

4:

I'm not convinced by either the minerals or the gas explanations for Afghanistan.

The minerals story has all the ring of desperate media spin by the Pentagon and its allies, trying to find any angle to justify the continued military campaign. If that were really a factor, we would have heard about it by now.

The gas pipeline story is rather easily disproved by the fact that the pipeline hasn't actually been built yet, almost a decade later. The notion that the Afghanistan invasion was about an imaginary pipeline rather than, as was argued at the time, eliminating a direct security threat seems to me rather fanciful.

As to why the US and allies are still there - it's simply the military version of protecting sunk costs, and the lack of a political strategy that actually fits with the reality on the ground. No grand motivation is necessary; unaccountable bureaucracy, especially if it has lots of weapons and no real scrutiny of its budget, is capable of generating its own work.

5:

Nicholas, that, if anything, is an even more depressing explanation than the conspiracy-theoretical vision of a moustachio-twirling supervillain fondling his mineral rights in a penthouse somewhere inside the beltway.

6:

Hmmm...

Foreign Policy are skeptical about this mineral story. They reckon it's nothing particularly new, and the figures are basically being pulled out of thin air at the moment. Interesting none the less...

Regarding the disaster capitalism Free Range International (damn good blog on Afghanistan, aid and PMCs) have a great piece on project creep and big aid efforts, like the Dahla Dam vs nimble, small scale aid work.

To be honest, by now I'm willing to see Afghanistan primarily as a demonstration of the irrationality of policy making. It's like Nicholas said - sunken cost. We're bidding for dollars here - "the troops and Afghanis must keep dying, otherwise their deaths will have been in vain!" Just look at rubber face Cameron and his shirtsleeves bravado last week...

7:

I gotta say, if it was done for the minerals then it would've been much easier and more profitable to invest in some "peacekeeping missions" in Africa.

I could imagine the minerals and geopolitics being a bonus, but I still think we're in Afghanistan was for primarily domestic reasons - a war makes hiding corruption at home much easier, and the military-industrial complex needs its blood.

8:

Far more worrying than the perpetual greed and cynicism in US (and UK) foreign policy, is the fact the Europe seems to be falling apart again. Even Belgium looks like it might split into two countries given the election result, even though it's due to take on the EU presidency in a few months. Europe is slowly beginning to look more and more like it did a century ago...

*end paranoia*

9:

To put it a different way, "we're here because we're here", as British soldiers sang in WWI.

Out of interest, which war was Vietnam 2.0? Gulf 2.0?

10:

The historian in me sees resonances with the Crusades. The Crusades started out partly ideological, and partly for reasons of domestic politics (in Christendom, a.k.a., these days, Europe). They quickly became purely mercenary affairs--with the exception of the Children's Crusade, the original hippie pilgrimage.

Maybe both Iraq and Afghanistan are the USA's crusades. The "official" reasons were the real ones at first. The reasons for staying in Iraq and Afghanistan are economic--seemingly as much about transfers from American taxpayers as any mineral wealth that might be in the occupied territory.

The leaders of one of the later crusades decided there was more profit in sacking Constantinople--capital of another Christian country, an ally of Europe--than in going all the way to Palestine. So that's what they did. Saudi Arabia, West Africa, are you listening?

11:

Andy J - you're absolutely right. And that sort of thing does happen - look at the way the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara is allowed to continue, even though clearly against international law, because of the importance of the phosphates produced at Bou Craa to the world agriculture. Oil played a role in the war in Sudan, diamonds in Angola. Of course even in those cases minerals are not the full explanation for the conflict, but they clearly played a greater part than in Afghanistan.

12:

I'm sceptical about whether this would have actually been a serious reason for going in. My guess is that the Lithium probably started out as a nice bonus; then Bolivia elected Morales in 2006, US investment in Bolivia started looking less secure, and we started hearing more talk about staying the course in Afghanistan.

13:

Nicholas beat me too it, and said it better.

When you have the army, you expect it to be easy, and you're not going to bear any costs personally, the numbers don't need to add up. As long as the US is Top Nation it _can_ do this kind of thing, and as long as its conception of being Top Nation includes 'being the dominant military power everywhere on the planet' it _will_ do this kind of thing.

14:

Depressing.

If true, and it only too easily could be.

OTOH, do we really want to leave ANY territory in the hands of nutters like the Taliban, especially if you are female .....
Though, as Charlie knows there are people in the USA who are almost as mad, bad and dangerous to know - they're called "Dominionists".

I don't think there is any even remotely-right answer to this one, just a selection of different bad ones.

15:

Heavens. Sure, Lithium is an important metal. Useful for H-bombs, rechargeable batteries and treating manic-depression. Not to mention lithium stearate grease (probably still the major industrial use for lithium).

But the metal that really stands out for me in that NYT article is Niobium. Because where you get Niobium, you also get Tantalum as a co-product. And tantalum is what makes the capacitors work in all of your computers and mobile phones. Niobium a.k.a Columbium is the 'Col' in coltan, a vital mineral, much of which comes from that other shining example of how not to run a country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

16:

Nicolas,

The story I'd read was the point was the Trans-Afghanistan oil pipeline, running anywhere not dependent on Russia; that Bush et al. lost interest and the budget for rebuilding Afghanistan, etc. was zeroed out the day after an assessment that the oil was high-sulphur and uninteresting.

I can't find the references at the moment, and in retrospect it seems unlikely that we didn't know the sulphur content for oil fields as long-exploited as the Caspian, but there it is.

The problem is that the US simply can't afford to admit defeat in Afghanistan. Whatever happens next in Afghanistan, the new regime must not be called "Taliban."

17:
an even more depressing explanation

You know, I once read a book where somebody suggested that the US government was incapable of surrender, or even of abandoning a fight, since any leader who suggested doing such a thing would be pulled down by the ravening political hordes. That story also had quite a depressing ending.

The parallels to Afghanistan are interesting. The war there started as straightforward retaliation for a terrorist attack, and has kept going because nobody really seems to want to stop.

(It's now gone on longer than the Vietnam war, go figure)

18:

Chris H: the Belgian problem has been on the cards for decades -- some kind of constitutional re-org appears to be inevitable, to recognize the fact that it's a nation stitched together from two disparate language groups with differing administrative priorities. It shouldn't be generalized to the EU as a whole. As for the EU disintegrating ... people don't regularly predict that the USA will split up simply because its one-size-fits-all currency, the dollar, is a poor fit for economies as disparate as California and North Dakota. A Euro collapse would be, at this point, even more disastrous for the global economy than the dollar imploding; so I predict that if things get significantly worse, we will see extreme measures employed to hold it together.

19:

The demand for lithium is increasing rapidly, true but then so is recycling. Batteries don't expend their lithium content, they simply degrade internally to the point where the cells don't work any more. It's not difficult or expensive to collect such battery packs and reprocess the contents into new cells. Ditto for electric vehicle battery packs -- if nothing else simply landfilling them is pretty much impossible these days.

We need do long-life lithium cell designs, ones that last longer than two or three years before their capacity craters. I have Ni-tech rechargeable batteries that will still take and hold a significant charge ten years and more after they were manufactured; I don't think there are any intrinsic reasons why expensive Li-tech batteries shouldn't be able to achieve the same sort of endurance.

20:
I don't think there are any intrinsic reasons why expensive Li-tech batteries shouldn't be able to achieve the same sort of endurance.

They already do, even with the commercial batteries in your hi-tech toys. The problem is that lithium batteries are really touchy about how they are charged and stored. They don't like being hot, and they don't like being maintained at full charge for extended periods of time, and these things severely degrade their lifespan - but people value tiny CPU-heating toys and long times between charges more than they do battery lifespan, and the device manufacturers encourage them.

(You top off your cellphone's charge every day and carry it around in your pocket at near-full charge all the time? Well, that's killing the lifespan of the battery. Are you going to stop doing that and maintain it around the ~50% charge that gives best battery lifespan? Or buy a larger phone that has better cooling so the chips don't cook the battery all the time? Didn't think so)

21:

I'm with Nicholas: they're protecting sunk costs. I don't think there was any particular grand design in the original invasion of Afghanistan other than highly public butt kicking, necessary to justify the trillion dollar US military & intelligence system after they failed to prevent a spectacular series of attacks. The US loss of interest in Afghanistan when they were preoccupied in Iraq doesn't speak of a grand design only coming to culmination now. Though it does speak of ADD.

As for the minerals, you don't suddenly discover huge numbers of deposits. I'd expect a country level report was put together based on existing knowledge and maybe some recent surveys and someone said; hey there's a lot of stuff here. Duh:
http://www.bgs.ac.uk/afghanminerals/geology.htm

Good luck trying to run a profitable mining, refining & transport operation in a hostile environment like that. It might be manageable in some regions depending on the politics. And I guess there's lots of local explosives knowledge...

22:

"OTOH, do we really want to leave ANY territory in the hands of nutters like the Taliban, especially if you are female ....."

Do we want to? No. Are we able to do squat about it?

23:

Do we want to? No. Are we able to do squat about it?

Yes.

But the places to start are not in Afghanistan -- they're the royal palace in Riyadh and the ISI headquarters in Islamabad.

24:

@18 Charlie

The U.S. has a huge advantage over the EU in regards to holding itself together through the collapse of a section. The ability for citizens of California to move to North Dakota (or if you ask U-Haul, Texas) means that there are far fewer social pressures on the government. Something will have to be done, but it doesn't have to be done by the other states directly, and it can come with more effective requirements for reform.
Now, what we're going to do when the federal government goes down...

25:

"people don't regularly predict that the USA will split up simply because its one-size-fits-all currency, the dollar, is a poor fit for economies as disparate as California and North Dakota".

My understanding is that because labor mobility is much higher in the US and fiscal integration more advanced, a common currency makes sense there. In an EU context i still need to understand why decicion-makers thought it would be a good idea to adopt a common currency given that the EU is much less politically integrated than the US.

26:

I don't entirely buy the oil argument for Iraq, and certainly don't buy the minerals argument for Afghanistan. I think there is a sunk cost issue going on (if we stop the deaths then the deaths will have been in vain!) but it's not enough to justify the real stretch on resources going on.

I think the explanation is that the leaders involved more or less believe their own rhetoric about the purpose - it's a semi-religious belief that we must be there in order to defend freedom in the abstract and also, by a rather tortuous sequence of implications and imaginings, defend against direct attack on the streets and transport systems of New York and London.

The parallel with the Crusades is apropos, I think - most historians I've spoken to about it are pretty clear that it only makes sense if at least a large proportion of the people involved genuinely believed in the religious mission.

Which to my mind is far more terrifying than raw naked power grabs or clumsy bureaucratic machine maintenance. You can engage with those two - you may or may not succeed in changing things, but you can at least have a mutually comprehensible conversation. But challenging religious beliefs head on famously gets you nowhere.

I don't think it's remotely accidental that the key attribute of the guys who got us in to both conflicts were Men Of Faith in a rather strong sense.

27:

It's the story of the frog and the scorpion.

We're in Afghanistan because it's our nature. With a similar end that the scorpion got.

We don't need conspiracies to explain our idiocies.

28:

So, no one finds any merit to the argument that Afghanistan was attacked because the Taliban was harboring the persons responsible for the 9/11 attacks? And that the West must remain in Afghanistan until they have a stable government capable of defending itself against the Taliban?

Those were the reasons I always felt the West was involved (and I find great fault in the European Union not contributing sufficient resources to this action. I thought Madrid would have been an abject lesson in what comes of coddling Al Quaida).

29:

Unfortunately, here in the states, the accusation that we went to war for oil is an official non-starter. You can expect to be written off as a liberal lunatic if anything you say can be paraphrased as "no blood for oil."

This is not to say that I'm absolutely convinced that it was the entire reason for the war, as opposed to a nice bonus(from a Neo-con point of view, not my own). I'm fond of the saying "Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence." But, even your moderate liberal friends will try to change the subject if you bring it up.

30:

So, no one finds any merit to the argument that Afghanistan was attacked because the Taliban was harboring the persons responsible for the 9/11 attacks? And that the West must remain in Afghanistan until they have a stable government capable of defending itself against the Taliban?

No, because it's much more chic to be all Marxist and conspiratorial.

That (quite cheap) shot is not meant to argue that there aren't economic motivations in governmental actions, but looking to a discovery 10 years *after* the invasion of Afghanistan as the hidden reason why we've been doing this all along is a real stretch. The alternative explanation--that we got in to go after Bin Laden and, once in, it's remarkably difficult for an American President to pull out of any war--is much more likely.

31:

Sorry to be off-topic, but it's interesting that you use ADD like that, we just had a thread about that usage in a support forum for AD(H)Ders. I personally find it offensive and annoying. It's the new "retarded". I can only imagine how schizophrenics feel about the popular usage of the name of their disorder.
Sorry for posting anonymously, I am not confortable being public about that yet.

32:

The way that I see it was the the USA (for that, read 'the elites running the USA') had zero interest in Afghanistan: no economic resources, no ethnic ties to key groups in the USA, no religious whackjobery (see: Israel and the End Times), no strategic threat to any major US interests, and a local situation which is best handled by not going in.

After 9/11, stomping on Al Qaida and their hosts, the Taliban was not optional (note: stomping on their funders, the Saudi princes, was off the table - I betcha that the Saudis both could turn off their oil, and had lots and lots of *interesting* documentation on the Bush/Cheney cabal).

There were a few obstacles:

1) If was not feasible to paint this as a purely punitive campaign, which would have made the most sense, even (I fear) ethically: kill Al Qaida, kill Taliban, and make it clear that the US would exact at least a 10-1 revenge, *and* that that revenge would target the leaders and elites.

2) The Bush/Cheney cabal wanted the oil first and foremost, and didn't have the inclination or the competancy to deal with Afghanistan in any real way. Please note that I'm not saying that they could have been successful, just that ignoring it made sure of failure.

