The $1 Trillion War?


(Photo Credit: The U.S. Army’s Photostream)
Blake Hounshell has a must-read piece in Foreign Policy that raises some serious questions about the timing and accuracy of today’s article by James Risen in the New York Times, which claims that the United States has discovered $1 trillion worth of precious metals in Afghanistan.
From his piece:

Wow! Talk about a game changer. The story goes on to outline Afghanistan’s apparently vast underground resources, which include large copper and iron reserves as well as hitherto undiscovered reserves lithium and other rare minerals.
Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there’s less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry’s website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there’s more here). You can also take a look at the USGS’s documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.
Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen suggests was generated by a Pentagon task force seeking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at the chart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.
Don’t get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it’s been through over the last three decades.
But I’m (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It’s also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment.

In light of Hounshell’s analysis, this follow-up story published in the Times this afternoon suggests that the U.S. government estimate may have the unintended effect of dramatically raising expectations in Afghanistan.
— Ben Katcher


21 comments on “The $1 Trillion War?

  1. Sam says:

    I suppose a Taliban government could profit from this using rogue mining companies from Africa or someplace but would they?


  2. Carroll says:

    Who know what lurks beneath the surface…of the pentagon’s mind.
    Why this story now, when the actual discovery is several years old? Is it aimed at the Afghans, the US public, what?
    Are we Americans to relax thinking Afghan can reimburse us for invading them with their new found mineral wealth? Are the Afghans and Taliban to get giddy and compliant with visions of sugar plums to come?
    Since the world is now jaded and doesn’t trust jack shit that comes out of the USA mouth…what could be the ‘practical’ purpose of this story?
    Will the next announcement be that the US occupier will sell off the extraction rights of said minerals to some conglomerates and make all Afghans rich? Do we get a ‘finders fee’ to help defray our war cost? Are we gonna do our usual trade arm twisting on the other countries that already have large stores of said minerals to give Afghan an export and sellers advantage?
    Whatever the aim, the only one thing we can be sure of is, if there is an actual ‘purpose’ to this announcement, it will turn into another twisted web.
    Word is Gates has a ‘friend’ who is in the mineral
    extraction bizness …might be just a rumor but we’ll see.


  3. samuelburke says:

    raimondo over at antiwar dot com has a piece on afghan bling
    “The idea that Afghanistan is going to finance its own
    reconstruction on account of its mineral wealth, or that the US can
    derive some economic benefit from pillaging those resources, is a
    dangerous mix of economic ignorance and brazen militarism. In
    short, this is a rationale for war that fits the current gang in
    Washington to a tee.”


  4. kotzabasis says:

    Despite your erudition you seem to have trouble in comprehending reading. Kervick in his first post directly refers–as Nadine points out–to the


  5. Don Bacon says:

    “$1 trillion worth of precious metals in Afghanistan.”
    Well, not so precious. Most of it is iron and copper, which the mostly illiterate people in Afghanistan don’t have much need of.
    The $110.3 billion the Pentagon wants for their regular annual war budget in Afghanistan, plus the Pentagon’s supplemental Afghanistan war request for $28.8 billion, that’s precious at a time when US teachers are getting pink slips.
    The Afghanistan surge shows no signs of progress, but hey, they’ve got lots of iron and copper. Big whoop.


  6. Paul Norheim says:

    “And your raising the white flag against my arguments, in your
    refusal to engage me, speaks volumes about your character and
    intellectual weight.”
    I’ve not seen Kervick raising any flag, Kotz, and not noticed any
    argument from you. Intellectual weight? That’s rich.
    What speaks volumes here is actually Kervick expressing his
    view, or rather posing a simple question – delivering arguments
    and context to clarify the question – and you responding with
    character assassination – as usual.
    It was not difficult to understand what Dan meant: The precious
    metals can and will obviously be used as a welcome argument
    by some of those who oppose the war – both in the US, in
    Afghanistan, and elsewhere – regardless of whether these
    opponents have “cloudy minds” or not. Dan asked whether
    providing this info now was smart – from the perspective of
    those who defend the war as an attempt to crush al Qaeda –
    and whether it was perhaps delivered from someone who
    wanted to undermine the arguments and expressed rationale for
    the war.
    You overlooked the fact that Dan’s own position on the war was
    completely irrelevant in the context of his logical arguments. As
    a matter of fact, you, Kotz, and perhaps also a lot of people at
    the Pentagon and the White House, could have asked precisely
    the same simple question as Dan did: Is this “information” being
    provided deliberately right now by people behind the scenes
    who are opposed to US engagement in Afghanistan – who want
    to give the impression that the US motives for the war is old
    fashioned imperialism?
    Instead of countering arguments with arguments, you tried to
    make it look like Dan in his post accused the US of being
    imperialist – which was beyond the point.
    What’s your problem, Kotz? Are you unwilling to, or simply
    incapable of delivering arguments for or against a case?


  7. kotzabasis says:

    My dear Kervick, TO EACH HIS OWN. And your raising the white flag against my arguments, in your refusal to engage me, speaks volumes about your character and intellectual weight.


