June 23, 2010
When you’re losing bad on Afghanistan’s plains
And the critics dare to question your gains
Just roll to your geology and use your brains
And go to your gold like I told yer
—With apologies to Rudyard Kipling
Now that the Pentagon and the US Geological Survey have uncovered $1 trillion worth of stones in Afghanistan, the big question is: why didn’t the Afghan geologists burn the old Soviet maps the US used to go prospecting? If they had, Afghanistan could stay as it was. Now, it stands to be Afghanistan with Saudi Arabia thrown in. A gruesome thought. There is always the hope that the Pentagon’s experts are exaggerating. It wouldn’t be the first time the military (encouraged by eager politicians) played loose with facts to rekindle love in a war that the public no longer wanted to pay for.
Blame the Afghan geologists, who found mineral survey maps the Soviets left behind in 1989. (The Russians took the tanks, the missiles, the vodka and the troops. Why didn’t they take the maps?) Instead of destroying the diabolic documents, the geologists hid them from the warlords and Taliban throughout the 1990s. When the US invaded in 2001, they handed them over to the Americans. The rest, as they say, is mystery.
Lo and behold, the US—I mean, Afghanistan—is sitting on an estimated trillion dollars worth of gold, copper, silver, graphite and cobalt. There is also lithium, which may come in handy to treat depression among those who will be ordered to die for the new wealth. Let’s suppose for a moment there really are minerals worth $1 trillion dollars waiting to be plucked from the Afghan earth. (I love the figure $1 trillion. It smells like… victory.) Nobody is going to get his hands on all that rock without a fight. Not in Afghanistan.
Politics aside, it won’t be easy. They will have to dig through miles of earth to get at the stuff. They’ll need workers willing to, as the British say, “go down the mines” in a country where independent tribesmen don’t hire themselves out as day laborers. Then they’ll have to move the stuff down mountains without roads, past tribesmen who will take a cut, through the hands of government officials who will take a larger cut (did someone mention Karzai’s brother, Billy?) and then over one of the borders to the sea. Which borders are those? Well, the shortest route is through Iran. Uh, oh. The other way out is via Pakistan, whose president and his relations in Sindh will demand a hefty slice of everything shipped out of Karachi’s port. The rocks could go through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, whose stable and democratic governments will facilitate transport to… Russia. The only other way out is a tiny land corridor to China. But it seems the US has already leaned on the Afghan government to keep Chinese mineral contracts to a minimum. (The minimum is, I believe, zero.) The New York Times reported that American officials alleged that a recent Afghan minister of mines had taken a $30 million bribe to give China the right to dig for copper. Karzai fired him, undoubtedly because he did not ask for enough.
If the roads prove problematic, they could fly the gold, copper, and marble out of Baghram air base. The sound of all that wealth flying out may console detainees during water-boarding sessions. However, the cost of shipping heavy metals by air may cut profit. And surely this is about profit. In what I can assume was a tongue-in-cheek calculation, Alissa J. Rubin reported in the New York Times (“Afghan Officials Elated by Minerals Report,” June 15) that local reporters figured that dividing the $1 trillion bonanza by 29 million Afghans would yield $34,482.76 per citizen. Not bad for a country where $250 a year is big money. Yet, as you and I know, wealth in Afghanistan isn’t usually spread around in equal shares for everyone. I’d put it more like this: Karzai and family, $700 billion, warlords $250 billion, American and European middlemen the chump change. That would leave 28,999,005 Afghans with, well, exactly what they have now. Nothing.
Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks may not get along, but they can count. So, I suspect, can the Taliban, who will not be slow to point out imbalances in the distribution of mineral wealth. (Their Saudi benefactors have been getting away with it for years, so they may decline to make wealth sharing a general principle.) This is where the hordes of American civilian do-gooders and Army civil affairs officers come in. They already explain to Afghan villagers why the US military blew up their villages, how they should give birth, treat their families, raise their children, grow their crops (except opium, which they knew how to grow before George Washington planted his first hemp seeds) and generally behave as good Afghans. So, they might as well tell them they are better off if their country becomes a new kind of minefield yielding bounty for the Karzai brothers but not for them. They might even persuade them to head into the pits with flashlight hardhats and canaries.
It took the British and the Americans about two years to discover they could not govern Italy after they invaded in 1943, and Italy was not as foreign to them as Afghanistan is. Norman Lewis, a British intelligence officer in Naples, spoke Italian and had good relations with people of all classes and professions. Eventually, though, he gave up trying to police Italian corruption because he realized that “these people must be thoroughly sick and tired of us.” Mussolini had said years before, “It is not impossible to govern the Italians—it’s useless.” The same could be said of the Afghans—with or without the supposed cornucopia lurking in the country’s bowels.