3) The Bush/Cheney cabal then basically abandoned the war for several years, during which the locals did the obvious thing, and organized against a very weak foreign-supported local 'government'. IMHO elements of the Pakistani government helped, since they regard Afghanistan as their backyard.

4) After the collapse of the GOP administration, the Democrats and Obama had a problem with Afghanistan - it's too closely linked with Al Qaida to abandon, but
there's no way that the USA will get anything like succes, and by that I include 'Our SOB who makes the previous government look like nice guys, but is competant enough to hide the slaughter'. The Taliban has had five years to work on the war, and they're starting with Afghanistan, some excellent material for driving out foreigners.

5) Therefore, the new strategy is to reinforce things and ramp up the war. After a few years, the US public will be bored with it, and we can pull out.

33:

"My understanding is that because labor mobility is much higher in the US and fiscal integration more advanced, a common currency makes sense there. In an EU context i still need to understand why decicion-makers thought it would be a good idea to adopt a common currency given that the EU is much less politically integrated than the US."

There's that, but I recall in the dust-up over Jim Manzi's stupid article comparing European and US economic growth rates (where 'Europe' included a chunk of the USSR, and the oil shocks of the 70's were billed against European growth but not US growth) was that US and European per capita growth rates are very, very close. The US basically gets ahead by importing people, and if you're familiar with US immigration, that pretty much means importing people from Mexico.

In and of themselves, the USA isn't showing that much better growth, despite having a more integrated economy. It might be that the Dollar economy is a problem for the USA, hidden by the fact that the elites like it, and so the MSM will support it.

34:

Apologies this use of ADD was not intended to be in any way insulting.

I used the term to point out a failure of executive function on a country level.

http://www.drthomasebrown.com/brown_model/index.html

35:

Michael / Total / Barry,

Indeed, I think that's largely right.

Michael, before criticising the Europeans, bear in mind that the US actually had the offer of total NATO support for the original invasion back in 2001, and preferred instead to go in with an ad hoc coalition. Now of course they have handed over bits and pieces of the mission to both NATO and the EU, but neither of those institutions can really be blamed for the lack of clear forward thinking in a military mission from whose planning which they were excluded. There is a mythology in Washington and the less well-informed sections of the British press that the EU never supported the US in Afghanistan, but the situation in the early days was almost exactly the opposite, with the EU (and other US allies such as Canada) offering as much help as they were allowed to by the US.

36:

"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."

Third. You left out the U.S. itself.

For a contrary view of those Afghani assets, see here.

37:

I know about the latest research on ADHD as an executive function disorder. I just sort of had a gut reaction at "ADD" used as a metaphor. You may be enlightened and used it correctly, but I feared that metaphorical use in general probably still reinforces stigma. Anyway, thanks.

38:

The original reason for being in Afghanistan is the stated one, at least int the sense that not avenging 9/11 would have been political suicide.

The reasons for staying are diverse, but IMO reasons based on depressing stupidity are more influential than the ones based on greed. The USA is not Dr. Doom, the USA is The Hulk.

39:

Tetragramm, there is theoretically labour movement within the EU; as an EU citizen I'm pretty much free to move to any other EU member state without needing a visa or residence permission. There may be some administrative hoops to jump through (for example, in those countries that have ID card systems or require everybody to register their abode with the authorities) but the point is, the assumption is that EU citizens can go and live anywhere in the EU.

In practice, the language barrier is more of a problem. That alone is going to reduce mobility relative to the USA (where there're only two really widespread languages, and you can get by with just one of them). And there's no swift way to overcome that; it'll take a generational shift, and integrating currency and transport links may help encourage it.

Nevertheless, if I want to up stakes and move to Ireland or the Netherlands, the only thing stopping me is inertia -- not immigration law.

40:

Ben @29 --

Part of the problem is that admitting oil is the problem is admitting you need the solution, which turns into "no fossil carbon extraction" pretty quick. That reads -- it's not, in any substantial way, factually so, but it _reads_ -- as "I want to be poor". Which is somewhere around heresy.

Generally --

I think most are missing something in the "sunk cost fallacy" view; the US Army, US military generally, but especially and particularly the Army, has something they regard as a tradition of victory. They are expected and required to win, and they don't have a conceptual framework for not winning, limited political objectives, purposes of empire, and so on. The post-Vietnam recovery/reorg was supposed to mean never being inappropriately used again.

Telling the US Army "you lost, time to bring you home" is extremely difficult. (Especially since there are a lot of US citizens who believe this myth of invincibility even more than the Army does, or have the belief that the myth is widely accepted outside the US and affects the planning of those who might wish to attack the US or its interests.)

For a black President to do that, when the Army is already cracking at the seams from an unsustainable deployment schedule, is one of those things that have politically unpredictable consequences. I would suspect that Obama's getting advice to the effect that "whatever happens, it won't be good". So it might be seen as better to keep at it and hope for a miracle.

Miracles include the army admitting that it's beaten, or Congress deciding it doesn't want to pay for this anymore.

41:

ALL wars are resource wars. All of them.

Google "War Is A Racket by Major General Smedley Butler".

42:

My friend emailed me this story just a few minutes ago. We both said "Oh fuck" as our first reaction.

The suspicions that this isn't a new finding are interesting, and there may be something there to find. I don't think, however, that anyone is suggesting that the lithium deposits are why we invaded. We invaded for a bunch of reasons that stem from 9/11* and are probably not directly (or even substantively indirectly) related to oil or minerals. The fact that we more or less abandoned any serious war effort in Afghanistan once the drumbeat for Iraq kicked in should be persuasive enough evidence that we didn't really care about Afghanistan for what was under the dirt at the time we went in.

Now, as for reasons why we haven't gotten out and don't look to be getting ready to leave any time soon, that's a whole 'nother story. This mineral find, if it is legit, may be one reason why we're going to stick in there for quite a while. We might be hearing about this now as the opening move to some gambit to increase support for the war in advance of a troop surge or funding request.

Something that I haven't seen mentioned here yet is that scary thing here isn't an extended occupation. The scary thing is that the US is talking this find up as a way to secure the Afghan economy, and they might be right. Why is this bad? It's bad because even if through some miracle we manage to install a stable democratic regime that can exert credible control over the lithium deposits, that regime won't stay honest for long.

A state that can run its economy almost entirely on extracting resources and selling them abroad doesn't need to maintain very much public support because its tax base isn't its primary income source. Additionally, the Minister of Pulling Money Out of The Ground becomes a very, very important post, because the entire economy is dependent upon his performance. As a result, the government in power becomes increasingly focused on retaining control of that post, by any means necessary. The pattern is that the regime becomes very repressive to protect its hold on the Ministry of Cha-Ching, and then buys off/placates the population with a combination of political extremism directed at enemies (both within and abroad) along with strong social welfare spending** and economic subsidies.

These kinds of countries are called rentier states. Saudi Arabia is an example of a functional rentier state.

Apply this pattern to Afghanistan, that notorious hotbed of political moderation and wise cooler heads, and then imagine them gaining enough money to modernize their military. Then remember that their neighbor Pakistan is an unstable geopolitical meltdown waiting to happen, and is also armed with nuclear weapons. Then be afraid.

*Insert your favorite explanations regarding the military industrial complex, psychological need, geopolitical posturing, or simple revenge here.

**For the favored classes and ethnic groups only, naturally.

43:

Most of this has been in a World Bank report since 2004 and was in a WSJ article in 2007, though the lithium (if it exists) is new. See FDL article, "Media Discovers Large Pockets of Minerals in Afghanistan."

44:

1. I thought that the deal with Afghanistan is that somewhere along the line it morphed into a theater of the War on Drugs; not to mention that it would be a fine place to put an oil pipline.

2. I still suspect that when the real history of Operation Iraqi Freedom comes out we'll learn that the Saudis had put the U.S. on the clock to leave, as we had become too destabilizing to their society, and we were not going to leave Saddam off the hook by default. That's the only thing that makes the rush-rush, Rube Goldberg, execution of the invasion seem sensible. That and Rummy believing his own propaganda.

3. The initial war authorization did include Iran, which Congress exised as an objective, much to the dismay of neo-cons dreaming dreams of mid-eastern empire.

45:

Glad in a way, and also depressed that I'm not the only one who came to that conclusion.
Another country with a vast amount of lithium is China, though their production and reserve numbers fluctuate wildly, depending on who's talking. And a lot of that lithium is in lakes in Tibet.
Bolivia's ripe for more meddling form the CIA...how soon until they're at war again?
I have no idea what we're doing with our lithium here in Australia -- probably selling the mines/land to overseas interests at rock-bottom prices. We sure as hell aren't funding research into battery tech or EVs.

46:

The NYT article, especially on the second page, makes it clear that there's nothing new about the discoveries:

"In 2004, American geologists.. stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data.. had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989"

47:

Isn't Afghanistan now the staging post for operations against the Taliban in Northern Pakistan? Definitely shades of Vietnam there.

I do think that we are clearly playing out the Paul Kennedy thesis concerning the decline of empire through the costs of imperial overstretch. Part of that is maintaining the belief of your competitors that you are the strongest militarily, which means winning. We see that in the "Powell doctrine" of using overwhelming force to ensure victory, preferably quickly. I don't think we need to invoke theories of resource wars to explain Afghanistan. It is just the result of the US needing to extract itself from this blunder with an "honorable victory".

48:

that, if anything, is an even more depressing explanation than the conspiracy-theoretical vision

Which is a large part of why conspiracy theories are so popular. The idea of order -- even *evil* order -- is more comforting than the chaotic reality we actually face.

(Not to say that all conspiracy theories are false, by any means. People in power absolutely *do* conspire. But the real conspiracies are rarely as powerful as the fictional ones.)

49:

I think it is quite credible that the US invaded Afghanistan not knowing what resources were there.

Have a look at the ~8:30 mark in this video (pretty good one too):

http://www.thersa.org/events/vision/vision-videos/paul-collier-the-plundered-planet

It is stated that mineral resources of OECD countries still left in the ground amount to a value of $300,000 per square mile. While in largely pristine Africa the value is $60,000 per square miles, despite being limited to the same thresholds in economic viability.

Outside of developed countries, there is a huge lack of exploration. It could easily be that the largest deposits of Lithium and other mineral have not been found, simply because nobody is looking for them in the poorest countries. There, exploiting the resources is a rather distant possibility because of political instability and lacking infrastructure. Not just for transportation, but just about anything in terms of production facilities. It kinda sucks to have the choice between flying in sorely needed supplies and trucking them from the airport over disintegrating roads or waiting a month and trucking them from the seaport to wherever you need them.

--

As for the EU thingy: there is an advantage to enforced diversity as well. In a homogeneous society, folly spreads much faster, much wider and is entrenched much deeper than in more heterogeneous ones. The same, of course, goes for brilliance.

I defer judgment over whether this is a good or a bad thing to Nassim Taleb. I do have the feeling though that having some large monolithic blocs and a lot of diversity in-between combines the best of both worlds. Even though *both* will seem to be ridiculously conservative at some times and astonishingly dynamic at others - but because of their different characteristics, it will be rare to see both homogeneous and heterogeneous societies in the same predicament at the same time.

50:

In re pipelines as geopolitical motivators - nuh-uh, pipelines are major bits of infrastructure kit; unsuprisingly pipeline construction and management contracts are similarly impressive pieces of diplo-legal infrastructure. Indeed getting the treaties and legal frameworks in place is often the hardest piece of the puzzle - laying pipe across several thousand clicks of rugged terrain being a relatively simple engineering task by comparison. Needlesss to say, the presence of sufficient numbers of naughty men along the proposed route in plausible posession of both grievances and high explosives is what is known in the trade as a 'deal-breaker'.

tl;dr - Pipelines are a trailing, rather than a leading, indicator of geopolitical dispositions (and realignments in same).


@15, tantalum - this is also a bottleneck resource for the Jerome-effect stutterwarp. Perhaps the bushies played Traveller:2300 back in the day...


Charlie @18, yabbut the Dollar zone has a federal govt to do macro-economic readjustments when the various regional economies start pulling apart from each other; Eurozone, not so much. Same/same when it comes to barriers to labour movement.

Now federal fiscal organs (and reduced barriers) will follow if the Euro manages to persist of course, but there's a way still to go and it's over rockier ground than the Euro-architects were hoping for. Like you, I happen to think that the logic of the Euro is sufficiently compelling that a full-on collapse constitutes an 'all bets off' event of major proportions (thus it will be sufficiently resisted by the PTB such that it is extremely unlikely), but the odds of a eurozone member state or two dropping off the wagon in the interim aren't as long as I would have said a few years ago.

Of course this logic cuts both ways - if the Euro is an idea whose time has come, then the present crisis will promote and accelerate the development of the EU-level macro-economic mechanisms that I (and many others) point out are currently lacking. In which case the Euro will have achieved much of what its designers were after (IMO).


@28, heh - anyone who thinks the Spanish coddle AQ doesn't know Spain very well. It's the European nation whose 'internal monologue' least reflects the caricature of politically correct, useful liberal idiots so beloved of the clash-of-civilisations, Eurabia-pushing types in the US. These guys (the Spanish that is) have elevated the manufacture and consumption of pork products to a high art - the fact that this is a cultural shiboleth for crypto-muslims being largely* the point.

Regards
Luke

[*] Not entirely of course. Jamon Serrano has the virtue of being a super-yummy shiboleth (plus it's good for tagging crypto-jews as well).

51:

Whatever happens next in Afghanistan, the new regime must not be called "Taliban."

So what if we can't defeat them. We can rebrand them. We have Madison Ave.

52:

So I can sleep at night I am going to continue to tell myself that keeping the Taliban and their murderous ilk out of official power is why we're there, and anytime, real soon now, we, as in the west, are going to take stands about other regimes who see humans as target practice.

What stops me sleeping at night is the idea that it'll turn out to be about Lithium or similar.

