Trump Finds Reason for the U.S. to Remain in Afghanistan: Minerals
JULY 25, 2017
WASHINGTON — President Trump, searching for a reason to keep the United States in Afghanistan after 16 years of war, has latched on to a prospect that tantalized previous administrations: Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, which his advisers and Afghan officials have told him could be profitably extracted by Western companies.
Mr. Trump has discussed the country’s mineral deposits with President Ashraf Ghani, who promoted mining as an economic opportunity in one of their first conversations. Mr. Trump, who is deeply skeptical about sending more American troops to Afghanistan, has suggested that this could be one justification for the United States to stay engaged in the country.
To explore the possibilities, the White House is considering sending an envoy to Afghanistan to meet with mining officials. Last week, as the White House fell into an increasingly fractious debate over Afghanistan policy, three of Mr. Trump’s senior aides met with a chemical executive, Michael N. Silver, to discuss the potential for extracting rare-earth minerals. Mr. Silver’s firm, American Elements, specializes in these minerals, which are used in a range of high-tech products.
Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who is informally advising Mr. Trump on Afghanistan, is also looking into ways to exploit the country’s minerals, according to a person who has briefed him. Mr. Feinberg owns a large military contracting firm, DynCorp International, which could play a role in guarding mines — a major concern, given that some of Afghanistan’s richest deposits are in areas controlled by the Taliban.
In 2010, American officials estimated that Afghanistan had untapped mineral deposits worth nearly $1 trillion, an estimate that was widely disputed at the time and has certainly fallen since, given the eroding price of commodities. But the $1 trillion figure is circulating again inside the White House, according to officials, who said it had caught the attention of Mr. Trump.
The lure of Afghanistan as a war-torn Klondike is well established: In 2006, the George W. Bush administration conducted aerial surveys of the country to map its mineral resources. Under President Barack Obama, the Pentagon set up a task force to try to build a mining industry in Afghanistan — a challenge that was stymied by rampant corruption, as well as security problems and the lack of roads, bridges or railroads.
None of these hurdles has been removed in the last eight years, according to former officials, and some have worsened. They warn that the Trump administration is fooling itself if it believes that extracting minerals is a panacea for Afghanistan’s myriad ills.
“It would be dangerous to use the potential for resource exploitation as a selling point for military engagement,” said Laurel Miller, a senior analyst at RAND who served until last month as the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The barriers to entry are really quite considerable, and that kind of argument could fuel suspicion about America’s real intentions in Afghanistan.”
But for Mr. Trump, as a businessman, it is arguably the only appealing thing about Afghanistan. Officials said he viewed mining as a “win-win” that could boost that country’s economy, generate jobs for Americans and give the United States a valuable new beachhead in the market for rare-earth minerals, which has been all but monopolized by China.
China already has a $3 billion contract to develop a copper mine about 25 miles southeast of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Officials said Mr. Trump was determined not to spend American lives and treasure in Afghanistan only to watch China lock up its rare-earth deposits, which are used to make products from wind turbines to computer chips.
Mr. Silver, the chemical executive, may head an effort to maximize the rights for American companies to extract these minerals, according to a senior official.
Mr. Trump’s interest also reflects how his military advisers have struggled to present him with other persuasive reasons to send troops to the country, where the United States has been at war since 2001.
The White House’s review of Afghanistan policy — led by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster — was supposed to be finished by the middle of July. Instead, it bogged down after Mr. Trump expressed displeasure with a proposal from General McMaster for a modest troop increase and a multiyear commitment to the country.
Policy meetings have become increasingly heated, officials said, as Mr. Trump and his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, have squared off against General McMaster. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is also said to be unhappy with the current proposals.
Vice President Mike Pence, not General McMaster, will lead a meeting Wednesday of National Security Council principals on Afghanistan. Some officials said that reflected General McMaster’s isolation; others said that the general welcomed Mr. Pence’s involvement and that the two were closely aligned on the policy.
But Mr. Trump, it is clear, is not. In June, he grudgingly agreed to give Mr. Mattis the authority to send additional troops — a number believed to be about 4,000 — as a stopgap measure to stabilize security in Afghanistan. But Mr. Mattis has not yet used his authority, perhaps reflecting his recognition that the commander in chief is uncomfortable with it.
