Outside editorial: Those Afghan riches

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

If it's true, as the Pentagon reported Monday, that Afghanistan is sitting atop $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits, it proves once and for all that God has a sense of humor.

All these centuries, all these invaders, all these wars, all this suffering and dying to bring forth a Stone Age civilization in the 21st century, and poof! Suddenly, Afghanistan has riches that would make Croesus blush. Suddenly, something besides its geography and its hospitality toward terrorists makes it worth fighting for.

Iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium lie buried beneath the rugged Afghan terrain, senior U.S. officials told The New York Times. An internal Pentagon memo says Afghanistan could become "the Saudi Arabia of lithium," a key component of batteries and the electronic devices they power.

Mining could supplant opium as the base of the Afghan economy, paying for roads and highways, water and sewer projects, schools and hospitals, opening a closed society to the world.

Or not.

Many geologists are skeptical of the Pentagon's claims and particularly, its timing.

"Sudan will host the Winter Olympics before these guys get a trillion dollars out of the ground," Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association told the Los Angeles Times.

Afghanistan's mineral potential long has been known to the U.S. government, writes John Stuart Blackton on Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog at Foreign Policy magazine's website. Mr. Blackton, a former U.S. Agency for International Development director in Afghanistan, writes that the problem always was how to get the stuff out of the ground and across mountainous terrain at a reasonable cost.

That remains a problem, particularly in a nation where corruption is a way of life and that has been engaged in warfare for most of the past 30 years.

For the United States, which followed the Soviet Union into the Afghan maze in 2001, the long war is not going well. Taliban insurgents have proved to be far more difficult to dislodge in southern Afghanistan than U.S. commanders had hoped after President Barack Obama doubled-down on the war effort last December.

Gains achieved during the spring's offensive against the Taliban in the southern Helmand province have been difficult to maintain. Enemy fighters melt into the hills or into the crowd, only to re-emerge after U.S. troops think they're gone.

The next big offensive was to take place this spring in neighboring Kandahar province, the Pashtun tribal area that is a Taliban stronghold. But the Kandahar offensive has been put on hold, possibly until this fall, after the last of the additional 30,000 troops Mr. Obama ordered deployed have arrived.

Those troops will be working against a tough deadline. In announcing his Afghanistan policy in December, Mr. Obama said U.S. forces would begin to withdraw by July 2011.

But that was predicated on everything going right: Cooperation by the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai; successful counterinsurgency operations; the efficient training of Afghan security forces and wider involvement by civilian democracy-building groups.

So far none of it has gone right. Mr. Karzai is now said to be negotiating with the Taliban and the government of neighboring Pakistan, having lost confidence in the United States. That leaves our troops fighting on behalf of an ally who doesn't believe in the program.

This is a lousy place to be, no matter how much lithium it's got.

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