Well, crap.

It looks like the US may have actually managed to do something which will change the situation in Afghanistan in the long term, not just the short term: discovered large mineral deposits.

It’s going to take a while to process the potential implications of this. Afghanistan has been an isolated place, ruled by tribal warlords and resisting any lasting change from foreign invasions for the past 2,300 years, in no small part because it has so little value to a conqueror; its positional strategic value is limited by the fact that it’s so damned difficult to hold and to cross, its natural resources were nil, and it had little population. People would invade it as a buffer zone (Brezhnev), or to get from one place to another (Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane) or to deal with some group causing trouble (Auckland, Lytton, Bush), but nobody ever held it for a long period of time.

But now there’s an estimated $1T of resources in the ground. On the one hand, local warlords are going to want to get in on the action; but they don’t have anything like the technical or logistical capability to extract resources effectively and sell them on the market. That suggests “large foreign investment,” which would normally be a euphemism for large companies setting up shop and extracting whatever they can, leaving behind as little as possible… but in an area quite as heavily-armed as this one, the normal techniques of this won’t work. I could imagine Western companies coming in if they were backed by a heavy mercenary force, or Chinese companies coming in backed by government troops. Western forces would be backed by governmental forces too, primarily US, assuming that the US had any sense in this — because if there are that many resources in the area, on top of its location, this place suddenly got a great deal more strategic, and keeping it out of the wrong hands (such as China’s) is an important policy goal. Russia is obviously going to want in as well, and I’ll bet that they’re going to use their other resources in Central Asia (e.g., their ability to secure countries where the US needs to maintain military bases to support operations in Afghanistan) in order to ensure that they get it.

Looks like it may be time for another Great Game in the area. I do wonder exactly when people realized the extent of resources available — it may shed some interesting light on the decisions people have been making over the past several years.

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Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 21:26  Comments (14)  
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14 Comments

  1. Can I be optimistic here?
    This is probably total cockeyed optimism, I know, and I don’t know nearly enough about the situation…
    But maybe this will mean there’s something profitable to do there instead of opium poppies?

  2. It’s quite possible. In fact, it’s almost certain to bring all sorts of new industries… but I’m not sure how that’s going to play out for the people on the ground, especially when the various powers get involved.

  3. I dunno, the US’s best strategic option might be to ask China in. Possibly Brer Rabbit style? “Well! We want the people of Afghanistan to live in freedom and tranquility! So we’ll just remove our armies now! We sure hope China doesn’t move in or anything! Hear that, China?”
    Let them be the overstretched empire for a while!

  4. Think of it this way – they can use the lithium to level out their opiated binges.

  5. *grin* My fear is that China would deal better with the briar patch than we would. I could easily see them just walking in to the spots they wanted to be in, making a deal with the local warlords, and setting up shop. When things get rough, either kill everyone or pull out. No conquest, no attempt to build political or physical infrastructure, no problems.

  6. I’m sort of unclear why this is a “fear”. Is it because you have faith that the American nation-building, democracy-grounding project in Afghanistan is viable and will ultimately yield positive results? (I’m not mocking this position, I don’t know enough to be sure one way or another myself.) Is it because you see America and China in a zero-sum game of great-power competition? Or is it because you think Afghanistan’s current rural, tribal, decentralized poverty is preferable in human terms to becoming an exploited satellite of post-Maoist Chinese robber-baron capitalism?

  7. I would say a combination of (b) and (c). I think that America’s current project in Afghanistan is highly unlikely to have a lasting positive impact, since it doesn’t ultimately address any underlying issues or even build much physical infrastructure. But I do foresee an increased period of competition between the US and China, and expect that it will take on more and more of the forms of a Cold War-type battle of ideologies. In that context, I think that US strategic interests are served by having as much “resource leverage” as possible over China; but I’m not convinced that the US actually attaining that level of leverage would be good for all, or even any, concerned. Sometimes having two great powers is better than having one.
    With regards to the third, I’m thinking about the way Chinese-driven development has been playing out in Africa. A lot of it looked good to the locals at first, but now they’re finding that what the Chinese are building are isolated, Chinese-only bases from which they extract resources and give virtually nothing back to the surrounding communities. I’m guessing that, when the resources are sufficiently extracted, the Chinese will then simply pack up and leave — and leave behind massive environmental hazards, and the countries even shorter on underlying resources than before. The only benefit which will have flowed into those countries will be the initial payoffs given to local “leaders” which allowed them to set up shop to begin with.
    So, yes. Rural, tribal, decentralized poverty may be better — because the alternative is the same poverty with a powerful overlord in the midst, who then leaves and gives you rural, tribal, decentralized poverty amidst toxic waste.