When reporters last week asked Mr. Trump at a meeting at the Pentagon whether he planned to send more troops, he answered, “We’ll see,” and added, “ISIS is falling fast,” suggesting he viewed the counterterrorism threat in Afghanistan as declining.
Worried that Mr. Trump will be locked into policies that did not work for the last two presidents, Mr. Bannon and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have brought in outside voices, including Mr. Feinberg and Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private security firm Blackwater International. Both have urged using more private contractors and giving the C.I.A. an oversight role in the conflict.
In addition, Mr. Feinberg has reached out to people involved in the Obama administration’s effort to build Afghanistan’s mining industry. Some warned him that the prospects for a profitable business are worse now than in 2009, given the decline in commodities prices and the deteriorating security in areas where the deposits are believed to lie.
Afghanistan’s deposits of copper and iron ore are trading at about a third of their 2010 prices. Most of the undiscovered deposits of rare-earth minerals are believed to be in Helmand Province, large parts of which are controlled by the Taliban.
“There are undoubtedly minerals to be exploited in Afghanistan, which could help provide economic stability to the country in the future,” said Daniel F. Feldman, a former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But given all the obstacles, it could be many years before mining yields dividends for the Afghan people.”
One advantage is that the Trump administration would have a willing partner in the Afghan government. During the Obama administration, President Ghani resisted the rapid development of the mining industry, largely because he worried about the threat of widespread corruption that would come with it.
But as soon as Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Ghani reversed his position, contacting the Trump team and promoting Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. He realized that Mr. Trump would be intrigued by the commercial possibilities, officials said.
Mr. Trump has said little publicly about Afghanistan since being elected. But his thinking about what the United States should reap for its military efforts was made clear in another context soon after his inauguration. Speaking to employees of the C.I.A., the president said the United States had erred in withdrawing troops from Iraq without holding on to its oil.
“The old expression ‘To the victor belong the spoils,’” Mr. Trump declared. “You remember?”
A version of this article appears in print on July 26, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Mineral Wealth In Afghanistan Tempts Trump.
Next for Afghanistan, the Curse of Plenty?
JUNE 19, 2010
Let’s suppose there is $1 trillion worth of minerals under Afghanistan, as senior American officials and a confidential Pentagon memo said last week.
Is that a good thing — for either Afghanistan or the United States?
Some experts in mining and in Third World resource politics argue that it is not.
Because it takes up to 20 years for a mine to start earning profits and Afghanistan has been a battleground for 31 years, “no mining company in its right mind would go into Afghanistan now,” said Murray W. Hitzman, a professor of economic geology at the Colorado School of Mines.
The country’s underground treasure “will be good for the warlords and good for China, but not good for Afghans or the United States,” predicted Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and the author of “Resource Wars” and “Blood and Oil.”
History tends to second such skepticism. The great empires of the world were built thanks to gold mines, not atop them. It’s the little mercantile nations with their cohesive political systems and fierce navies that have looted the big feudal ones paved with rubies.
Arid Spain and Portugal siphoned off South America’s gold; tiny Holland dominated vast Indonesia. Britain, barren except for coal, built an imperial swap shop of grain, lumber, cotton, tea, tobacco, opium, gems, silver and slaves. Japan, less than a century out of its bamboo-armor era, conquered much of China for its iron and coal. The post-colonial era hasn’t been easier on the resource-rich have-nots.
“Countries with a history of conflict have perverse effects from mineral wealth — more war, more corruption, less democracy and more inequality,” said Terry Lynn Karl, a political science professor at Stanford and the author of “The Paradox of Plenty,” which shows how the populations of poor countries like Nigeria often get poorer after oil is discovered and a tiny elite benefits.
It has long been known, geologists said, that Afghanistan has huge deposits of copper, iron, gold, cobalt and many other minerals, including lithium, an element vital to modern batteries. An internal Pentagon memo suggested that Afghanistan could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
But some experts suggested that the lithium prediction was optimistic and that Saudi Arabia was not the best example of what sudden wealth does in a poor country. That kingdom and its neighboring emirates have tiny populations ruled over by powerful, cohesive families. And the Arabian peninsula is flat, open and easy to police in a crisis, as the war to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait proved.