53:

I'm really, really cynical, so my response is: NOW it's about lithium. It used to be about maybe controlling heroin production, and before that, it was about the Taliban, until Bushie-poo realized that he couldn't easily win the war and needed to get Iraq in the fryer anyway.

Right now, we need an excuse to be in the region, and an excuse to lean hard on Pakistan to play smart, and all that military industrial complex crap.

An interesting thing that's flying mostly under the radar, except for an article in Chemical and Engineering News (I saw the paper version, no link yet). The Obama administration is leaning hard on US mining companies to start proving and mining a lot of new-tech minerals (specifically lithium, also neodymium, etc) within the US. The annoying thing about the US is that we've got some of the stuff, but apparently we've never seriously bothered to find out how much. I guess it used to be easier to trash a small impoverished country to get what we needed than to dig it up ourselves. Times change, and given the NYTimes' rate of reporting, they'll catch on to the new mineral rush around 2012.

54:

Evil Alternate Universe Cheney: Bwahaha! By invading Iraq we have secured a chokehold on energy supplies! I am so glad I live in a universe where this works, instead of a universe where, if I'm lucky, Iraq can eventually export as much as 4% of the world demand for a highly fungible commodity.

Evil Alternate Universe Rumsfeld: Yes, Your evilness! Soon we will have economic chokehold powers that rival those of Norway! How I long to hear the metaphorical strangled gasping of our enemies!

EAUC: And then I will say "I find your lack of faith disturbing!" I have always wanted to use that line!

55:

But the US brought in a common currency long before the present era of continental integration and cheap transportation. During the early period of a common US dollar (Post Civil War) it was harder to get around the US than it is to get around modern Europe.

Comparing the modern US, which has had a unified currency for a century and a half, to the fifteen year old euro project is simply a bad comparison. A better comparison would be the US in the Long Depression of the 1880s, following a massive redefinition of the roles of federal and state governments and coming up on the Progressive Era.

56:

going to take stands about other regimes who see humans as target practice.

Like, oh, Russia (too many nukes, too much oil), Krygyzstan (oil/gas), China (nukes, $1Tn in T-bills), North Korea (nukes plus ten thousand artillery tubes within range of Seoul), Israel (too many nukes, too many lobbyists), and the USA itself (or do you really think that illegal immigration or drug smuggling warrant informal execution)?

The currency of empire is always blood; high-sounding ideals are merely a good story for enlisting the support of the masses.

Pot, kettle, albedo of zero.

57:

I'll have to go and read up on that period.

You may be unsurprised to know that American history wasn't part of the British education syllabus when I was at school. I don't mean a minor part, I mean nothing at all. Pre-O-level the syllabus ended in 1485 and the end of the Wars of the Roses; the O-Level syllabus ran from 1870 to 1945, but basically treated the USA as a convenient blob that helped out in world wars (usually too late to be of much use).

Nothing about the revolution/war of independence, or the slaveowner's rebellion, made it into British history text books during that period (at least, at the level I studied to -- pre A-level, i.e. pre-specialization).

58:

There is another gap in history lessons that spans roughly all of Europe and America: China.

There's a little story. The conflict with the most victims in history was WWII, the conflict with the third most victims in history, was WWI.

What's in-between?

The Taiping rebellion in late 19th century China with some 30 million victims, some 10% of the population. (Screw the opium wars, those were but a blip.) Led by a guy called Hong Xiuquan, who thought he was Jesus, it left the country in the ruins that it is only now slowing rising out of.

It's also a piece of history that may explain a thing or two about why the Chinese are a little more skeptical towards religion than others.

59:

The location makes it pretty difficult for the US to exploit those resources. Most likely China will reap any benefits to be had.

60:

The exam board used by my school, circa 1983, had various options for O-level history. I did "20th-Century History" (WW1, General Strike, Great Depression, WW2), but one class did "Tudors and Stuarts", and yet another did "American History".

Missing America out of a history syllabus does seem like splendid poetic justice.

I just finished "The Trade of Queens", by the way. I found the ending pretty plausible - unlike a few of the steps along the way. In fact, more-or-less inevitable given what happens earlier in the book. I'm a little mystified by those (apparently including a majority of the amazon.com reviewers) who see it as anti-American.

61:

Sorry, there were some major bloopers in the last comment. The correct numbers are 20 million victims and 5% of the population. (I was *sure* that China had less than 300 mio people in the 19th century, they had 400 mio ...)

Doesn't help to make the numbers much better though.

62:

Didn't Hong Xiuquan think he was Jesus' younger brother? [checks Wikipedia]. Yep.

My only knowledge of China in that time period comes from reading Flashman and the Dragon. . . .

63:

The Cheney administration was far too fixated on oil and gas to see the importance of seizing control of lithium resources. As far as the PNAC crowd is concerned, the geopolitical benefit to controlling Afghanistan is as part of a pipeline route to export natural gas from central Asia without needing Russian support.

64:

No reason British school children should really study US history, apart from when we started impacting world history in the 20th century.

You could sum it up that we were a minor revenue-draining portion of the British Empire that attracted a lot of Scots and Irish settlers and groups on the out politically (Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers). They made some minor contribution in wars against the French and were involved in the coastal trade with the valuable Caribbean colonies.

They tended to avoid taxes, ignore laws and treaties with the natives, and engage in smuggling. Probably because a lot of them were descended from quasi-criminals and people who objected to the British ruling classes. Then in, 1776 a festering argument over these issues turned into a war. Despite winning a lot of battles and capturing major cities, the British couldn't get the Americans to surrender so ended up cutting their losses.

After a second war confirmed that Americans didn't know how to lose a war, the British realized it was better being friendly. As a result, Canada exists today unlike Spanish Florida or the northern half of Mexico.

As it turned out, the US had some nice laws favoring foreign investment, making it a good place for wealthy Britons to put all that money they were making from industrialization and commerce. A century later, it was discovered that all that money had ended up making the United States very powerful and wealthy, much to the surprise of everyone but the Americans, who always assumed they were anyway.

History since then has mostly been Americans blundering around waving their arms talking loudly and everyone else trying not to get bopped in the nose.

65:

The US was in Iraq primarily for domestic political reasons. Leveraging vengeful bloodthirst for the 2003 tax cuts, 2004 presidential election, and a failed attempt to end social security (our old age public pension system). Bush wanted to be a "war president", and Afghanistan would not be enough while the right wing base was well primed for war with Iraq.

The US was in Afghanistan to remove the secure base of operations the various organizations called 'al-qaeda' had there. That is still a secondary reason, but the primary reason today is domestic politics. The only "victory" anyone can think of is to get a friendly government in Afghanistan that will function without us for at least a year or so. Until we can't do that or people get fed up enough with it to prefer just leaving the war will continue.

All you non-american's who's countries were/are involved in Iraq got involved to suck up to the Bush administration, because you were paid, or to give your special forces live fire training.

Those involved in Afghanistan either wanted to slap down 'al-qaeda', or to suck up, or both.


The military oil industrial and complex looting is a follow-on, and really more just the result of a very corrupt and incompetent administration. Every part of the government was on a corruption spree. The military and security apparatus is just unusually susceptible to it and even more so during distant wars.

66:

Charlie: "But the places to start are not in Afghanistan -- they're the royal palace in Riyadh and the ISI headquarters in Islamabad."

Unfortunately, this leads to that 'remaking of the Middle East' project so beloved by neocons.

67:

"Apply this pattern to Afghanistan, that notorious hotbed of political moderation and wise cooler heads, and then imagine them gaining enough money to modernize their military. Then remember that their neighbor Pakistan is an unstable geopolitical meltdown waiting to happen, and is also armed with nuclear weapons. Then be afraid"

As has been pointed out, running any significant mining operation in Afghanistan is ridiculous.

68:

"As it turned out, the US had some nice laws favoring foreign investment, making it a good place for wealthy Britons to put all that money they were making from industrialization and commerce"

Last I heard, the US just as often had some laws which basically said 'possession is ownership, especially if Mr. Possessors' bribe was paid on time'.

69:

All of the above are reasons to be in Afghanistan

- energy and minerals (source & distribution)
- 'origin of terrorist'
- entrenched interest (desire to get a win, gravy train)
- proximity to Russia and China

But don't discount the value of the experience of being there.

Its a place where ruthlessness is required for survival. The mix of ethnicity, religion, languages are unique. It has a history of its interaction with geopolitical powers (USSR/Russia, USA, UK, China, Saudi, Iran, Pakistan, India).

All the above make it a valuable and unique training ground of a sort for all facets including military, diplomatic, political, corporate, religious.

It is sharp elbows training for a increasingly energy and resource constrained world. Kind of like 'if you can make in New York, you can make it anywhere'...

70:

Funnily enough my O-Level history period was 1769-1863. Now you might have thought that would cover both the War of Independence and the Civil War. But no, they were mentioned merely in passing, mere fly specs to the main thrust of English history - the birth of the industrial revolution, winning the fight against the French. (Oh how much we studied the French Revolution until Wellington's final, victory, and we could turn our attention next to parliament and laws).

I suppose Britain losing the war with America may have had something to do with the downplaying.

Speaking of which, my geography at the time was very much about knowing the oceans, winds and global resources to be found/managed. No doubt perfect training for administrating or trading with the "colonies".

It was all so horribly C19th British Empire focus.

71:

It always looked to me that there was a 'threatening Iran' element to the invasions.
but of course you cant complete that fianl step until afghan is subdued.
expect a 'we can't let Iran have the Bomb'
scare.
just like the 45minute bullshit from Iraq, it will be the cassus belli

72:

I am not persuaded that the minerals were what prompted the US to invade Afghanistan, but they might be part of the PR to stay.

I believe this is mostly driven by US domestic political pressures. Obama does not want to be blamed for losing a war.

73:

There was some problems with land speculation, squatters, and claim jumpers in some parts of the US. Basically someone back East would buy land in the west and try to sell it at a profit. People with no assets would just go out there and squat on the land and use it. Local politicians often found it expedient to pass laws giving the land to the squatters.

But that wasn't what the British were investing in, they tended to invest in development of the more civilized areas.

74:

When I did my O levels from 1980-2, one major unit was on the USA. The subject was, "Franklin D Roosevelt, an Example to Us All". Other units included, "Woodrow Wilson, Too Great For This Sordid World", "The Good Man Lenin and the Scoundrel Stalin", "Evil Adolf Hitler and His Fiendish Cunning", and of course, "Mao: Great Tragic Hero of the 20th Century". I paraphrase but slightly. Britain was notionally in the syllabus, but did not in fact occur, except in sidebars.

The Second World War began and ended, but the unseemly interval was omitted, and the movie swiftly fast-forwarded to Yalta.

It was sure spinning a line, but the total effect as taught was a surprisingly good and provocative one, and did in fact lead indirectly to my diving into American history head-first - albeit five years later.

75:

The neocons were pretty open about why they wanted to invade the Middle East. They wanted American hegemony, and they mistakenly thought that they could establish pro-America democracies by invading Middle Eastern countries. Look up the people who had Bush's ear and see what they had to say. Maybe they had secret meetings at the Jewish cemetary in Prague at midnight where they discussed their true motives, but I doubt it.

77:

It's always tempting to see Huge Conspiracies behind the news and sometimes I imagine they're actually, um, there.

In the case of Afghan, I think it's simply mission creep and an utter lack of strategic appreciation. The job was largely done to everyone's satisfaction when the Northern Alliance took Kabul and Herat in 2001 and that would have been a good time to get out. We didn't.

All sorts of stuff about nation building crept on to the agenda and the military option (not well understood by the political classes in Washington or London any more) is easier to invoke than revoke. The end game now is to get out and not have the legacy Afghan government collapse for at least 12 months and hope no-one notices when it does.

78:

The war is deeply irrational, but of-course irrationality is the trademark of neoconservatism. I recognize that the US had to take some kind of action after 911, but Afghanistan wasn't selected for any rational reason. The hijackers had nothing to do with Afghanistan, the whole idea of terrorist trainingcamps is BS (pictures of someone doing militia training isn't terrorist training), the notion of huge bunker complexes in the mountains was also just a lie. If Osama Bin Laden have ever been for a longer period in Afghanistan is questionable.

Neoconservatism is rooted in occultism, it sees cristianity and communism as the same thing, they will lie and they will lie big because they are on a mission from God (God = Irrationality). Since the female essence is considered irrational it is the Divine Femine principle and thus a chance to fight the evil men who doesn't treat women as the goddesses they are. So it is a holy war against an extreme patriarchic regime, a regime with no international power what so ever.

But who can expect that the regime in Afghanistan is anything but harsh after so many years of war, it is a well known fact that most regimes lighten up after many years of peace, but this peace is not what we're offering, we offer only continued endless war. A war that allows or even supports extreme corruption, those fighting this corruption by fighting the foreign forces are equally labelled Taliban because the only way we can destinguish Taliban is who fires at our forces.

The Taliban actually stopped the opium from flowing, now it's up to full production again. This is not in our interest, neither is the stallmate where our forces may have control during the day but at night the opposing side can threaten the local population not to support our troops. So the war is going nowhere and even the most cynical can see that it's not helping the economy.

So Pentagon had to come up with something new. Now there are minerals all over the place. This can keep the cynicals happy (morally the war is already a write-off). They know that Iraq had to be pumped full of money before things sort of settled, they bought Iraq and they know that it would certainly not be popular to do the same in Afghanistan.

79:

Actually, there are several fairly widespread languages in the US; though most have a spotty distribution.

However, only English and Spanish are used by enough people for Google News to think it's worth having US editions in those languages.

80:

I've got ADD, and I don't see any problem in it being used to describe US foreign policy, since all parties would recognise that it's a metaphor. ADD stands for Attention Deficit Disorder, after all - and until we have a better way of describing it, and what causes it, we'll have to resign ourselves to the term being used in a non-medical fashion, since it is so damned USEFUL in that way.

81:

I, for one, love the fact that no one seems to be raising an eyebrow over the fact that a crack team of geologists came to accompany Pentagon officials around Geological Sites of Interest in the big "A". Honestly! How does that one play out?

