Afghanistan Poised to Become Saudi Arabia Of Mining-Related Corruption

Heck of an Afghanistan story from James Risen in the New York Times, who reports that the DOD has discovered vast mineral wealth lurking beneath that nation’s terrain:

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Obviously in principle vast natural resource wealth can be very helpful to a country. In practice, while it definitely seems true that stable, developed liberal democracies who stumble upon natural resources do well (see especially Norway, but also Alberta, Alaska, etc.) that in other contexts it’s often trouble via “resource curse” impacts on your local politics and also the so-called “Dutch disease” through which your other exports become uncompetitive. These are manageable problems, but Afghanistan isn’t the most promising setting.

Meanwhile, as Spencer Ackerman notes this $1 trillion in deposits seems likely to set the stage for a lot of bad arguments about forward-looking military policy. He focuses on the fact that war for cell phone batteries makes a better conspiracy theory than more outlandish tales about oil pipelines. The reverse, however, is also the case and Risen’s piece already features evidence of military officials floating the theory that we need to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely lest China get its hands on vast quantities of copper. In general, though, waging war for control of natural resources makes a lot of sense for third world bandits & militias or would-be coup leaders, but doesn’t cost out for citizens of a developed market oriented democracy.

I’ll have more to say on this development, but I wanted to flag it relatively early in the morning.