  8. Okay, I think I’m with you on c). I’m more skeptical on b). Even from just a purely provincial, partisan American point of view, I’m not sure getting into Cold War style resource competition with China is a good bet. I think it may be a very poor bet. I think a lot of the cold war hinged on a very unfortunate conflation by Americans between the officially pronounced aims of Soviet Communist ideology — global revolution by the working classes, etc. — and the actual geopolitical interests of the Russian Empire, which were far more modest and largely defensive. And this misunderstanding had the effect of actually goading the Soviets into a kind of “defensive expansionism” and heating up the conflict, keeping them on a war level. (My source for this is largely a very interesting book called “The Wise Men”, a group biography of the men who ran the US cold war state dept. — Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, etc. — and who first mostly propagated, then later in part tried to restrain, when it was too late, this misunderstanding).
    In terms of b) — i.e. selfishly in terms of US geopolitics — I think we might be far better off gracefully ceding China control over things in their sphere of influence, and working out a symbiosis where they do what they’re good at and we do what we’re good at and we agree to quietly disagree about Taiwan and the rest. It seems to me that there’s a hell of a lot of non-zero-sum leverage there. America’s slow current decline is coupled with China — they buy the T-bills as we print ’em — but it isn’t caused by China. It’s caused by our reach far exceeding our grasp, from plasma TVs to military adventures. Competing with China head on all over the world will accelerate this decline; regrouping will slow it.
    From the point of view of c), though, possibly it’s better for America to go out swinging — to exhaust and extinguish itself in its dreams of total empire, given that that total empire is slightly more benign along certain axes (human rights and environmental issues, when well-publicized, etc.) than its competitors. Maybe a half-century of walled North Afghanistan/South Afghanistan standoff before we give in would produce enough useful knowledge transfer and skills growth in the South to offset the immense human damage done by both the split itself and its ultimate conclusion.
    Or possibly the new Cold War will end in our favor too. I don’t think the smart money is that way though.

  9. I agree with you and think that I was unclear earlier. For (b), I think that there is likely to be a competition, and that many of those in a decision-making position are likely to view this as a key strategic advantage; but I’m not at all certain that competing in this way will end up being to our net advantage in the long term.
    I guess that a lot of the question is whether or not we believe that this will be a zero- (or even negative-)sum game. The pure resource competition almost certainly is, but that’s only a small part of the overall wealth/power equation; advances in resource utilization can make entire resources suddenly much less important, and can create giant positive-sum wins for all players. I’m guessing that there will be a number of those in the future, and (as you say) there are a number of places where outright competition would be negative-sum in its own right.
    I have a more subtle worry which I guess you might call “ideological.” I don’t think that China has any interest in spreading its own brand of politics around the world, but I do wonder what a world dominated by the Chinese would look like in terms of the political zeitgeist. The last few decades of the twentieth century saw a very broad acceptance of certain American norms, e.g. about freedom of speech; that several countries are working so hard to quench those internally is, in its way, a demonstration of how strong a hold the idea seems to have on people. In a century of Chinese ascendancy, though, what would the corresponding ideas be, and how would those play out in the daily lives of people? I can’t help having a nasty feeling about that — in part because I’m very comfortable with American norms, but also in part because China’s domestic political history doesn’t exactly fill me with warm fuzzies.

  10. Indeed! More to do, more money to enrich the corrupt few, more money to spend on weapons. Hooray!
    Unfortunately, modern mining is the most destructive industry on the planet. Without any regulation to keep mining relatively clean, and with massive corruption preventing any regulations from being enforced, mining behemoths can contaminate a country’s worth of freshwater.
    I also am not convinced that this is anything new. My fear is that this is yet another attempt at hinting “this war will pay for itself!”