"Hey Chaz! Nice bars on the collar! Way to go with the promotion . . . whoa, look at those shiny rocks! Better call in some Geologists with a capital "G"

82:

Charlie, people have been talking about large potential mineral deposits in Afghanistan for several years now. Two Canadians toured Afghanistan in 2007 and brought back this information:

"Among the resources up for grabs, are Afghanistan’s promising mining resources. A geology student told us about the prospective mineral riches of Afghanistan indicating that rich deposits of valuable resources such as iron ore and gold are abundant and unexploited. The World Bank estimates “the annual value of Afghanistan’s mineral reserves could reach at least US$253 million up from the current US$60 million� (AREU 2006)."

http://www.military-world.net/Afghanistan/207.html

But I doubt that mineral resources were a primary reason for entering Afghanistan. I agree with the other posters on this thread who suggested that the occupation of Afghanistan fit in with the stated U.S. goal of regional hegemony. Afghanistan was among what Perle and other Bush advisors saw as "low hanging fruit" - easy footholds for a continual U.S. presence. Recall that the U.S. has not left Korea, Japan, or Germany. They want airbases and troop outposts everywhere they can get them.

Just look at their behaviour - they want more Africa/Middle East/Central/South American "Command" areas, not less. They are expanding their commands.

BTW, if you want a really fun movie to evaluate in a new light, try "Rambo III."

83:

Bryce @ 81, nothing surprising about the military having teams of geologists around. The US Marines learned in WWII that if you're planning to invade Pacific islands to build airfields, it really helps to have some geologists look over the maps and soil samples first so your airfield doesn't become inoperable every time it rains. (No doubt other militaries do similar things, this happens to be the example in working memory.)

84:

Huh....based on some old Soviet surveys, they say. I wonder if they were using pulsed MHD electromagnetic surveys. Those things were definitely a Laundry-ish piece of tech: need a 100 megawatt generator that fits on a truck?

The US policy in Afghanistan is not that tricky to explain; once Rumsfeld had demonstrated that he could overthrow a government for cheap, he and the rest of the administration lost interest and headed off for Bagdad. Kabul and Bagdad both have exactly the sort of government that the free-market worshippers* wanted: just strong enough to agree to a contract, but too weak to enforce it. Security issues have somehow prevented these countries from turning into corporate wonderlands.

*Viewing these wackjobs as religious fundamentalists is the only way I can make sense of them. I guess a functioning Securities and Exchange Commission, Enviromental Protection Agency, or Minerals Management Service would make the baby Ayn Rand cry. Having broken ones hasn't worked for the country or the economy, even if a handful of people got very rich.

85:

I don`t buy it. To get profit out of Afghanistan, you`d have to kill everyone there first.

86:

From what I can tell, Afghanistan has always been something of a political and cartographic nightmare. It's hilly country, with a lot of very belligerent tribal groups maintaining a constant battle across generations over what few scarce resources for human survival (ie decent growing land, shelter, water supply) are available. The main revenue for the entire region came from controlling the main passes from the Middle East through to Asia (Khyber Pass, anyone?) and thus acting as a highly profitable trade bottleneck. So in real terms, the Afghan economy started dying when long-distance water freight became cheaper and more reliable than land-based caravans, collapsed in a horrible heap with the creation of long-distance air freight, and may well find itself perking up again if a valid non-fossil alternative for airline and diesel fuel isn't figured out soon. But basically, it's an economy, a society and a culture based around a generations-long standover racket - even if your tribe wasn't the one being paid to escort cowardly merchants through the passes this week, it benefited them to be as fierce as possible, because firstly you could possibly get something from a raid[1], and secondly even if you didn't, the goods and services purchased from the merchants wound up circulating within the whole of the Afghan society.

It was this control of the land routes to India and the Middle East which the British were after when they set out to "conquer" Afghanistan. What they settled for was the task of acting as ongoing umpire in the national sport of blood feud (never forget the sport of polo was invented in the Afghan mountains... and the original "ball" wasn't particularly spherical), confounding their friends, frustrating their enemies, and essentially maintaining control of the passes by maintaining a rather delicate balance of power and rivalry between the tribes[2]. Oh, and running their own version of the extortion racket the Pathan tribes had been running all along (think of the whole country as one giant road freight tollway - you won't be too far wrong).

These days, geopolitical thinkers are busy trying to come up with some kind of explanation for why there should be an interest in the place from the major players - humanitarian reasons, protecting the world from Afghan opium, allowing through Russian gas, and now mineral rights. My own guess involves a lot of rather old maps which have the Khyber Pass marked as a point of significance, any number of generals who like to think they're better than Alexander the Great, and a complete reluctance on the part of anyone to admit that maybe the best thing anyone could do for the Afghan peoples is to leave them the flippin' heck alone.

[1] But don't kill the merchants - that way they come *back* next time, and maybe your tribe will be the one they hire to protect them!
[2] Consider: no warlord was to get strong enough to conclusively defeat another tribe; local warlords who wanted to arrange alliances had to be defused rapidly; and the British army presence had to remain technologically, logistically and numerically superior to both their ostensible allies, and to their apparent enemies.

87:

Back in those days, the details of the history studied for the O-level depended a lot on the examining board. A few years earlier, we got a fairly continuous overview running up to about 1815, and then the focus was on British 19th century politics for the actual O-level. We didn't even get the thrill of Rorke's Drift to relieve the tedium.

So the American War of Independence got a mention, and some of the political fallout from the American Civil War.

We didn't even get a hint, that I recall, of the looming doom of Empires that was The Great War, except as an incidental to do with women getting the vote.

88:

Dear Nicolas (comment number 11),

Regarding Western Sahara case, Boucraa is a mining site in deficits. Besides, Boucraa represents 1% of the moroccan total reserves of phosphates. I think the Western Sahara issue is more complex than what you present above. It's a legacy of the cold war and it's about a separatism issue facing the unionist sahraouis belonging to Morocco and the separatist sahraouis supported by Algeria and backed in the Wilaya of Tindouf south Algeria. The word occupation isn't really appropriate. It's more about a recovery of territories occupied by Spain from 1912 to 1975. We will of course agree on the following : it's all about western colonialism heritage.

Peace on you all

Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad
Unionist Western Sahrawi

89:

My O-level history syllabus was all fluffy, thematic 'new history' stuff[*], with virtually none of the "lets pick two somewhat arbitrary dates and a somewhat arbitrary area and then chalk'n'talk the feck out of it for the next two years" of the traditional approach. I got to do that for my A-level instead (Victorian/Edwardian for British history; Renaissance/Early modern for European).

As it happens, one of the themes for my O-level was the development of the C19th American frontier, so we did cover some US history - but even then we largely ignored most of the big issues except for how they influenced the way that things played out in the West.

Regards
Luke

[*] A noble experiment in retrospect, but fatally flawed in that it was attempting to impart interesting/useful historiographical stuff about working from sources, not taking things at face value just 'cuz it's written down etc; whilst still needing to devote syllabus time to covering the basics of what is generally accepted as having happened.

This made for a somewhat incoherent pedagogical message to say the least

90:

Having done quite a bit of research on the territorial development of the Byzantine Empire between 650 and 900 AD I can assure you, that the pedagogical message you got is perfectly accurate.

History itself is incoherent ... and don't even get me started on histories written record!

91:

First - you need to read Ahmed Rashid's Taliban and Descent into Chaos and you need to read them now.

Economic issues were always secondary in the ISI's calculations - they could have had the trucking routes and maybe even a gas pipeline 20 years ago had they been willing to stop backing Hekmatyar and later the Taliban and support a broadbased government. But they didn't want economics, they wanted victory, and the whole "strategic depth" thing about dispersing the PakAF's QRA F-16s with their nukes into Afghanistan, and giving the Indians what for generally, and keeping the jihadi infrastructure going in case it came in handy in Kashmir or elsewhere. That meant they had to have a client government, which meant the Northerners had to keep fighting, and Iran and Russia would keep backing them.

Which incidentally kiboshed any possibility of economic benefits.

Regarding the Trans-Afghan pipeline, the deal (such as it was) fell apart long before 2001, due to various factors, notably the Turkmenbashi was never willing to commit to export prices for it, the war kept going, the Americans wouldn't recognise the Taliban except as part of a coalition government and on condition they stopped hanging women from the lampposts, and without recognition, the World Bank wouldn't finance it. The Saudis offered to pay in order to give their pals in the ISI a hand, but that wouldn't work either because the war kept going and the Turkmenbashi still wasn't willing - even though they offered Gazprom a stake.

Further, regarding Evo Morales, the NATO reinforcement of ISAF was signed off in early 2005 and the German PRT deployed to Kunduz that summer.

92:

Afghanistan in numbers.

GDP: 12 billion

tax revenue: 1.2 billion

position in UN Human Development Index: 181 (out of 181)

current cost of the war: 60 billion

estimated peacetime cost of security supplied on the western nation-state model (tax-funded professional military) : 6 billion

cost of security supplied on a tribal model (farmers with guns): free, but you don't get to have an economy

cost of security supplied on a crusader model (volunteers showing up to fight for some cause): free, but you have to do what they say

'Functional rentier state', with enough mineral revenues to pay for a professional military under civilian control, is probably the best-case outcome for ordinary Afghans. Somewhere like Oman is 120 places above Afghanistan in terms of HDI.

93:

@ 86:
" anyone to admit that maybe the best thing anyone could do for the Afghan peoples is to leave them the flippin' heck alone."
PROVIDED YOU ARE MALE, OF COURSE?
This does not apply to the other half of the population.

I see that discussion has finally re-focussed on the part played by the not-so-covert jihadists inside Pakistan's ISI and elsewhere (never mind the Saudis - that's another whole different can of worms).
Pakistan is Britain's fault - it should not exist - all part of the disaster that was 1947.
There should have been a unified, secular "Indian" state.
Even so, and for instance, Pakistan has no business being in Kashmir - that country should either be independant and living off tourism, or part of present-day India.

I'm not sure that even given Charlie's sensitivities to the subject, that the religious-fanaticism aspect of this conflict has been emphasised enough.
Jihadist islam is really, insanely dangerous.
So are the xtian Dominionists mentioned earlier, but they are not in charge in the USA, despite a good try once or twice.
A Palin presidency would be a different matter, however.....

94:

You could argue that the American Revolution disappears from English history syllabi because it hinged on the French Navy decisively trouncing the British. That is clearly impossible; so nothing to see here, move along now.

95:

#86 - I'd agree Meg; pretty much the only people to ever have won a war in Afghanistan (including the British Empire at the height of its power, when it covered half the World) are Alexander the Great and the Afghans!

96:

#94 - The French Navy did not defeat the RN; they did however constitute a clear, present and sufficient threat to prevent the RN from deploying successfully and in sufficient numbers to use sea power to control the US seaboard (they only had one back then). Add to that the fact that the British army was still in the throws of "mass formations", and even units like the Rifle regiments of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series (ignore the books set before the Peninsular War, and any set after Waterloo and it's a pretty good depiction of the soldiery and organisation, right down to the relative informality etc of the green uniformed Rifles, and their use as skirmishers in recon roles and in massed battles), and as result couldn't cope with the skirmish/"guerilla" tactics of the then colonials...

97:

@ 95
Wrong.
I suggest you look up:
Lord Roberts of Kandahar,
and the Second and Third (anglo) Afghan wars ......

Though it is noticeable that having won, decisively, in both cases, the Brit empire got out of Afghanistan, provided the new semi-puppet ruler kept his own peole in order, and didn't interfere "over the line" in India.
Interesting, huh?

98:

Those were the second and third Anglo-Afghan wars.

The first Afghan war, Lord Elphinstone's expedition, did not end well, to say the least!

(In fact, it was arguably the British army's worst defeat of the post-Napoleonic 19th century.)

99:

#97 - I presume you mean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Roberts,_1st_Earl_Roberts_of_Kandahar
and events described in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Afghan_War and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Anglo-Afghan_War ?

In that case I'd say that the Second War was a limited action with the intent of achieving a change of ruler of Afghanistan, which can be categorised as a win for some of the Afghans, and note that it is suggested that the Third War was a strategic victory for the Afghans, stabilising their frontier with India (now Pakistan) and allowing Afghanistan to persue foreign policy independant of British Colonial rule. Hardly "decisive victories" IMO.

100:

We're still there because the Baby Boomer generation, both here and in the UK, turned out to be unbelievably, historically incompetent at war, especially at occupations. They couldn't be bothered to have the patience, or the caring at results on the ground to the invaded. That's alot of rubbish because, in that annoying reality thing, if you don't patrol, you get a spiral of violence because the old police and military have been taken out of the picture.

Who knew losing a war - Vietnam - was like child abuse? Many of the same mistakes were made, though at least we tried to support democracies this time

101:

I'm with Nicholas on this one, and I do think that you're being paranoid.

If the going in plan really had been to loot these minerals, it's hard to believe that the Bush administration would have taken its eyes off the ball for so long, or have left the international force hunkered down in Kabul so completely. Leaving the rest of the country to founder wouldn't have allowed minerals extraction.

Yes, I know, they bollixed up Iraq pretty completely, but that was active incompetence, not passive incompetence as in Afghanistan.

The passive incompetence is of a piece with other Bush administration fiascoes where Bush jumped into something only to allow his attention to wander almost immediately afterward (cf. the Mars mission, the Katrina clean-up, etc.). It also lines up with that administration's inability to use soft power effectively (failures of reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, and New Orleans). There was no effective Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, and the coalition authority in Iraq looked like disorganized looting.


Incompetence and lack of vision are quite adequate to explain the slide of Afghanistan into chaos.


As for why the West is still in Afghanistan, the Vietnam analogy may be helpful (see esp. Karnow's book on the war). It's a lot harder to back out of a war --- even a war that's not of your own making --- than to slide into one. Walking away from the sunk costs --- especially the human sunk costs --- may be politically suicidal. It's also hard, from a point of view of national character, for the US to accept that a situation may be irreparable.

