A new report that highlights Afghanistan’s extensive mineral deposits provides fuel for the United States’s military project. But it also signals the existence of a wider resource-competition that reflects the 21st-century’s emerging geopolitics.

A notable feature of the Afghanistan war in 2010 has been the way that assessments of its progress have varied regularly between optimism and pessimism. The current mood in Washington, evident in congressional hearings that have thrown some light on the problems, tends to the bleaker end of the spectrum – in marked contrast to the optimism of a few months ago (see Karen De Young and Greg Jaffe, “Concern on Capitol Hill about Afghanistan war grows”, Washington Post, 15 June 2010).

What makes this attitude even more interesting is that its spread coincides with the appearance of reports that Afghanistan possesses mineral reserves worth at least $900 billion. The implication is that Afghanistan, and by extension the war being waged there, evidently vital geo-strategic importance that goes beyond even the campaign against the Taliban (see James Risen, “U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan”, New York Times, 14 June 2010).

The unsafe road

These new dynamics contrast with the prevalent atmosphere as late as March 2010, when the United States’s new military strategy and schedule in Afghanistan – outlined in Barack Obama’s speech of 1 December 2009 – seemed reasonably clear. The central focus was a huge surge in US troop-numbers that would take coalition deployments to over 140,000 by mid-2010; many of these would engage in a series of large-scale operations to constrain the Taliban and (eventually) force them towards a negotiated compromise; by July 2011, it would be possible to begin troop-withdrawals.

Thus, a major drawdown would have been implemented and still be underway before the start of the US presidential-election campaign of 2012, thus allowing military and political considerations to cohere in (from the administration’s point of view) a benign way. There would doubtless be problems, but these could be treated as a variant of the “darkness before dawn” said to be typical of counterinsurgency campaigns (see “Washington vs Waziristan: the far enemy”, 14 May 2010).

The main focus of the operations was intended to be on the key southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. The plan was largely to clear them of Taliban influence, after which the coalition forces could move on to other troubled zones; meanwhile, intensive use of armed-drones across the border in Pakistan would cripple the leaderships of the Pakistani Taliban and what remained of the al-Qaida movement.

The first phase of the Helmand operation was Operation Moshtarak, which started in February around the town of Marjah in the centre of the province. This was to be followed by a much larger and more sustained operation in and around the city of Kandahar. The key Kandahar operation was due to start in July and was to yield clear and very positive results before the end of 2010 (see “Afghanistan: propaganda of the deed”, 11 February 2010).

So far, Moshtarak has simply not delivered. Taliban elements have re-appeared, and exert great influence across the district. The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has increased, as has the incidence of direct attacks on coalition forces (see Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “’Still a long way to go’ for U.S. operations in Marja, Afghanistan”, Washington Post, 10 June 2010). Furthermore, the opium-poppy harvest is over, releasing more young men for combat-operations in which US forces in particular (but also British) are taking serious casualties (see CJ Chivers, “As Afghan Fighting Expands, U.S. Medics Plunge In”, New York Times, 12 June 2010). The planned visit of Britain’s new prime minister David Cameron to a forward-base in Helmand on 10 June had to be abandoned because of security concerns; his main announcement in the country was of a doubling of bomb-disposal personnel to try and counter the heavy losses from IEDs (see Stephen Grey, “Helmand: anatomy of a disaster”, Foreign Policy, 15 June 2010).

The uphill war

The increase in Taliban attacks poses severe problems for the United States and its allies. But four other factors reinforce the coalition’s predicament.

The first is the ability of the insurgents to target and assassinate people associated with the Kabul regime or with foreign governments and agencies based in Afghanistan. Since the the most senior Afghan officials are afforded a high degree of personal protection, the Taliban paramilitaries now tend to kill lower-level officials who lack such security (see Bill Roggio, “Taliban assassinate key district governor in Kandahar”, Long War Journal, 15 June 2010).