  11. I share to some extent your ideological worry. I have two counterbalancing responses, though. One is that we don’t entirely know what an ascendant and secure China would look like — what internal struggles and processes its rise would bring. If we cast back to the period when the US was still militarily weak and relatively impoverished compared to Europe, but the farsighted could already see its rise as predestined, we’re talking about the Civil War era or just post Civil War — when America was busily at work on concluding the genocidal takeover of the remains of the frontier, and either still in the grip of the peculiar institution, or restoring it in large part de facto via Jim Crow and the KKK; not to mention robber barons and sweatshops. I expect the humane values of an ascendant China will be different from ours, certainly. The emphasis on free speech might be lost, for instance. But there might be counterbalancing virtues. (This is sort of the Ibn Khaldunian model, in which barbarians by their very roughness always conquer the decadent, allowing them to flower into the humane peak of civilization, which inevitably leads to decadence and fall…)
    The other thing is that it is not necessarily the case that the alternatives to American hegemony are Chinese hegemony or Cold-War struggle. It is possible to have a multipolar world with a general agreement on spheres of influence, in which trade and cooperation far outweigh occasional border skirmishes. The Great Powers of Europe achieved this for much of the time between Napoleon and WWI (to the increasingly great cost of the people they colonized, it bears mentioning); so did Islam, China and the various South Indian and Southeast Asian polities in the Indian Ocean region in the period ca. 800-1500.

  12. Your first response got me thinking about the things which stayed the same and the things which changed for various countries. Many of the things which most characterized the US in the post-Civil War era could still be seen today; for example, a deep notion of national exceptionalism, a propensity for waves of religious fervor of a particular sort, and powerful shared ideas about individual liberty. And as you said, several other things changed — robber-baron capitalism is no longer quite so popular, and as a country we seem considerably less bloodthirsty than we were back then.
    My suspicion is that countries have a “national psyche,” a set of common framing structures and narratives, which tends to stay fixed over very long periods of time, changed only by shocks on the scale of mass migrations; and on top of this, there is an ebb and flow of energy, with countries in their first flush of youth making a name for themselves by any means possible, and later — if and when they’re rich and established — reining in things like Dickensian capitalism or military expansionism in favor of safety nets and the comforts of success.
    I think it’s this latter oscillation which Ibn Khaldun saw, but the constants are still there; even in his time, Rome was not Baghdad, and one could not confuse the courts and countrysides of Tamerlane and of Clovis, separated though they were by a similar span from their conquering histories. I don’t doubt that an ascendant China would have its own virtues, but I fear that many of its underlying traits – its powerful respect for authority over the individual, its calm acceptance of extraordinary gaps of power – would stay the same.
    I do agree about the multipolarity of the future world; the bipolar world of the Cold War was an accident of history, not likely to happen very often. But the US and China will surely be two of the biggest fish in this pond…
    (Side note: We should totally have had a panel about something related to this at WisCon. It would have been really interesting.)

  13. Your first response got me thinking about the things which stayed the same and the things which changed for various countries. Many of the things which most characterized the US in the post-Civil War era could still be seen today; for example, a deep notion of national exceptionalism, a propensity for waves of religious fervor of a particular sort, and powerful shared ideas about individual liberty. And as you said, several other things changed — robber-baron capitalism is no longer quite so popular, and as a country we seem considerably less bloodthirsty than we were back then.
    My suspicion is that countries have a “national psyche,” a set of common framing structures and narratives, which tends to stay fixed over very long periods of time, changed only by shocks on the scale of mass migrations; and on top of this, there is an ebb and flow of energy, with countries in their first flush of youth making a name for themselves by any means possible, and later — if and when they’re rich and established — reining in things like Dickensian capitalism or military expansionism in favor of safety nets and the comforts of success.
    I think it’s this latter oscillation which Ibn Khaldun saw, but the constants are still there; even in his time, Rome was not Baghdad, and one could not confuse the courts and countrysides of Tamerlane and of Clovis, separated though they were by a similar span from their conquering histories. I don’t doubt that an ascendant China would have its own virtues, but I fear that many of its underlying traits – its powerful respect for authority over the individual, its calm acceptance of extraordinary gaps of power – would stay the same.
    I do agree about the multipolarity of the future world; the bipolar world of the Cold War was an accident of history, not likely to happen very often. But the US and China will surely be two of the biggest fish in this pond…
    (Side note: We should totally have had a panel about something related to this at WisCon. It would have been really interesting.)

  14. As far as I’ve seen this whole thing is very overrated.
    The ONE TRILLION DOLLARS figure (nicely even isn’t it?) isn’t real because the extraction cost is unknown and hasn’t been factored in. Also, mining on this scale is an operation which occurs over many decades. If you could get 100% extraction in 50 years (just as an example), that’s 20 billion a year minus extraction costs. Said extraction costs might be higher than usual in a war zone with basically no infrastructure.
    The entire Canadian mining industry made 36.1 billion a year in 2002 (quick search) and Canada has a large amount of mineral wealth and, well, an actual mining industry.
    This is large in comparison to Afghanistan’s puny war-torn economy, but even Canada’s output would only equal 10% of the GDP of neighboring Iran (nominal basis).


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