Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"I guess we're not leaving, right?"

The New York Times reports on Afghanistan's newly discovered hoards of rare metals:

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Obviously this is going to put a rather different light on the occupation.

The interesting question, as Charlie Stross points out, is how newly discovered all this mineral wealth actually is:

Or were they, perchance, identified as possibilities by earth resources satellite overflights at some point in the 1990s, but written off as unexploitable due to lack of access?

I'm not sure we even have to suppose that far. According to the article, quite a few people new about this beforehand:

In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

So it could be earth resources satellites, or it could be good old-fashioned treasure maps. Anyway, it'd be interesting to know:

1) What happened to all those Soviet mining experts and Afghan geologists? Because if I had maps that could lead people to fantastic wealth, and was living in either Russia or Afghanistn during the 90s, I would find my thoughts turning inexorably towards mining industry executives, midnight meetings, and big suitcases full of cash.

2) Who commissioned the geological survey part of the "broader reconstruction effort"?

3) Is there a link between 1 and 2?

Having said all that, I'm sceptical about whether this would have actually been a serious reason for going in. My guess is that the Lithium probably started out as a nice bonus: then Bolivia elected Morales in 2006, US investment in Bolivia started looking less secure, and we started hearing more talk about "staying the course" in Afghanistan.


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