Sadly, the dependence of the West on an increasingly erratic, possibly irrational, local client (Karzai), also seems reminiscent of Vietnam.

102:

The Battle of the Chesapeake is generally considered a defeat for the British Navy, though it can be spun as a tactical draw.

103:

All so very serious and factual. Where's my fedora?

The Russians invaded Afghanistan to find the Magic Vorpal Sword +6. They looked really hard but couldn't find it. The natives and then the Americans were really pesky, and when their economy collapsed back home, they decided it was a crock, so they went home.

Then the Americans heard about the Magic Vorpal Sword +6 (yes, that's right, six, one more than is possible! This is all pre 4th edition, nitpickers) was in Afghanistan, and to make it even more attractive the Evil Mastermind and his Evil Henchmen were hiding in the country somewhere too. The Americans even bought some buddies to help loot the the place.

It's just begging for Indy or Bond to go waltzing by.

104:

If we went into Iraq to control the oil, then why is *China* contracted to extract it.........?

105:

The British lost America because they won the Seven Years War (Which lasted more than seven years, but never mind). At the end of the war they were faced with a choice, commit enough troops to the Revolutionary War to win it or keep the troops in the territiories taken from the French. Since the former French territories were more profitable than the American colonies, the British decided to garrison their new possessions rather than the American colonies.

The Loyalist version of history I learned in grade school spent a lot of time on the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but had some notable blind spots. Lots of talk about the Loyalist migration to the northern colonies, but no mention that most Loyalist families stayed in the new US and made the best of it. Lots of talk about the freedmen escaping post-Revolutionary America, but no mention that most of those families moved back to the US after the Civil War. On and on...

106:

The US went into Iraq to control what currency the world uses to buy oil. The US doesn't really care who sucks the stuff out of the ground so long as people pay for the stuff in US dollars.

During the UN embargo of Iraq, the EU (And in particular France) discussed the idea of paying for their oil in euros. The UN, officially in charge of Iraq's oil shipments, seemed interested in the idea. Libya and a couple of other minor oil producers seemed interested in the idea. The US quashed that idea by invading Iraq and making it clear that they were willing to shoot anyone who wanted to buy oil with anything other than US dollars.

Subsequent events have shown that the US ability to enforce its petrocurrency isn't as great as once thought. There's too much going on right now for other countries to take advantage of this revealed weakness, but there's a reason those countries are discussing special drawing rights and 'market basket' currencies backed by reserves of various commodities.

Ten-fifteen years from now, when the global economy starts to pull out of its slump, the Dollar Wars will probably blow up into a series of shooting wars. For now we're likely just looking at a lot of economic manouvering.

107:

I'd like add a few points to rpgoldman@101 and Nicholas@4...

It's important to remember that we (the US) lost over 3,000 lives to a terrorist attack that was set in motion by Al Queda from Afghanistan. At that point, Bush pretty much had carte blanche from both the Congress and the American people to go in there an take out Al Queda and the Taliban (for sheltering Al Queda).

Bush and his cronies (or was it his cronies and Bush?) decided that, once they had scored the publicity points by deposing the Taliban, they could ignore following up on Osama and Al Queda. This outraged a large segment of Americans, BTW.

Bush then wasted his political capital by invading Iraq (for resources that we still haven't been able to exploit ;-).

Obama ran on the promise that he'd finish off Al Queda. And he's done rather well at punishing them with drone attacks. Militarily, the Pentagon, and McCrystal, have promised him a victory in Afghanistan. But I don't think Obama really wants to stay there. He obviously sees it as a long-term political liability. And the US opened unofficial negotiation with certain moderate factions within Taliban, only to have the ISI arrest the moderates (Pakistan evidently doesn't like the idea of the Taliban negotiating with the Americans). Anyway, McCrystal has promised significant progress within a year. We'll see what Obama does next year...

I suspect the natural resources angle will become a playing card in the Pentagon's media campaign for endless war (which only benefits their budgets). But it's interesting that Obama has unleashed an independent bipartisan commission on the Pentagon, that has just identified $1 Trillion worth of cuts. Heh, heh. The Pentagon and Obama are definitely NOT walking in lockstep...

108:

PS: The case has been made that (contrary to what many have claimed)-- that what Cheney and Bush really wanted to do in Iraq -- was to STOP oil production there for as long as possible. This destablized the petroleum markets, allowing their cronies to bid up oil futures, and made crude oil so expensive that Texas oil men could make a buck or two in their wells in the oil patch. If that is the case, then Bush and Cheney were tremendously successful -- and they should be considered brilliant manipulators rather than fumbling neocons.

109:

@18:

Chris H: the Belgian problem has been on the cards for decades -- some kind of constitutional re-org appears to be inevitable, to recognize the fact that it's a nation stitched together from two disparate language groups with differing administrative priorities. It shouldn't be generalized to the EU as a whole.

While this may be true, it is also true that the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium is richer than the French-speaking part, so that there are large net transfers from Flanders to Wallonia. And this is the sort of argument you see in the EU all the time: why should the richer, northern countries subsidize the poorer, southern PIIGS? I suspect you'll hear a lot of this sort of talk as we near the end of the Age of Cheap Oil.

110:

@26:

I don't entirely buy the oil argument for Iraq, and certainly don't buy the minerals argument for Afghanistan. I think there is a sunk cost issue going on (if we stop the deaths then the deaths will have been in vain!) but it's not enough to justify the real stretch on resources going on.

I think the explanation is that the leaders involved more or less believe their own rhetoric about the purpose - it's a semi-religious belief that we must be there in order to defend freedom in the abstract and also, by a rather tortuous sequence of implications and imaginings, defend against direct attack on the streets and transport systems of New York and London.

Think of it as the electron drift theory of historical imperatives: while there always seem to be larger, more immediate reasons justifying a war, there's always that small but steady bias maintained over the long term of taking Other People's Stuff.

You see the same thing in Israel, for example. Sure there's the ethnic and religious strife, sure there are grudges that go back centuries or millenia . . . but notice that through all the clash and struggle, Israel over the course of almost half a century somehow manages to monotonically encroach on Palestinian land, appropriate Palestinian water, etc?

111:

@40:

Part of the problem is that admitting oil is the problem is admitting you need the solution, which turns into "no fossil carbon extraction" pretty quick. That reads -- it's not, in any substantial way, factually so, but it _reads_ -- as "I want to be poor". Which is somewhere around heresy.

That's a problem that's going to solve itself over the next forty years. That's depressing - it's easy to imagine a scenario in the U.S. where the top one-half percent live like kings and everyone else is the underclass, gas is $15/gal, and the "Strategic Petroleum Reserve", swollen to a hundred times its current size, is tacitly understood to be for military use only. There won't be a problem with admitting to a problem then.

But fixing it will then take another fifty years or so.

112:

I don't buy that the US went into Iraq for any single clear reason.

Personally I follow what I call the Chinese Restaurant theory of the Iraq invasion; When you've got a whole bunch of people in a group and you're going to eat out, you have to come to some sort of compromise based on need/preferences of all the parties. So you end up eating at, say, a Chinese restaurant. Doesn't mean there was a grand conspiracy to get Chinese food, just worked out that way.

Same with Iraq. Big military like the US, gotta invade *someone* now and then, or what's the point? Iraq looked good to different stakeholders for different reasons. So, boom.

113:

If this is the case, then it's about time that the USA gets a good kicking.

114:

Perhaps the Obama/Biden cabal needs to discuss how to plug oil leaks with the Bush/Cheney cabal. He's losing a lot of traction in the polls lately for his handling of the Gulf situation. Some of you though, still seem to be acting like the Bush/Cheney cabal are somehow still mysteriously manipulating what is happening today in the world. Nothing new in this, it's just that it's getting particularly tiresome. On the other hand, if I have to listen to one more of Obama's speeches that was written in future perfect tense I think I'm going to puke.

Now just cue Grace Jones Tomorrow and I'm out of here for the day.

115:

a flippant quote (I think from some BBC history drama or another) might summarise a lot of the responses -
"The weakness of the powerful is their obligation to prove their power"

116:

Yeah, religion was involved, as Michael@26 and others suggested, but we're talking about neoconism, not traditional religion. Some tenets of neoconism:
o Just like in Clancy and Hollywood, tiny numbers of American troops are enough to beat any number of inferior others.
o Societies beaten by American troops will cheer and immediately self-organize into righteous, mature, rich democracies and don't need any American occupations.
o Democratic revolutions in undemocratic societies must succeed, because their entire societies will immediately rally around them, and anyway, a handful of democratic soldiers can beat ravening hordes of undemocratic, unrighteous ones.
o One way being righteously better soldiers is to be as unrighteously nasty as possible.
Many neocons seem to've relied on that idea of the world to plan on conquering the rest of the middle eastern GOP enemies' list as well after Iraq - first Iran and then Syria, all with a handful of forces - it should all be a cakewalk, they THOUGHT.....

Of course, not all the White House was neoconnish - just an amazingly uncountered high elite.

117:

>Iraq was pretty obvious: oil.
-and-
>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.

Nice premise, and as always you'll find true believers.
So let's do a little poking around the internet and see what ideological balloons can be popped quickly, lest fiction be replaced by fact...

http://seekingalpha.com/article/193859-will-iraq-s-oil-production-increase

Last year, for example, Iraq awarded a contract to BP (NYSE: BP) and China National Petroleum Corp covering the Rumaila oilfield, a giant field that first entered production in 1955. The field currently produces slightly less than 1 million barrels per day; the contract with BP targets a production plateau of around 2.85 million barrels per day. BP’s original bid called for a USD3.99 per barrel remuneration fee after development costs, but the company cut that to USD2 to win the contract.

BP’s deal for Rumaila was the only contract awarded in Iraq’s first bidding round in summer 2009.

Keep reading...there's more about BP's possible motivations in there as well.

Google is such a wonderful tool, just wish more people would use it. Like googlng "Iraq awards oil contracts"


118:

Sorry about going off topic in my previous post - Afghanistan's mineral reserves...

We may need to pick a new villain to replace Halliburton and start looking at the world's mining companies. Listed on this web page are the top twenty-five mining companies in terms of market capitalization.
http://www.infomine.com/companies-properties/

119:

Iraqi oil was/is important to the US for the same reason that Transvaal gold was to Britain in 1899.

It's the political/strategic implications, not the directly economic ones.

It's not a matter of -getting- the oil.

Oil is fungible; the price is set worldwide; anyone with money can buy it.

So it doesn't really matter (except to a few companies) who drills and sells the oil. Saddam was perfectly willing to sell oil in any amount, and in the nature of things he had to sell it at the same price anyone else would.

It was -what he would do with the oil money- that made the oil important, just as Milner and Chamberlain and Salisbury were concerned with what Kruger would do with the gold revenues. Note that the current administration continued the previous one's policy in Iraq without even changing the personnel.

Kruger was hostile to the British hegemony in southern Africa, which in turn was crucially important for larger geostrategic reasons, mainly having to do with Imperial communications routes. Saddam (whose main domestic constituency had interesting similarities to the Boers) was hostile to American hegemony in the Gulf region.

It's who got the -taxes- from the gold/oil that mattered strategically, because that translates into power.

Ditto, we wanted to make sure that the Iraqi oil revenues wouldn't be in hostile hands. That required getting rid of Saddam, and plugging in a reasonably self-sustaining regime that would cooperate with us for its own self-interested reasons.

If it's composed of nice guys, or as nice as guys get in that part of the world, all the better, but that's gravy.

This objective has been achieved, albeit it took longer and cost more than anticipated, but all's well that ends reasonably well.

This is all standard Grand Politics; things have always worked this way and they always will. I really don't see why anyone gets their knickers in a twist about it.

120:

As for Afghanistan, anyone who thinks that al-Qaeda ccould have been or can be disentangled from the Afghan Taliban (or the former from the Pakistani vareity, or the latter from the ones blowing things up in India, etc.) is fooling themselves.

The important thing to keep in mind when dealing with these people is that they -really believe- the stuff they're peddling. They are, on the whole, perfectly sincere. Cod-Marxist stuff about religious ideology being an epiphenomenon caused by economic exploitation is, of course, mere guano. Their motivations are exactly what they say they are; they're serving God by carrying on the jihad against unbelievers as a religious duty.

It's very, very hard for secular types to believe that people -really mean- this sort of thing. I'm an atheist myself, but I don't engage in wishful thinking. Most people don't think the way I do and never will.

They certainly have their internal quarrels but from our p.o.v. those basically don't matter much; Hamas is Sunni, and the Iranian mullahs are Shia, and both varieties of lunatic loathe each other, but they cooperate against the "Jews and Crusaders" (aka, "us").

121:

The US quashed that idea by invading Iraq and making it clear that they were willing to shoot anyone who wanted to buy oil with anything other than US dollars.

The Iranians did this and absolutely nothing of any significance happened. The whole argument is baseless - there is no reason why you can't settle oil contracts in the equivalent value of whatever currency you agree on, and anyway converting euros or whatever into dollars is an instant, automated, and very cheap process.

To be a bit more formal about it, assume you have two counterparties A and B. Neither of them wish to hold dollars. A is an oil exporter, B an oil importer. A sells oil to B. B buys dollars to settle the bill. A immediately sells the dollars. What effect does this transaction have on the level of the dollar? Absolutely none - the two forex transactions are exactly equivalent, and these days, probably processed instantaneously at the moment the oil contract is traded.

(Anyway, as there is no reason to think all the As and Bs in the world trade at the same time, any funds in suspense will net out.)

That's the strong case where neither party wants any dollars at all and they merely use them BECAUSE TEH EMPIRE SAYS SO!!! But, of course, people do want dollars for other reasons than that the Brent and WTI contract template has a dollar sign before the box marked "price". They want them to trade with the dollarzone, to buy dollarzone securities, etc.

