Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, June 14, 2010

  Vast deposits of naïveté discovered in America

This morning political commentators are all atwitter about James Risen’s NYT article about mineral reserves charted in Afghanistan by a USGS survey. In years to come these reserves could turn Afghanistan into another Saudi Arabia, we’re told. Bloggers have lapped this “news” up.

Risen presents the information as if he had a major scoop.

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

In fact, however, the survey was conducted between 2004 and 2007. Risen claims that it’s results were ignored until recently, when the Pentagon “came upon” the geological survey data while looking for ways to boost the country’s economy.

The Pentagon task force has already started trying to help the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development. International accounting firms that have expertise in mining contracts have been hired to consult with the Afghan Ministry of Mines, and technical data is being prepared to turn over to multinational mining companies and other potential foreign investors. The Pentagon is helping Afghan officials arrange to start seeking bids on mineral rights by next fall, officials said.

Utter nonsense. In 2007 the Afghan government touted the survey to the world. In the time since then, it has been working to attract international developers for its copper and iron reserves – which appear to be the most valuable and accessible ones. Already in 2007 a Chinese company won a competition to lease the largest copper mine, agreeing to pay the Afghan government $400 million per year in taxes.

It’s hard to conceive that in the foreseeable future Afghanistan will be able to derive more than a few billion dollars per year in taxes/mineral royalties by exploiting its reserves to the fullest possible extent. For comparison, the current Afghan GDP is thought to be around $16 billion. In 2007, the UNODC estimated that opium accounted for half of the country’s ‘licit’ GDP, or about $4 billion. So mining is not going to turn Afghanistan into a rich state much less eliminate the opium trade.

Risen and his sources are trying to sell us a pipe dream.

The fact that the USGS survey is being recycled now as "news" tells you everything you need to know about how grim the actual news coming out of Afghanistan has become this year. The Pentagon “heroes” of Risen’s story are selling this “news” to (a) buy time with the US public for military policies that are failing in the field, and (b) distract attention from the fact that America is doubling down on behalf of a corrupt, ineffective, and illegitimate Karzai government. If Afghanistan has vast mineral wealth, as we’re supposed to believe, then perhaps it makes slightly more sense (in a blood-for-copper kind of way) that the US now appears to be committed to staying there forever.

The genesis of this NYT article can be attributed to the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda machinery, as Marc Ambinder at least recognizes to his credit.

The way in which the story was presented -- with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less -- and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war.

That could hardly be clearer. The narrative as presented by Risen is bizarrely slanted in favor of the Pentagon, and furthermore is full of glaring holes. What’s more the outdated “news” is being recycled in a way that is highly reminiscent of the DoD’s standard operating procedures under the Bush administration, whenever it needed to distract attention.

What it shows is that the US government thinks we’re suckers. The reaction of commentators to Risen’s “blockbuster” suggests that the government has pretty much got it right.

crossposted at

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