Afghanistan, said Dr. Klare, is more like eastern Congo: home to diamonds and coltan — another mineral vital to modern electronics. Both are full of warring tribes, illiterate populations, corrupt governments and brutal warlords. And both are rugged and remote, far from coastlines and with few roads or railroads, making it hard to get minerals out and policing forces in.
Rich as eastern Congo is, the lot of its population for the last 15 years has been disease, starvation and massacres at the hands of local militias and invaders from Rwanda, Angola and Zimbabwe.
Mozambique and Angola also illustrate the “resource curse,” said William S. K. Reno, a political science professor at Northwestern University and the author of “Warlord Politics and African States.”
Both were Portuguese colonies that fell into civil war after being freed in 1975. There was less to fight over in Mozambique, which had only cashews and shrimp to export, so the war was shorter and less intense. But in Angola, with the rebels holding the diamond mines and the government owning the oil, profits were squandered on tanks and jet fighters. The war lasted a decade longer.
Compared with those countries, Afghanistan is at disadvantage, mining experts said. Even for $1 trillion, its riches may not be worth digging up.
Compared with oil drilling, minerals mining is extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming. As everyone from Jed Clampett to BP has discovered, a bubblin’ crude can emerge under its own pressure as soon as the earth’s surface is pricked.
Diamond mining is also comparatively cheap — diamonds are formed in pipes of softer kimberlite pushed up by volcanoes and usually mined in open pits or dug out of the beds of rivers that washed the volcanoes away. After that, they are simply sorted out of the gravel.
But gold, silver, copper and other minerals are usually locked in ore that must be tunneled down to, blasted out by the ton, carried to the surface, and ground into powder for processing. Digging the shafts and building elevators, processing plants, railroads and tarmac roads “can cost hundreds of millions to billions for a single mining operation,” said Roderick Eggert, director of the economics division at the Colorado School of Mines. “Even a small gold mine is $100 million.”
And while an oil well can go from discovery to production in two or three years, “it would take 5 to 15 years to go from where most of Afghanistan is now to an operating mine,” he said.
After that, added his colleague Dr. Hitzman, “even with a good mine, it takes 5 to 10 years to recoup your investment. What’s Afghanistan going to be like in five years?”
Also, someone must provide security, and 20 years of security by the United States military would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
England, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Japan all discovered that the costs of policing empires outweighed the financial gains and that it was more practical to let private companies shoulder the risks. Mineral prices fluctuate wildly, and $1 trillion today may soon be much less. Gold broke the $1,000-an-ounce barrier for the first time last year. But it had hit $873 in 1980 — the equivalent of $2,300 today — and then languished under $500 for years.
The biggest force driving most mineral prices up today, experts said, is China. (Gold is the exception, driven up by fears about economic instability.)
China is not invading the way old empires did. Its state companies bid for concessions all over the Third World. “But,” Professor Klare added, “they don’t care about bribery, transparency or the rule of law and they don’t mind dealing with warlords, while the Western countries are more constrained.” Also, as state-owned companies, they can take risks that private ones dare not.
Which does not immunize them, he added. China is facing criticism in Zambia after workers died in its copper mines there or were shot dead protesting working conditions.
And, experts said, while Afghanistan does have lithium deposits, so do many other countries, including the United States. Whether it pays to extract it depends on the price of lithium. Recently, South Korea said it would build a plant to extract it from seawater that, if world prices rise, can supply far more than Korea needs.
Which could leave Afghanistan as the Saudi Arabia of sand.
Correction: July 11, 2010
An article on June 20 about mineral deposits in Afghanistan and other third world countries and the practical and political difficulties of extracting them and profiting from them described deposits of coltan incorrectly. Coltan is a mineral, not an element.
A version of this article appears in print on June 20, 2010, on Page WK5 of the New York edition with the headline: The Curse of Plenty.