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Despite lithium "discovery," Afghanistan remains unwinnable


AP Photo: Cliff Owen

A New York Times story Monday detailing the newly-discovered $1 trillion wealth of  "untapped mineral deposits" in Afghanistan "according to senior American government officials" seemed almost too good to be true in what was a horrible week in Afghanistan.

In fact, it was. Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy notes that the "findings" that the story was based on have been around since 2007. The Pentagon came up with the $1 trillion number. Besides, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Afghan Mines Ministry had been among the most corrupt departments, and Western officials feared that they would award contracts on who could pay the biggest bribes. Moreover, though underground Afghanistan could be the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" as the Pentagon put it, developing that industry would take...well, the-long term presence of the U.S.

Which is precisely what may be in store. On Thursday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal told reporters, "But it's my personal assessment that it will be more deliberate than we probably communicated or than we thought earlier and communicated." He added that operations in the South "will happen more slowly than originally anticipated." This is all after the United States is scheduled to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.

But just how tenable is that long-term presence? Take a look at the news from last week:

June 6: The New York Times reports that taxpayer dollars given to private security companies to move supplies are given as bribes to top Taliban officials to let them pass. This has been reported before in The Nation, as an example of the kinds of bad choices that the U.S. has to make to get by. Oh, but it gets worse. "The officials suspect that the security companies may also engage in fake fighting to increase the sense of risk on the roads, and that they may sometimes stage attacks against competitors."

There you have it, private companies are faking fights to compete with each other. Free market!

June 7: The New York Times reports that Karzai's Interior Minister and intelligence director "had strong relationships with American and British officials and were seen as being among the most competent of his cabinet members, said several Western officials in Kabul. Mr. Saleh, in particular, had built an intelligence agency that the West had come to depend on in a region where reliable partners are hard to find, they said." They were both fired.

June 9: The New York Times reports that there have been at least 11 assassinations in Kandahar by the Taliban, undermining cooperation with the local government that is critical to COIN.

June 11: Again, the fired intelligence director:

“The president has lost his confidence in the capability of either the coalition or his own government to protect this country,” Mr. Saleh said in an interview at his home. “President Karzai has never announced that NATO will lose, but the way that he does not proudly own the campaign shows that he doesn’t trust it is working.”

A few NATO officials and Western diplomats concur.


All of this confirms the notion that the United States does not have a reliable strategic partner in Afghanistan. No one can seriously look at the evidence and call Mr. Karzai "reliable."

But the optics of the mission are bad too. The United States ends up funding both sides of the war, the local government is too hopelessly corrupt to be a credible partner. (File under this category a Washington Post story on Kanadahar powerbroker and Hamid Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who allegedly ousted an anti-government district governor and shut down a 15-member provincial council.)

This would be almost comic if it weren't costing the U.S. significant blood and treasure. So then it's tragic. Afghanistan began outpacing Iraq for the first time since 2003 in costs -- last February alone it cost $6.7 billion, compared with $5.5 billion for Iraq. June 6 was the worst day for casualties in over seven months, with 12 NATO soldiers dead.

So can Barack Obama end this war? Unlike the oil spill, wherein pundits debate ad nauseam about the President's ability to "do something" or "show emotion," he can. He is the commander-in-chief. I was slightly optimistic that the President's decision to phase out troops beginning in July 2011 was a nod to the notion that the U.S. had to exit quickly -- U.S. forces will try to "surge" and quit when it is eminently clear that a "surge" won't work. But that's a political calculation, and young Americans will die between now and then, so it's inexcusable. Besides, it's clear now that the war is not winnable.

Even though the war is not winnable, at least of late, it has not been the Americans' fault primarily. Afghanistan was never a priority under the Bush Administration, but even if it was, it's not clear even that the U.S. could have helped mould a stable government to transition forces.

The lithium story shows that some in the Pentagon are desperate to find a new reason for the war. This doesn't work in public opinion. The shifting reasons for war in Iraq away from WMD did not make it more popular.

The debate in Afghanistan desperately needs to move from new reasons to stay to finding an exit strategy quicker than Gen. McChrystal might like. President Obama is the commander-in-chief. He has the power.


It occurs to me that l'affaire Helen Thomas distracted from many of these stories last week. I may have tweeted once about it, which was about the attention it deserved. Questions? Comments? Errors? E-mail them all to me at Sahil Kapur -- who keyed me in to some of the stories mentioned -- has his own teriffic piece on Afghanistan down at The Guardian.


  • Gerry 5 years ago

    All this hype and hooplah, death and deception, to bring a pipeline from Southern Russia to the Gulf of Arabia. I'm not sure the Afghan people could ever survive that much wealth.

  • Joe 5 years ago

    well, looks like there may be a silver lining here....Lithium is the key to keeping the world from going OFF....maybe the gods/Gods of the universe are trying to tell us something....BALANCE. Equilibrium for this troubled planet is the key and Lithium is a key element, trace mineral/salt, in this depression relief for the world through Afghanistan...ironic...the same country that claimed the life of Alexander the Great, destroyed the red Russian army 20 years ago...maybe there will be some good coming out of that part of the world after all...
    i believe the US military calls these operations as "low intensity conflict"...these wars keep the juggernaut of the US military industrial complex purring is what it is. the US is a country that is run by corporations and some of the most powerful/wealthiest are in the business of war....
    the US is not going to leave Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon. Iraq is run by it in Israel or USA,AIPAC

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