  8. John Waring says:

    Wishful thinking is driving this war.
    1. Karzai is not George Washington and never will be. We are not going to get the host country support that COIN demands.
    2. The interests of Pakistan and the US are 180 degrees out of sync concerning the Afghan Taliban. No Pakistan on board, little prayer for real success.
    3. NATO gives us some support but we’re doing most of the heavy lifting ourselves, which should have told us something a while ago.
    4. We are spending several multiples of the Afghan GDP on training national forces whose desertion rate may prevent us from ever succeeding. Even if we get lucky and stand up forces slightly competent, the Afghan government still won’t be able afford those forces once we’re gone.
    5. Marja is still a mess. We had no government in any box; the Taliban are still killing the locals. Thankfully, we are reassessing the planned Kandahar offensive.
    6. Coin is incoherent. Go to, and learn from an expert. Karzai and his gang of kleptocrats double and triple that losing bet.
    7. The natural export market for any Afghan mineral wealth is China. We are borrowing money, a good bit of it from the Chinese, in order to conduct a war whose end result may be to make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment. So the Chinese don


  9. JohnH says:

    Such a deal! A $trillion war for a $trillion of mineral resources! The losers in Washington couldn’t even identify a project (health care, education, infrastructure) that had a positive payback? Of course not. They had to blow a $Trillion on something that might possibly, eventually yield a $Trillion, all to be realized by their cronies, of course.
    But the good news is that the Obama administration may finally have found a reason, besides keeping the military busy with quagmires, for being in Afghanistan.


  10. Dan Kervick says:

    Kotz, you really are an ass. You do more than I ever could, by virtue of your own demeanor, to discredit everything you say. So I will have nothing more to do with you, and will let your disordered personality speak for itself. Feel free to fire at will with the insults.


  11. kotzabasis says:

    Only for phantasmagorical ideologues of the Left could the war be anything other, post 9/11, than a war against


  12. Dan Kervick says:

    “Surely the people who are telling us that we need to be in Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda and to combat the evil oppression of Taliban-style Islamic government do not want us…”
    Should have been:
    “Surely the people who are telling us that we need to be in Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda and to combat the evil oppression of Taliban-style Islamic government do not want us thinking that the war is really driven by greed.”


  13. Dan Kervick says:

    Kotzabasis, you didn’t read my comment very carefully.
    I will elaborate on the point I was making. Since the James Risen story was published, there has been a flurry of comment in response to the story. Much of that comment is skeptical about the timing and purpose of the release of information on which the story is based. The common theme of these skeptical comments is that this release is somehow designed to make the war in Afghanistan look better or more justified.
    The problem with this line of skeptical argument is that the Risen report about minerals in Afghanistan, whether accurate or inaccurate, whether overblown or proportional, whether suspiciously timed or not, does nothing at all to make the war look any better. That’s because the war is supposed by its defenders to be justified as an essential fight against dangerous jihadist terrorists, Taliban extremists and their enclaves in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any story line that clouds that message actually *undermines* the justifications for the war offered by the administration and its supporters. Surely the people who are telling us that we need to be in Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda and to combat the evil oppression of Taliban-style Islamic government do not want us
    So my implicit point was not that the war actually *is* an imperialist war for booty, but rather that if there is any deliberate timing to the release of this information about the discovery of mineral riches in Afghanistan, then a better explanation for that release is that it is designed to *undermine* support for the war by making it look like the US’s interest in fighting it is driven by a desire to exploit and profit from Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
    On a separate point, your comments on this blog are about 95% concerned with the other commenters on the blog, and only about 5% concerned with the actual events and issues you claim. I think you should try harder to keep your personal characterizations to yourself and focus on issues.


  14. samuelburke says:

    i thought they were there to find osama been dead for years bin


  15. kotzabasis says:

    Kervick like an eager bambino susceptible to all thrilling excitements seen his hobbyhorse


  16. nadine says:

    Dan, I agree, this story sounds like something saved for a rainy day when the administration was desperate to break the litany of bad news coming out of Afghanistan. But “classic imperialist war”? Surely you jest — don’t you know that the President is named Barack H. Obama, not George W. Bush? Everything that was “imperialist” or “overreach” when Bush did it is now hunky-dory. Or so I thought.


  17. ... says:

    classic imperialist war…yea, lets get rid of any pretension when it comes to the usa’s wars in faraway places… this works…
    sounds like this announcement was designed to do just this..


  18. Dan Kervick says:

    I have no idea about the substance and accuracy of the report itself. But I’m not sure I understand how the release of this news would be supposed to put a better face on the war. Doesn’t the story instead create the impression that the war is a classic imperialist war, with US over in Afghanistan prospecting for mineral riches, when they are supposed to be hunting down terrorist “safe havens”?


  19. Don Bacon says:

    “The ‘discovery’ of Afghanistan’s minerals will sound pretty silly to old timers. When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970’s the USG, the Russians, the World Bank, the UN and others were all highly focused on the wide range of Afghan mineral deposits. The Russian geological service was all over the North in the 60’s and 70’s.” — John Stuart Blackton, who once ran USAID in Afghanistan, as quoted on Foreign Policy (Ricks)
    I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
    I can see all obstacles in my way
    Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
    It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
    Sun-Shiny day.
    — Johnnny Nash


  20. Bart says:

    This sounds like an attempt to put lipstick on a foreign adventure pig. Look over there – gold!


  21. Don Bacon says:

    Normally I prefer to write my own comment but I can’t top this by Michael Cohen, Democracy Arsenal:
    “But even if this is true, so what? How many years would it take to put in place an infrastructure to develop and mine these natural resources? And if you think Afghanistan is corrupt now (only Somalia is worse!) imagine how it will look after this? Congo has tons of natural resources; so does Angola. How’s that working out for them?
    “There is nothing in this story that changes the fundamental incoherence of the current mission in Afghanistan. There is nothing here that will change the dynamics on the ground in Afghanistan and the reality of a corrupt, illegitimate Afghan government, an adaptable insurgent force and a June 2011 deadline for the commencement of US troop withdrawals.
    “The only thing this story shows is the desperation of the Pentagon in planting pie-in-the-sky news stories about Afghanistan and trying to salvage the lost cause that is our current mission there.”


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