Making the model a bit more sophisticated, assume A, the oil exporter, is an importer of two kinds of goods. Dollar goods - Microsoft Windows, jet bombers, Internet porn - and euro goods - Armani suits, Nokia N900s, champagne. And jet bombers.*

When they receive their dollars in exchange for oil, they essentially have to choose how much they will spend on dollar goods and how much they will convert into euros. Simplifying assumption - they are a priori indifferent between dollar priced and euro priced goods. Nobody buys on the basis of which currency the price tag shows.

So, let's flip the model and assume that they now receive euros rather than dollars. What happens? Well, their demand for dollars vs. euros is given by the share of their imports that come from the dollarzone vs. the eurozone. Like it was when they received dollars. Ceteris paribus, they still need the same value of dollars and euros to cover imports they did before the swap.

Conclusion: the oil-exporting sector's balances with the dollar and euro zones are determined by the composition of its demand for imports. What the swap might change would be the euro-dollar rate, if the oil exporters import significantly more from one zone than the other, but then the euro-dollar rate changes all the time and nobody but forex traders worries.

*I picked typical oil-exporter import goods

122:

#102 - Yeah, I'll agree with your assessment of the Battle of the Virginia Capes, but ask you to note that the majority of the RN were deployed elsewhere. Also, given the disparity in the numbers of ships and guns carried thereon, the French should have achieved more than 5 ships damaged for 2, and 90 casualties for 206.

123:

Further to #122, in reply to #102 - In fact, that rather proves my original point, that due to deployments elsewhere, the RN were unable to achieve strategic control of the American littoral, hence Cornwallis' surrender....

124:

@121:

Its a different matter when the oil importer is the US and not some other country, because the US gets to print dollars. Everyone else has to sell something to the US to get dollars.

This means oil is significantly cheaper for Americans because its priced in dollars (effectively free, limited only by the risk of inflation due to printing too many dollars).

Add in a background understanding that the current regime in Saudi Arabia, etc. gets US administration backing in return for spending a lot of their wealth on US real estate. Supports the US economy with minimal effects on inflation and cements ties: the royal family has billions in assets in the US to retire with should a revolution come; the US knows the money is being spent in a 'non-threatening' way, destabilising the geopolitics: if the money had been invested elsewhere the saudis could pull the economy down by moving it to Chinese shares, etc. 100 G$ in US real estate can't be brought home to Arabia in a huff.

The Oil money _as_money_ has significant power effects on the US economy, not just the liquid itself.

125:

@ 121: It's not about the level of the dollar, it's about what underpins the value of the dollar. The US dollar is an oil dollar, and as Alastair points out that has signifigant impact on the price of oil (And every thing else in a modern economy) in the US.

As for 'nothing of signifigance' happening to Iran, the country is under sanctions and the Neocons are talking openly about invading or nuking the place. Looks a lot like Iraq in the lead-up to Gulf War II, really.

126:

Alastair:

"Its a different matter when the oil importer is the US and not some other country, because the US gets to print dollars. Everyone else has to sell something to the US to get dollars.

This means oil is significantly cheaper for Americans because its priced in dollars (effectively free, limited only by the risk of inflation due to printing too many dollars)."

Wrong on both counts.

1. If you want USD there is a vast pool that is outside of the US. For example, eurodollars. But as the other Alex has explained, the forex markets make your premise incorrect.

2. The idea that the US get's any special price/value deal but having international oil prices quoted in USD is wrong. The USD needed to pay for imports must be financed which means that the economy and the financial markets must support the value of the USD. There is no magic way to get more value from the USD than any arms length forex transaction will provide. The USD as a major international currency means that the USD does get some status boost during panics and "flight to quality". And obviously, if your debts are in sovereign currency, you get to decide when to repudiate them by printing money.

127:

It's not about the level of the dollar, it's about what underpins the value of the dollar. The US dollar is an oil dollar

This is meaningless. Nobody is obliged to change your dollars for oil. There is no discount window on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. As previously pointed out, transactions demand for dollars in order to buy oil nets-out, unless oil exporters buy imports from the dollarzone.

Also, if it really was cheaper for Americans to buy oil because it's dollar denominated, it would be well worth buying oil in the US, then selling it to Europeans. In fact, you'd expect the US to be a significant re-exporter of oil.

128:

Ian Wright@125 has a good point about the US Dollar being an oil dollar. But it's indirectly based on oil, not directly. The value of the US Dollar is based on the productivity of the US economy (which US corporations have done their best to destroy by offshoring their operations -- but that's another rant). And the productivity of the US economy is, in no small part, supported by cheap energy inputs (i.e. cheap oil -- or petrol, as our cousins across the pond call it).

As for invading Iran, the US doesn't have the military resources to do this unless it decides it doesn't need to bother with Afghanistan and Iraq. And the US has gone out of the way to discourage Israel from inflaming the situation (by Israel's kind offer to bomb their facilities for us ;-).

130:

The best-before date for blaming everything on the Bush administration seems to be receding, and I'm finding it more interesting now to see how much isn't changing, as either ongoing US interests are carrying on regardless of the change in the White House, or as the Obama administration chooses not to put the rudder of the ship of state hard over in various areas for its own reasons.

131:

I don't see much sense in the new minerals argument, Firstly the main mineral is Lithium, there are two forms of Lithium a mineral lithium compound, and a salt, The Afghani form appears to be the mineral, and unfortunately it's the salt that is economically useful. the salt can be turned into Lithium Batteries, the mineral is only reasonable for use in producing glass, so the Lithium in Afghanistan may be there in vast quantities, but not vast Usable quantities for anything that we actually want to use it for (mechanical extraction from sea water appears to be a much cheaper source.

As for the Pipeline theory, this pops its ugly head up every year or two, and people who know about the economics of pipelines then sit down once again and prove its rubbish

132:

So I sat down and started to look up references to buttress my point. I got about ten minutes into it before I realized I'm looking up references for an internet debate! Surely I have better things to do with my life?

Went for a walk. The city is beautiful after all the rain we've had. Who wants to talk about kittens?

134:

The long term strategy has as much to do with Iran as anything. We have deployments along their western and eastern borders, airstrike capability from the south, and air and sea superiority in the Persian Gulf.

I'd like to think the Democrats won't invade, but a Republican of any stripe might, down the road when the war chest is fat again. In my mind it's a battle to minimize the influence of the hawks on the right. Meanwhile we are stuck with the deployment - any sign of 'weakness' from the oval office and the US public tends to put a tough talking warmonger in faster than you can say 'fire!'.

There is also the issue of Pakistan, which may or may not be genuinely unstable, depending on who you believe, and has nuclear weapons. I think that if the government there does come under threat of collapse, it's the UN's duty to secure the weapons, and by that I mean go and remove them and then leave, without picking sides between Sunni and Shia which is a no win situation.

I've not heard anyone mention that the deployment in Afghanistan seems to give us substantial intervention ability in Kashmir, several former Soviet republics and Tibet.

Everyone always points to resource grabs as if they are an end in themselves - maybe that's a projection of the values of the Bourgeosie, and the elite are playing a game wherein the resources are a means to an end, and whatever the reason or rationalization, the end always translates into power itself.

135:

How to put this ...?

Invading Iran would be clinically insane.

Iran is substantially bigger than Iraq and has substantial land borders (mountain ranges or swamps). It also has three times the population. It has some degree of home-grown industry -- car factories, uranium enrichment plants, you name it. Unlike Iraq it also has a strong national narrative: while the government may be widely disliked (or even hated) the nation itself isn't about to fracture into warring tribes. Moreover, part of the national narrative is sacrifice (they're mostly shi'ite) and another large chunk is the war, with WW1 level death toll, that they fought a generation ago.

Trying to invade and occupy Iran today would generate about the same kind of internal blowback of support for Khamenei that Hitler generated for Churchill circa mid-1940.

Some kind of raid on the uranium reprocessing plants might be feasible, but will generate widespread outrage elsewhere in the Middle East, with unpredictable consequences (a Hezbollah flare-up in Lebanon, anyone?). Actual occupation would make the occupation of Iraq look like a walk in the park.

The most sensible western approach to Iran would be a hands-off one, leaving open channels for the successors to the current regime to use in normalizing relations after the pressure cooker bottled up in the wake of the abortive green revolution of 2009 finally explodes. Poking the fizzing, hissing pressure cooker with a sharp stick is about the most inadvisable thing I can think of ...

136:

And you think that some of the American "conservatives" aren't clinically insane Charlie!? ;-)

137:

That's what worries me :-(

138:

Look how they executed the multi-part strategy for 'taking out' Iraq - first with the Gulf War then with the full invasion - over ten years later. They've shown a lot of patience. It's pretty important to keep them out of the driver's seat.

Direct military pressure on Iran was probably a mistake, judged by it's effectiveness, even though I don't believe for a second that Iran is just a peaceful victim of a country going about it's business. The government of Iran is even more looney than the GOP Senate leadership, though I think they all have a similair ideological disposition, maybe they are part of the same global trend.

At any rate, most Islamic countries would not welcome a nuclear Iran. That doesn't mean they'll jump for joy in the event of Israeli intervention, even though it would preserve their own balance of power.

139:

Nuclear armed Iran is probably a chimera; what's really on the cards is nuclear powered Iran with an industrial base and energy autarky even after the oil is all played out.

Reading behind the headlines, there's no current evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program -- at least, nothing beyond, say, the Canadian or German nuclear weapons programs (i.e. some secret paper studies filed in a draw labelled BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD). What there is is a country that's trying to build large-scale power producing nuclear reactors, which really doesn't suit the USA because when you evaluate capabilities, anyone who can run more than 10% of their energy economy on nukes can become a nuclear weapons power quite easily.

There's also the Israeli thing. Iran backs the shi'ite Hezbollah militias in Lebanon, on the hills north of Galilee; and they're too far away for Israel to whack directly. Hence, the Israeli use of the US neocons as a lever to deal with their perceived theatre-level threat.

Tail wags dog, film at 11.

140:

I can't really speak to whether or not Iran has a 'nuclear weapons program'. The farce about Iraq and WMD, when it was casually obvious that Saddam's weapons and manufacturing ability had been destroyed in the Gulf War and the US was manufacturing 'evidence' to goad the world into war, tends to color one's judgement. However, in the case of Iraq, the IAEA was aware there was no evidence of weapons. I think currently, their attitude towards Iran is that they don't know what is going on. The UN has taken measures that could mostly be described as preventative - the UN sanctions up until now have been aimed very narrowly at keeping weapons technology and materials away from Iran and it will be interesting to see what this new round does.

An interesting thing I read (somewhere) about Iran's energy economy, interesting though it hardly qualifies as 'evidence' of bad intent, is that their natural gas facilities already produce a large excess of the energy they need which they then sell to other countries. Adding nuclear power into the mix any time soon would only increase the cost of their energy. If that's all true then either the reactors are for weapons development, which I would not put past them, or they are being developed for a shift that is decades away, which is impressive.

141:

@139:

Nuclear armed Iran is probably a chimera; what's really on the cards is nuclear powered Iran with an industrial base and energy autarky even after the oil is all played out.

That is exactly right. But our fearless leaders can't come out and say that, so they have to pretend it's about nuclear weapons. This, incidentally, is one of those fear cards that's been played since the 70's, and those who are aware of that fact tend to be automatically cynical when we are told that this time for sure it's really true.

@140:

If that's all true then either the reactors are for weapons development, which I would not put past them, or they are being developed for a shift that is decades away, which is impressive

Doesn't that just make you weep? After a list of paranoid scenarios is presented, item number seven or eight or nine reads something like "Iran, realizing it's supplies of fossil fuels are finite, is engaged in long-term planning to ensure they will not be energy-impoverished when the shift occurs."

A country engaged in rational, long-term planning, like we should have been doing thirty or more years ago, and the first inclination is to suspect a hidden and nefarious motive rather than the obvious? Doesn't that just say it all?

142:

Nuclear powered Iran? ORLY? And those ballistic missiles, that are only useful if you have a nuclear warhead, are just for show?

143:

Canada and Germany develop their own delivery systems for nukes?

144:

There is no need to invade Iran. Invading iraq was a mistake. It will be enough to invade the coastal oil rich region, and bomb everything else in Iran into Stone Age.

145:

Anatoly: your geopolitics is sociopathic, if not outright evil.

I don't think you're welcome here any more. Goodbye.

146:

A lot of comments on this site's threads focus on American Imperial neuroses and the like. A minor naval battle in 1781 was the most significant loss by the British Navy for a 400 or 500 year period and English commentators scramble to explain how it was not much of a loss and could have been prevented if not for resource stretch. Now that's an Imperial neurosis! Tcha Tcha Tcha!

I would also argue with the (I presume) Canadian who said it was about where the British chose to keep their troops. Since Canada was not in rebellion, I am presuming they could have chosen to keep their troops where people were actually fighting. More likely they chose to concentrate on retaining valuable real estate in the Caribbean and the like from the French and Spanish, not from worry over which North American property was more profitable to garrison, particularly when you throw in the potential profit in the Northwest Territories also ceded in the peace agreement. So maybe Freedom Fries really should have been a tribute to our French freres. To be fair to the American educational system, we were always taught what a big impact French intervention had and also to respect individual foreign contributions from Pulaski, Kosciusko, van Steuben, etc. We were even taught how great Benedict Arnold was before he turned (re-turned?) (red)coat.

You can see a lot of parallels to this situation: the Soviet Empire was brought down by outside pressure from the US, coupled with sustained resistance (intensity/visibility varying over time) from Poland and other occupied countries. Croatia and Bosnia were freed by internal resistance on the ground and US/EU diplomatic and military support. Und so weite.
If there was parallel pressure on the US in 2004-5, the Iraqi insurgency would probably have succeeded or at least led to a wider and much more horrible war.

