The Debate

Afghanistan: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

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The Debate

Afghanistan: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

There’s a reason Afghanistan’s resource wealth remains untapped.

Afghanistan: All That Glitters Is Not Gold
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Eric Cabral/Released

The Trump administration would benefit from recalling the cautionary adage “All that glitters is not gold” when contemplating the theoretical wealth of resources hidden in Afghanistan’s hills.

The administration — which has delayed unveiling an Afghanistan strategy so far — has apparently become enamored with estimates of what minerals lie buried in the graveyard of empires. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Trump, “searching for a reason to keep the United States in Afghanistan after 16 years of war, has latched on to” the prospect of capitalizing on the country’s mineral wealth. The president’s advisers, and Afghan officials, the Times says, “have told him [these resources] could be profitably extracted by Western companies.”

The Times’ report links the president’s ambivalence about remaining engaged in Afghanistan or sending additional troops with his dealmaking bravado. “Mr. Trump,” the Times writes, “… has suggested that this could be one justification for the United States to stay engaged in the country.”

And indeed, Afghan officials push a similar line, emphasizing that mineral resource extraction could provide the kind of revenue that weans Kabul from foreign aid. But neither party in this debate is quite objective about the challenges, clear about their own intentions, or honest about the knock-on effects of attempting to reorient U.S. engagement in Afghanistan toward resource extraction.

The president’s Twitter record, for what it’s worth, suggests a long history of opposition to remaining in Afghanistan. Tweets before his presidential candidacy referencing Afghanistan more often than not stress the necessity to get out, usually making mention of wasted money. In early January 2013 Trump lambasted the Obama administration for “wasting billions” in Iraq and Afghanistan and then agreed with the Obama administration two weeks later that “We should have a speedy withdrawal.

But Trump — ever the businessman — can be convinced by the logic of profits to be had. Here it’s important to mention, as the Times does, who the president’s advisers are talking with. Last week, the Times says, three of the president’s senior aides met with Michael N. Silver, CEO of American Elements. American Elements, “the advanced materials manufacturer,” specializes in an array of manufacturing and distributing of materials derived from elements, including rare-earth minerals used in advanced technology. Stephen A. Feinberg,  owner of Dynorp International, a private military contractor, and an informal adviser to the president “is also looking into ways to exploit the [Afghanistan’s] minerals,” according to the New York Times.

Another interested party is the wanna-be MacArthur of Afghanistan, founder of the private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater, Erik D. Prince. In an interview with Vox, military contracting expert Sean McFate said, “Prince really wants to be the king of Afghanistan.” Prince, who wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in June which argued for an “American viceroy” to “fix” Afghanistan, has been involved in the administration’s discussions on what to do in Afghanistan.

Discussions with a commercial business, which could profit from access to Afghanistan’s wealth, and the heads of private military firms, which could be contracted to protect mines, set up the potential to exploit Afghanistan for profit. In the mind of Donald Trump, this is a good thing — at least the U.S. wouldn’t be wasting billions, it’d be making them!

He wouldn’t be the first to try, but as the New York Times notes, none of the hurdles to successfully sparking a mining boom in Afghanistan — corruption, insecurity, lack of infrastructure — have “been removed in the last eight years, according to former officials, and some have worsened.”

Laurel Miller, a senior analyst at RAND and until last month the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Times the idea is bad one. “It would be dangerous to use the potential for resource exploitation as a selling point for military engagement… The barriers to entry are really quite considerable, and that kind of argument could fuel suspicion about America’s real intentions in Afghanistan.”

“America’s real intentions in Afghanistan” may sound like conspiracy-speak, but there has long been great suspicion regarding what Washington really wants when it engaged in warfare. Especially in the Middle East, but also across Central Asia, there’s always talk of what the United States is really up to.

The war in Iraq, many of its American and non-American critics contend, was really about oil. And Trump is fine with that. While speaking before an audience of Central Intelligence Agency employees the day after his inauguration, Trump dropped the following comment after lamenting how the United States doesn’t “win” wars anymore:

The old expression, “to the victor belong the spoils” — you remember. I always used to say, keep the oil. I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said, in addition to that, keep the oil. Now, I said it for economic reasons. But if you think about it, Mike, if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil. But okay. (Laughter.) Maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is, should have kept the oil.

The application of this logic to Afghanistan — that getting out “right” includes plundering — will do little but give the Taliban and other extremist groups further justification in their vilification of the West and bolster their claims that the government in Kabul has sold out the country to foreigners.

This isn’t to say that Afghanistan cannot profit from its resource wealth — it can and should — but that the United States is not the right country to lead that charge. An important line of inquiry for those intrigued by the glittering potential under Afghan soil should be to ask why the idea of extracting mineral resources has never succeeded to date. Decades of warfare, bad roads and bridges, and corruption have stymied Afghanistan’s potential to export its mineral wealth. Nothing about the plans Trump appears to be courting, or the voices whose input the administration seems to be seeking, address any of those issues.