The New York Times reported on July 25, 2017 that U.S. advisors and Afghan officials are trying to use Afghanistan’s mineral wealth potential— once estimated at $1 trillion —to sell President Donald Trump on a war he understandably has little enthusiasm for.
This new sales strategy is dangerous as it aims to exploit Trump’s cartoonish views on global intervention, which meld the minds of a medieval emperor and a modern-day businessman.
Trump has on several occasions said that the United States should “take the oil” in conflict zones like Iraq. His explications have varied in focus, but “take the oil” appears to rest on two basic principles: what is theirs becomes ours once we invade; and foreign wars should at least pay for themselves, if not become profitable ventures.
No Good Strategy
Those who seek a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan are now desperate because the president has rejected the war strategy put forward by his bureaucracy and political appointees. According to POLITICO, the National Security Council Principals Committee meeting last week chaired by Trump was a “sh*tshow” that ended with the president sending back the Afghanistan strategy presented to him, further delaying a review that has already been extended twice.
Within the White House, the McMaster camp has tried to make the hardest sell: doing away with timelines, pressuring Pakistan, and abandoning reconciliation with the Taliban—a recipe for endless war in a landlocked, impoverished, and factionally divided country.
Earlier this year, McMaster reportedly showed the visually dependent Trump a slideshow of Afghanistan in 1970s—presumably the same pictures of local women in miniskirts and hippy tourists that make their rounds on social media every month or so. Trump apparently did not bite McMaster’s superficial attempt to make the case that the country has a relatively more liberal and peaceful past that can be realized once again.
Afghanistan’s Minerals Miracle Fails to Materialize
Since Trump came into office, Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, have tried to quell the U.S. president’s Afghan-skepticism by talking up the country’s mineral potential.
In 2010, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon identified vast deposits of copper, gold, iron, lithium and other minerals in Afghanistan. Media-savvy Gen. David Petraeus spoke of great prospects of Afghanistan’s mineral industry and a Pentagon memo provided to the Times described the country as a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Afghan officials claimed that the mineral wealth provided the country with a path away from donor dependency.
But the case of the Mes Aynak copper mine demonstrates the false promise of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth being a short-to-medium term positive game-changer.
In 2007, Kabul granted a consortium led by the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) a $3 billion, thirty-year lease to mine Mes Aynak, home to Afghanistan’s largest copper deposits. Ten years later, extraction of copper has yet to begin on the site. The project is at a standstill as security concerns grow and the MCC looks to revise the terms of the contract, not only lowering Kabul’s royalty rate, but also eliminating some components of the project, including a coal power plant and railway line. Similarly, an Indian consortium that was awarded a concession five years ago at the massive Hajigak iron ore mine continues to hedge and reportedly never signed a final contract with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum.
Enter the Dark Prince
The leading American proponent of a resource-driven war in Afghanistan is Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Inspired by the British East India Company, Prince has called for replacing U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan with private mercenaries who focus on securing Afghanistan’s resources, including its vast mineral deposits, instead of its people, rejecting the population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine that has become part of the Beltway orthodoxy since the Iraq surge.
Prince has multiple connections to the Trump camp. For example, his sister is the U.S. education secretary. But, more importantly, Trump advisor Steve Bannon appears to be a kindred spirit. Not only has Prince appeared multiple times on Breitbart’s radio channel and website, but Bannon also brought Prince to meet with Defense Secretary James Mattis this month. The Bannonites are cultural and economic nationalists averse to nation-building and protracted military deployments abroad, but they are not anti-war or anti-imperialism. Prince’s private-sector-led, resource-driven neoimperial approach notionally—and only notionally—resolves the Afghanistan dilemma for the Bannonites of how to combat jihadists in Afghanistan without expending large amounts of American blood and treasure.
Also advising Trump on the resource-driven war in Afghanistan is Stephen Feinberg , the owner of the massive U.S. military contractor DynCorp International. Even if Afghanistan’s minerals industry continues to languish, Feinberg and Prince would profit off of providing logistics and other services, including securing supply lines. And for Prince, who has gone from being a veritable arm of the CIA to a business partner of the People’s Republic of China, it would fuse his old and new lines of business.