By the way, has any Churchill biopic ever shown him pathetically scribbling his imperial plan for Europe on a napkin and handing it to an amused Stalin? That's the one I want to see. (And to be fair, we only let FDR off the hook because of Social Security and the New Deal. If only Winnie had created the NHS....)

147:

Is it evil and sociopathic if it is true? Can you explain me what is the point of ICBMs if you don`t have nuclear arms?

148:

USSR was brought down by their own leaders. They could live with USA pressure for another 100 years, as North Korea prove.

149:

Agree about Anatoly's geopolitics, but he does have a point. Ballistic missiles Iran is developing are not useful without nuclear warheads.

Or chemical warheads, but finding evidence for THAT is orders of magnitude more difficult.

150:

"I would also argue with the (I presume) Canadian who said it was about where the British chose to keep their troops. Since Canada was not in rebellion, I am presuming they could have chosen to keep their troops where people were actually fighting. More likely they chose to concentrate on retaining valuable real estate in the Caribbean and the like from the French and Spanish, not from worry over which North American property was more profitable to garrison, particularly when you throw in the potential profit in the Northwest Territories also ceded in the peace agreement."

The Caribbean (And other more profitable regions) were exactly what I was thinking of. I could have been more clear on that. While The British did garrisson New France (Which was somewhat restless following the war) but kept most of their troops in the more productive southern territories. And for all the talk about Loyalists, there were rebels in the northern colonies. The Rebellions of 1837 didn't just happen without cause.

And although it's hard to explain to a modern audience, the Northwest Territories weren't really viewed as a source of profit at the time. Mostly they were seen as a source of soaring administrative expenses. Particularly the Great Plains and Prairies, where Europe simply didn't have the population (Yet) to open those regions.

151:

Ilya: all militaries tool up to win the last war they fought.

In the case of Iran, their last war was as bloody as the first world war, in per-capita death toll. And it featured Saddam Hussein raining ballistic missiles on their cities -- "the war of the cities". Ballistic missiles work just fine at terrorizing civilians in the manner of strategic air power suggested by Douhet, even without nukes -- see also Adolf Hitler, V-2.

So of course they're going to build missiles; they're potent symbols, they're cheaper and easier to build than bombers capable of penetrating modern air defenses, and more importantly they're the terror weapon that was used against Iran during their last serious war.

Onn the other hand, just because you've got nukes it does not follow that you need ballistic missiles to deliver them; correlation does not prove causality. In fact, the US/Soviet pursuit of nuclear-tipped ICBMs was a consequence of the huge size and remote distance of those continent-sized powers (which made conventional bombers a marginal proposition for deep strike until in-flight refueling and high-bypass turbofans came along).

152:

On the point about "the usefulness of ballistic missiles without WMD" - That varies with how good your targetting, particularly the terminal guidance system, is.

Tomahawk has been successfully used strategically with a conventional high explosive warhead, but was designed as a carrier for a 200kt A-bomb. A ballistic missile could easily achieve 6 times the terminal velocity, so if we make the mass a constant, that means the kinetic energy (Ke) delivered to the target rises 36 times.

Hence also the trend for hyper-sonic Armour-Piercing Fin-Stabilised Discarding Sabot ammunition for anti-tank rounds; the Ke that a 40mm solid tungsten penetrator dart from a Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore delivers is more than the explosive energy from a 120mm High Explosive round fired from the same gun.

153:

Iran`s enemies, as Iranian government declare, are USA and Israel. Both are quite far away and possess powerful anti-aircraft defences.

154:

Building an ICBM is a non-trivial task, even if you possess people sufficiently suicidal/fanatical/sociopathic to be prepared to act as pilots.

Ok, a naval battle fleet is a lot smaller of a target than a major city is, but most of the Japanese kamakazi pilots actually missed their targets even when decenting at a mere 400mph from altitudes within visual range.

Israel is quite possibly a viable target for an Iranian ballistic missile system, but I'm not sure they have the ability to build an 8_000 mile range ICBM.

155:

Pilots of an ICBM? WTF are you talking about?

156:

ICBMs are remotely piloted.

157:

Your ICBM has a small cockpit, in which resides a pilot.

The pilot guides it into the target.

The pilot is rather unlikely to survive, but then the flight crew of your intercontinental nuclear bombing mission would also have had a fairly low survivability index.

(See Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow for a fictional WWII treatment. Also see the WWII German A9 plan for bombing New York.)

158:

Or maybe not. What are you talking about?

159:

ICBMs don't have pilots because (a) human reflexes aren't up to the level of accuracy needed for guidance at that kind of speed, (b) the equipment required to keep a human alive would eat drastically into the available warhead throw-weight, (c) it's a suicide mission, (d) human pilots can't be stored on top of a missile indefinitely, unlike electronics, (e) we put pilots in vehicles that anticipate a flexible mission that might need re-planning in flight: ICBMs are not required to be flexible ... I can probably think of six or seven other reasons if you give me an excuse.

Oh, and ICBMs are not remotely piloted -- they're entirely autonomous, of necessity. (In many usage scenarios, their controllers are themselves likely to be incinerated -- or barred from communication -- by enemy nukes shortly after launch.)

160:

Leaving aside whether or not Iran is developing nuclear weapons, isn't the overall goal of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons a good idea? Does it seem correct to say that the fewer weapons there are, and the fewer countries have them, the less likely they are to be used and the less meaningful the threat of their use becomes?

I think there's a tendency amongst those of us on the Left to assume that if 'we' (USUK in this case) are doing something that seems wrong, 'they' must be innocent. That assumption is loaded into language I hear every day, and it's just as muddled as 'my country, love it or leave it.'

161:

America has many airbases and military establishments in the Middle East, all within range of conventionally-armed theatre ballistic missiles (IRBMs). There's the giant American Viceroyal palace in the Green Zone in Baghdad as another possible target. There's the unsinkable aircraft carrier USS Diego Garcia which might be within range of the next generation of Iranian solid-fuel missiles. There's all sorts of targets for such useful devices even excluding Israel which had been sabre-rattling at Iran for several years now and which has a track record of pre-emptive strikes on Arab nations. The Iranian missile fleet makes an Israeli "Pearl-Harbor" strike less of a one-sided affair, something the Israeli government has to keep in mind nowadays.

162:

Jason: Leaving aside whether or not Iran is developing nuclear weapons, isn't the overall goal of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons a good idea?

Yes.

Now, your question for $64,000 is why we're harshing on Iran for allegedly wanting nuclear weapons when Israel actually has them and offered to sell them to other countries (notably South Africa in the 1970s).

163:

The South African nuclear deal with Israel back in the 70s is actually somewhat less than it at first appears. What they were actually asking for was missile technology including missiles that could take a nuclear warhead. It's a truism that no nuclear-armed country ever sells or otherwise gifts another nation with nukes. There are sharing deals and deployments, yes but with at best dual-key control (Canada got some nukes from the US early in the Cold War on this basis, for example, and the US has had nuclear missiles and bombs deployed in many countries over the years but under US operational control).

The apartheid South Africans rolled their own small arsenal of nukes probably with development help from Israel (who got their own start from their French allies back in the 60s). There may have been a quid quo pro in that Israel got a test site in the Antarctic from the South Africans to actually fire one of their first bombs; there's nothing like the research data from a real nuke to make your life easier down the road to developing bigger and/or better devices.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vela_Incident

164:

@160:

Leaving aside whether or not Iran is developing nuclear weapons, isn't the overall goal of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons a good idea? Does it seem correct to say that the fewer weapons there are, and the fewer countries have them, the less likely they are to be used and the less meaningful the threat of their use becomes?

The question is: good for who? In the abstract, I'd agree with you. In practice, don't you think it's just a bit hypocritical to have nuclear weapons while denouncing other countries for trying acquire some of their own? Especially when this denunciation is rather selective in application? The fact is, countries with nuclear weapons seem somehow mysteriously immune from a lot of foreign intrigue, influence, or pressure. Wasn't that a big theme in "Rakehells of Heaven"?

165:

Iran has launched satellites. Judging by the history of the last 60 years, unarmed satellites are infinitely more useful to military and civilian alike than ICBMs. Of course a satellite launch vehicle can serve as an ICBM even if it wasn't purpose-built for that role.

I don't think there is clear evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. The irony is that the louder the sabers rattle in their direction, the more rational it becomes to pursue the feared clandestine weapons program.

My personal belief is that Iran would have liked to become a "virtual" nuclear weapons state like Japan -- possessing no arsenal, but having all the infrastructure and expertise on hand to quickly succeed in manufacturing one should it appear needed. If Israel bombs Iran I have little doubt that in 10 years Iran will be an actual nuclear weapons state regardless of what it costs them in sanctions or opprobrium.

166:

I dunno, maybe because:

A) Israel already have nukes and the whole delivery triade, so you can`t do shit about it.
B) Israel is your close ally.

While Iran is hostile and don`t have nukes yet.

2+2...?

167:

Considering that Kamikazi pilots were being shot at with anti-aircraft guns on the ship they were targeting it's not surprising that they didn't always hit. Having your wings shot off will affect your accuracy.

Now, if you want a piloted bomb then the Ohka is for you.

168:

That's roughly my thinking. Building and maintaining a nuclear deterrent is ferociously expensive, both in money and political capital; why do it if you don't need it? Far better to have the capability to do so if you need to -- a situation that applies to a huge number of countries: Canada, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa (who had the bomb in the past), Australia, and so on. Basically anyone in the developed world with a nuclear industry can get there in a single handful of years, if they're willing to pay. Iran would like to be in that club. But actually owning the things ... that's risky, given the way the neighbours will respond; especially so given the way Israel's militarist right wing is able to use the United States as a brainwashed servant.

169:

@165:

Iran has launched satellites. Judging by the history of the last 60 years, unarmed satellites are infinitely more useful to military and civilian alike than ICBMs. Of course a satellite launch vehicle can serve as an ICBM even if it wasn't purpose-built for that role.

I don't think there is clear evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. The irony is that the louder the sabers rattle in their direction, the more rational it becomes to pursue the feared clandestine weapons program.

The other irony (among many) is that, as I noted earlier, this is all perfectly consistent with a rational, long-term, nonaggressive strategy to become a modern affluent 21st century state. The tragedy then is that the Powers That Be in the U.S. and elsewhere know this, and regard the aspiration and its achievement to be the real threat. There's some realpolitik (a term I really despise) for you.

170:

The register http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/06/18/afghanistan_mineral_report/ has some insight into the real state of affairs with respect to the background to the report and the motivation behind why its appeared right now. The costs of extraction of the minerals, certainly the most commont ones, would probably out weigh the value of them.

171:

Charlie-I think the danger that most sane people are afraid of isn't Iran with a huge amount of nukes: it's Iran making a few once it becomes nuclear powered(rather trivial, as you mentioned) and then handing them off to Shi'ite terrorists(Hizzballah et al.) who will then be much less scrupulous about using them and whose transfer methods are harder to stop(nuclear car bomb anyone?). And Iran then saying "who, us? we didn't do anything, don't know where they got this from". The worry is more pronounced if the regime feels threatened from withing and wants to consolidate its power.

172:

I actually think, the conglomerate is in afghanistan,
because they really want central and south america,
the media over here where they have the grid running
has absolutely no news on our hemisphere!!!!!!
mindboggling, were sending the people
that just need a job to help their families,
and of course there all dying again!!!!!!!!our youth!!!!!!!!!!!
oil is the reason why, elf magnetic fields sonar,
these guys are running the show, and they think
the universe is theres.

173:

ICBMs are already programmed for their hit.

174:

"I think the danger that most sane people are afraid of isn't Iran with a huge amount of nukes: it's Iran making a few once it becomes nuclear powered(rather trivial, as you mentioned) and then handing them off to Shi'ite terrorists(Hizzballah et al.)"

Actually the folks who are afraid of this are not sane. They have been railroaded by a lot of wild speculation and bought-and-paid-for press reports into believing that the Iran powers-that-be would do this, much as they believed that the secular Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was drooling at the idea of giving some of his non-existent nuclear weapons to the rabildy Wahabbi Al-Queda because, you know, they're both Muslims and they hate our freedoms.

If handing out nukes to loonies is a good idea, why hasn't the pro-Taliban Pakistani military given a few to their friends across the border? Why did Reagan not give them to the Contras fighting the commie Sandanistas in Central America back in the 80s, or indeed supply their good friend and ally Bin Laden with a few nukes when he was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan around the same time? Same with the Soviets or the Chinese and the Shining Path Maoists in South America.

Basically you've been lied to and manipulated into believing stuff that is not true. Even Charlie has been gulled into calling the democratically elected Iranian government a "regime", a term normally reserved for countries under the control of bemedalled military dictators or warlords. Despite the best efforts of the Western powers Iran has been holding regular elections for thirty years, a feat not rivalled by many of their local counterparts such as the corrupt and despotic total autocracy that is Saudi Arabia or the Egyptian family-run kleptocracy, both of which are highly regarded by the West and under no danger of having sanctions imposed on them.

175:

I'm sorry, but after last June?The Iranian people are very obviously under a "regime"- before that time you would have some point. If you don't believe that there's a high chance the election were faked I recommend reading this report on fivethirtyeight.com.

Another thing worth noting is that the mullahs always had a veto power on who can be elected, a power they were using more and more often.The "Guardian Council of the Constitution" has been, historically, a political watchdog enacted to make sure that even if the Iranian people wish to remove the Muslim aspect of the system without armed rebellion they will find it almost impossible, and historically in the last few years it has been becoming more, rather then less, extremist.

176:

The current Iranian regime has actually adopted a rather interesting approach to local/national politics: The citizenry is permitted to participate in real elections, featuring real candidates (with reasonably meaningful differences of opinion and proposed policies), so long as none of the above actually threaten the existence (and control) of the curent national regime.

In effect, the people of Iran can (and do) conduct meaningful local and national discussions, and elect representatives at local levels to carry out policies which have the support of a majority of the interested-enough-to-vote portion of the populace, so long as those elected representatives show no sign of wanting to interfere with the ruling theocrats and their policies at the national and international levels. (Those who might have been interested in interfering, to help bring about a somewhat more reality-oriented engagement with the rest of the Known Universe, tend to get shut down rather quickly.)

