The New York Times leads with a story today detailing the discovery of vast amounts of mineral wealth in Afghanistan. According to the article, the United States "has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan." The deposits include iron, copper, gold, lithium, and cobalt—minerals necessary for everything from heavy industry to high technology. A Pentagon source reportedly describes Afghanistan as the "Saudi Arabia of lithium."
The Times article highlights the possibility the mineral wealth has to transform the Afghan economy. That is certainly so. Unfortunately they also have the possibility of transforming the Afghan conflict—a political one—into a rent-seeking conflict and exacerbating the already outrageous amounts of graft and corruption retarding that country's development.
Even without the mineral wealth, Afghanistan suffers from epidemic corruption. Already, the heroin trade adds a degree of complexity to counterinsurgency that has proven extraordinarily difficult to surmount. Warlords, Taliban, civilian farmers, and members of the Afghan government all profit or draw their livelihoods from the cultivation of poppies for heroin delivery. Interdicting the trade has the possibility of alienating or impoverishing the local populace, undermining COIN's overall efforts. The common profiting from the trade gives elements of the Afghan government or warlords who nominally support ISAF reason to cooperate in a limited way with the Taliban.
The difficulty of extracting minerals from the ground—as compared to harvesting poppies—may make mineral wealth an unlikely complicating factor to the Afghan war. However, the experience of blood diamonds in Africa should teach us that complicated extractive resources can be tapped by seemingly unsophisticated armed bands and used to fuel already entrenched conflicts.
Vast mineral wealth also raises the strategic importance of Afghanistan. Afghanistan already held substantial strategic import due both to its location geographically and untapped petroleum and natural gas reserves. Copper, gold, and lithium—ores necessary for high tech devices—will have only increasing value and importance. The scale of the deposits hinted at by the New York Times articles suggest that Afghanistan will be of increasing interest to Iran, Pakistan, Russia, the United States, and China. This has the potential of increasing the number of spoilers involved in any conflict-resolution or accommodation process. It also may open doors to the Karzai government otherwise foreclosed to it; giving it alternatives to dealing with the United States—an already fraught relationship.