Question: Will Lithium Be Good For Afghanistan?

GhazniAnswer: Only if US policymakers ingest enough of it.

The mainstream media is all agog over the ‘discovery’ of ‘at least $1 trillion in mineral wealth‘ in Afghanistan.

Never mind that this is not ‘news’. (The data has been public for many years.)

Nor that it was conveniently ‘discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists’ just as support for the disastrous American adventure in that ‘country’ seems to be ebbing rapidly.

(I do kind of like the image of those tough guy brass-hats spelunking about in pith helmets with their little rock hammers, though. No doubt they were poking around in a cave looking for UBL and just happened to ‘find’ that $1 trillion by accident. ‘Oh, my gosh, Fred, lookie here. Why Afghanistan could become the Saudi Arabia of lithium.’)

Well, excuse my cynicism, but . . .

There is a school of thought that the ‘discovery’ of significant mineral wealth in Afghanistan may, in fact, be the worst thing that could happen in the near- to mid-term for that disastrous parody of a nation state.

As Ganesan and Vines reported for Human Rights Watch, ‘One theory influential in World Bank circles is that countries with abundant natural resources are more prone to violent conflict than those without, and that insurgent groups are more likely motivated by control over resources than by actual political differences with government authorities, ethnic divisions, or other factors typically viewed as root causes of civil war. Paul Collier, formerly the head of the World Bank’s development research group, now a professor at Oxford University and one of the strongest proponents of this theory, says, “[e]thnic tensions and ancient political feuds are not starting civil wars around the world—economic forces such as entrenched poverty and the trade in natural resources are the true culprits”.’

I’d argue Collier (author of The Bottom Billion and The Plundered Planet) overly simplifies this, and that variables such as geography / proximity, the relative capacity of governance, environmental fragility or robustness and many other factors come into play here.

But multiplying them together, the new ‘wealth’ of Afghanistan seems, to me, far more likely to increase than stabilize or reduce conflict.

Consider:

  • truly dismal social / economic conditions for the vast majority of the population
  • proximity to other conflict zones such as Iran, Kashmir, Paki and the other ‘Stans’
  • Great Game interests and accumulated toxic residues
  • access to arms and trafficking routes
  • soil depletion, air and water pollution, deforestation, desertification and limited / unequally distributed / poorly managed fresh water resources
  • an amazingly corrupt and ineffective ‘government’
  • a tribal fabric that defies any larger identity / cohesion

Blend up that complex little cocktail and I believe the technical term for the most likely outcome may indeed be, ‘Open Pit’.

But it won’t be a mine. (At least of the mineral variety.)

It will be a crater.