177:

Speaking of things nuclear, the Stimson Center has come up with an on-line game called "Cheater's Risk", where one plays the leader of a country in the year 2040. In the game, the world is free of nuclear weapons and the object of the game is to see if one can develop a nuclear arsenal and not be caught. The point is to demonstrate that it is very hard to acquire a nuclear stockpile if there is intrusive inspection and monitoring. As "leader" of Australia, I was able to develop 1 to 5 simple Uranium bombs before being caught. The game is in beta version and they welcome comments.

http://cheatersrisk.com/

178:

You are interpreting Western news reports (see "bought-and-paid for") about what happened last year in Iran in some large population centres with what actually happened.

There was no "Green Revolution" in the countryside where most of the Iranian population live. The street demonstrations took place in cities and large towns where there is enough infrastructure for the foreign press to find hotels, taxis, internet connections etc. The rest of the country didn't march around under green flags protesting the government because in general they support it. They really do prefer Islamic democracy to the rule of the Shah.

The Iranian population are overwhelmingly Muslim, true believers in a way cynical Westerners don't really comprehend. The Shah was overthrown by Islamicists not by secular left-wing activists and the result is a nation that generally supports the constitutionally-mandated Islamic nature of their government. It is not a secular democracy; just as the US electoral system has its odd non-populist quirks such as the Senate, the Supreme Court and the Electoral College the Iranians have several mechanisms to prevent a secular takeover of their Islamic political system, from the Guardian Council through to the Revolutionary Guards. Iranians know that the Western powers wants to overthrow their elected government and install another puppet Shah, after all.

There's a lot about Iran to dislike from a Western viewpoint but making shit up about them is only really useful if the purpose is to whip up a lynchmob. It does help if the lynchmob doesn't look too closely at who the guys in the white sheets leading the mob actually are or question why they're spouting their lies.

179:

The manner in which the current government of Iran is structured, to maintain a political system that is deeply permeated with Islamic ideology, is to some considrable degree the converse of what Turkey did with its Kemalist constitution circa 90 years ago.

We are now seeing some serious efforts in both countries, by a significant fraction of their respective residents, toward a "return to the median" regarding what degree of religious motivation is generally accepted as an important component of their domestic political discourse.

180:

"Now, your question for $64,000 is why we're harshing on Iran for allegedly wanting nuclear weapons when Israel actually has them and offered to sell them to other countries (notably South Africa in the 1970s)."

Well, the most simple answer, if not the most complete, is that it is easier to prevent a country from getting them than it is to take them away once it has them. Countries with nuclear weapons are playing a different game than those without.

But it does beg the question, we give as much aid to Egypt as we do to Israel, if Egypt developed nuclear weapons, would we be as concerned?

As single minded as our support of Israel seems, maybe it's more opaque than the media makes it out to be. I don't know what the attitude within the UN is toward Israel, but I wouldn't be suprised that some might believe that if Israel fails, so does the UN. Within the voting body there is a large contingent of nations that believe Israel has no right to exist at all.

181:
I don`t buy it. To get profit out of Afghanistan, you`d have to kill everyone there first.

Well, a lot of people anyhow. But consider: to get the minerals out quickly and cheaply you'd want to stripmine or open pit mine large parts of the country, and process the ores in situ. Of course the effluents from the mines and the processing plants would probably kill a large part of the population (copper ore extraction, for instance, uses large quantities of sulfuric acid; gold extraction uses cyanide; and most metal extraction leaves behind toxic quantities of heavy metals like zinc). And typically for every ton of metal extracted there are about 100 tons of tailings and other waste. So one problem takes care of another.

In fact that's one of the advantages of colonial imperialism (to the imperialist, of course). Native populations don't have a say in the safety and environmental rules (or lack thereof) that apply to the extraction of their resources. With good planning, you run out of population to work in the mines about the same time you run out of high-grade ore.
</deep black cynicism>

182:

These discoveries aren't anything new. The Pentagon is just trotting them out again to shore up support for the war.

The key thing about theft is that it's supposed to bring the thief more than he has to pay to get it. My country has spent over a trillion dollars in Iraq. According to Nobel Laureate Stiglitz it will end up costing at least three trillion.

We have gotten the thin end of nothing whittled down to a point in return. The economy has been tossed into a deep hole with smooth sides. We're slightly less popular than bird flu or Kim Jong Il. And for that kind of money I want fertile land, fine horses, gold and exotic slave women with large breasts.

183:

The lithium narrative sounds nice and would make for a great book, but it is unsupported by reality. Lithium is cheap. There's loads of it in South America. It is not why Li-ion batteries are pricey. Lithium-based batteries are the best consumer energy storage tech we have today, but in 20 years I'd bet that the world's lithium consumption is much lower as more advanced batteries go into production.

184:

Re 155 thro 159 - That's exactly what I was talking about; building a guidance system for something that is incoming at 5_000mph or more is a highly non-trivial task; in fact making the weapon aerodynamically stable at those speeds is non-trivial in itself (Apollo cheated by using vectoring main engines to stablise during the boost phase and didn't want to be stable on the way down except for capsure re-entry). At least one of you also picked up correctly the reference to the German "Luftwaffe 1946" project for a manned A-4+ to attack the Eastern seaboard of the USA.

Making a reliable "atomic device" that is sufficiently screened to not be detectible by Geiger counters and the like means something rather larger than a "James Bond" MIRV warhead; we'd be looking at something more like the base of the cannon in Octopussy, and weighing several tons (mostly for screening; the JB MIRV warhead is a realistic size for a modern 20KT warhead).

Moving on, I'd agree that the prospect of some terrorists getting something that size isn't a joke.

185:

Eh? What are you on about? You want a small nuke, look at the SADM or the W54 warhead used on the Davey Crockett recoilless nuclear anti-tank gun. Or the W48, which was designed to fit in a 155mm howitzer shell. Let me also remind you that although these were second-generation warheads, they were US designs from the 1950s.

Your comments about Apollo and aerodynamic instability are so wrong-headed I don't know where to begin ... aside from noting that around 99.94% of Apollo's mission profile was exoatmospheric, in which environment aerodynamic handling is not a major concern.

186:

I wasn't talking about designing a sub-critical or even a marginally critical warhead, so much as about screening one enough that it's not going to set off Geiger counters. OK?

As for Apollo, I think you've misinterpreted me again. My point was that Apollo (1B and 5) was stabilised mostly by thrust vectoring under boost rather than those 8 or 4 little fins on stage 1. In the event of an instability that could not be corrected, tumbling, and hence natural break-up under aerodynamic stresses, is desirable in a vehicle designed to move a payload to extra-atmospheric orbit. The point was that you actually want an ICBM to remain stable after burn-out during coasting, and down to the point where it MIRVs (assuming it's MIRV capable).

187:

The $1 trn number is from sparse sampling, old data, and regional interpretation.

These methods said the Falklands basin had $200 bn in oil. Actual drilling has so far turned up very little.

I expect the intent of the press release is to boost Afghan and domestic morale about Afghanistan's future economic independence - i.e. jam tomorrow.

Sunk costs, inertia, and moral concerns are enough to explain our surge in Afghanistan. No grand plan needed. (When these people think in groups, what emerges isn't very clever).

I am a geologist.

188:

I wasn't talking about designing a sub-critical or even a marginally critical warhead, so much as about screening one enough that it's not going to set off Geiger counters. OK?

Why on earth would you need to do that?

Geiger counters are useless for detecting nuclear weapons, anyway; they're close-up instruments used for ionizing radiation. What you need for fissile cores is some variety of neutron detector, to pick up the product of spontaneous fission events. And the amount of sheilding you need to stop neutrons is ... let's say it's more than you'd find it convenient to jacket a warhead with, but on the other hand, neutrons are most efficiently absorbed by light elements; the hydrogen in water will do at a pinch.

189:

So I should ship my micronuke in a water tanker? Thanks for the tip, Charlie!

190:

Or encase it in an ice shell?

191:

Sure - as long as the shell is several metres thick.

(Thermal neutrons:not so slow ...)

192:

How about using cadmium and lead blocks to screen the neutrons from your micronuke? (I read this in The Leaky Establishment where the delivery vehicle was an elderly Volvo, ergo, it must be true...)

193:

Without claiming that "TLE" (qv) is actually true, it's close enough to scare anyone I know who's ever worked in anything that could be called the "Scientific Civil Service".

194:

Okay, that would be not-so-micro.

Was just a thought. Which then led to thoughts of nukes disguised as comets, which led to the thought that with real comets you don't need the nuke, and imagining in a hundred years terrorists threatening to pull a Tunguska on some city--though that might be a threat with a long follow through. Unless they could guide one already on its way, or it's on its way before the threat, or...

195:

Charlie @ 168, building a nuclear deterrent is indeed ferociously expensive. It's still cheaper than conventional armies if you have a neighbour with a much bigger economy, hence Pakistan and North Korea building nukes because they can't compete with the Indian or South Korean conventional armies.

It's also something you build if you already have hostile neighbours who may not be considerate enough to give you a handful of years. Iran has US troops on either side in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yes invading Iran would be stupid for the US, but they'd almost certainly destroy the Iranian military before becoming bogged down.

But as others have pointed out, there's no danger of Iran handing over nukes to terrorist groups, because they know damn well that any nuke going off would be traced back to them (or even if it wasn't their nuke, it might still be blamed on them) and large chunks of Iran would still be turned into radioactive glass.

196:

"Now, your question for $64,000 is why we're harshing on Iran for allegedly wanting nuclear weapons when Israel actually has them and offered to sell them to other countries (notably South Africa in the 1970s)."

-- well, that's simple, and it's the same reason we don't mind France or Britain having nukes, and wouldn't much mind Japan having them. It's not the nuclear weapons that are the problem, it's the people who've got 'em or might get them.

Those are all countries that can, from our p.o.v., be trusted with them. France may torque off the US now and then, but they're not an -enemy-.

Iran can't be trusted and -is- an enemy.

This is what the Iranians mean when they complain they're being treated like "crazy savages" rather than human beings.

They -are- crazy savages, and that's exactly how we're treating them.

197:

Invading and occupying Iran would be expensive.

There are, of course, much more doable alternatives if we decide they're intolerable.

198:

They -are- crazy savages

No they're not, they're just really mad at Anglo-Iranian Oil BP.

199:

Who says I don't mind France having the bomb? Or that I would feel comfortable if Major Kusanagi could detonate a nuke over Dallas/Fort Worth invisibly in her panties. That's why the U.S. will never let Japan acquire nuclear capability; the shift in the balance of power would be intolerable (and invisible.) It's bad enough their tachikomas will be administering the President's new Youth in Asia panels. That's not death with dignity from where I'm standing, Mister Stirling, if that is your real name.

Col. Hunter Gathers (ret) (Ms.)

200:

PrivateIron: if/when Japan wants the bomb, the USA won't be able to do anything to stop them getting it. Hint: go look up the size of the Japanese plutonium stockpile. (They've got a fast breeder, you know: google on Monju.) Second hint: they've got an interplanetary space program, too. If they develop an urgent hankering for nukes, they can probably go all the way to H-bomb tipped ICBMs in twelve months.

On the other hand? The Japanese government's contingency plan for building nuclear weapons probably begins something like this: "When the USA is no longer willing to provide us with a nuclear umbrella, we'll have to build our own ..."

201:

Charlie, or the Japanese being the Japanese, and the Koreans being the Koreans, the Japanese plan may just involve short-medium range missiles for when/if the Korean War kicks off again, and the North Koreans look like winning?

202:

N Korean? win?
thats a bogeyman thats been waved in our faces periodically for decades.
check out the size of S Koreas army.
Plus all theier allies , imperial masters etc


there were recently pictures from a N Korean airbase, google earth /whatever.
It showed prop-fighters in revetments
thats their airforce, Spitfires n the like.
paper tiger
their logistical stuff is so bad they cant even feed themselves

203:

I am trying to think of a creditable world where the United States and Japan would not be hand in hand on these issues for a ways into the future. If the umbrella could not or would not extend anymore, I rather think the Chinese would not give Japan 12 months to create a deterrent. On the other, I cannot think of any reason beyond general nonproliferation why the U.S. would actively hinder the Japanese from creating one if they so chose. Japan's position in the prevailing wind currents does not look too favorable though; those had better be extremely clean tacticals they drop on North Korea.

Charlie. Thanks for giving such a thoughtful answer to an American cartoon character's fear of Japanese anime characters. And I mean that (mostly) without sarcasm. I was vexed by someone else's comments--and no, I have no personal connection to Persia.

204:

Click on S.M. Stirling's name in the post and you'll see it's his real name.

205:

#202 - I didn't say that NK could/would win, or that they had technological superiority (whether or not "human wave tactics" trump "better tech" is a different argument, and one I'd rather not get into, ok?). I said that that I thought that, if Japan had NCB capability and NK looked like winning the Korean War, Japan would be prepared to use that capability on them.

206:

If I'm not mistaken some are there because of a 911 call.
Something of a hostage situation and there were some murders and invasions.

No to That

This is not to end for vain nor glory,
let loose your strange and wonderful power
before the last bullet is flung,
let speakable words or silence stand watch
and keep that shell as a monument marker
laid to rest on graves undug.

"War is not the only way to end war." Haile Selassie ~

avengers can be proud for all the good they do,
while the boots on ground are summoned for patrol
to stand as watch and witness, as shield and deflection.

"Peace is an open empty palm, made to clasp a friendly hand." ~anon~

To turn a page, build a school, feed a hungry mind,
before it's lost to lonely wind, to linger with a toothy grin
and snatch away all reason that makes a little one scream.

"But my words like silent raindrops fell, And echoed, In the wells of silence." SOS

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on June 14, 2010 9:50 AM.

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