The second is the issue of graft and corruption. This has become so extensive that American intelligence is devoting substantial resources to trying to ensure that at least one area is “clean”: where US civil and military aid is directly involved (see Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Military Intelligence Puts Focus on Afghan Graft”, New York Times, 12 June 2010). Japan too is seeking to monitor the real use of the extensive financial aid it has given to Afghanistan since 2002 (which has included, for example, paying the salaries of the Afghan police).

The third is the intense criticism in Pakistan of the US’s armed-drone attacks (see “Drone wars”, 16 April 2009). Washington may regard these as an important and effective instrument in advancing the military campaign; but many in Pakistan and elsewhere, noting that the drones are operated by “pilots” safe in (for example) Nevada, regard them both as the weapon of cowards and very possibly counterproductive in that they could encourage recruitment to the al-Qaida cause (see Gareth Porter, “CIA Drone Operators Oppose Strikes as Helping al Qaeda”, IPS, 3 June 2010).

The fourth factor, and perhaps most significant of all, is that many Afghans across the Pashtun south of the country do not want coalition forces in their midst; neither do they accept that these forces are there to protect them. This attitude strikes at the very heart of the counterinsurgency strategy, and is one of the reasons for a two-month delay in the planned start of the Kandahar operation (see Craig Whitlock, “General McChrystal: Kandahar operation will take longer”, Washington Post, 11 June 2010). This in turn fuels a growing awareness in Washington that the whole timetable for the Afghan war, and especially its relationship to the US presidential election of 2012, is coming into question (see Jim Lobe, “Afghanistan: The News is Bad”, TerraViva/IPS, 10 June 2010).

The mineral contest

It is in this context of a difficult and increasingly unpopular war that the Pentagon released details of its survey into Afghanistan’s mineral resources, conducted jointly with the US Geological Service and Usaid. This, which draws on information gathered between the early 1950s and around 1985, finds that the country has iron-ore deposits with a value estimated at $420 billion; copper-ore worth $274 billion; cobalt worth $50 billion; and reserves of lithium that could compare to those in Bolivia (currently the world’s largest source).

The timing of the report’s release immediately aroused a certain suspicion of political manipulation (see Katie Drummond, “No, the U.S. Didn’t Just ‘Discover’ a $1T Afghan Motherlode”, Wired, 14 June 2010). The argument is that at an exact moment when the Afghan war is going badly and the foreign presence in the country is under great pressure – and at the start of a week of sensitive US congressional hearings on the war – along comes a survey that highlights Afghanistan’s hidden wealth; and, by implication, enjoins the need to keep fighting (see Kim Sengupta, “Afghanistan’s resources could make it the richest mining region on earth”, Independent, 15 June 2010).

This view draws on evidence that knowledge of Afghan mineral reserves has been in the public domain for years (see Jim Lobe, “Timing of Leak of Afghan Mineral Wealth Evokes Scepticism”, TerraViva/IPS, 15 June 2010). China, for example, is already working to develop the Aynak valley copper-reserves near Kabul, which alone are reported to be worth $88 billion; and there was already information about iron-ore deposits, if not on the scale suggested by the new report (see Jeremy Page, “Afghanistan copper deposits worth $88 billion attract Chinese investors”, Times, 15 May 2008).

But if the circumstances of the report’s publication does provoke cynicism, its more interesting aspect is to raise the question of the possible long-term strategic significance of Afghanistan’s mineral potential. Although analysts most commonly talk about resource conflict in relation to oil or water, there are certainly examples from recent history of difficult conflicts over minerals (see Michael T Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict [Metropolitan/Holt, 2002]).

Three examples among many illustrate this. First, in the late 1970s there were protracted conflicts over the control of the Mutshatsha and Kolwezi cobalt-mines in the then southern Zaire, which led to western military intervention by Franco-Belgian forces with Nato support. Second, Morocco’s rigorous control of Western Sahara against the claims of the Polisario movement which seeks the territory’s independence is strongly motivated by strategic concern over the immense Bou Kraa rock-phosphate reserves and their crucial importance for the worldwide supply of compound fertilisers. Third, several conflicts in southern or central Africa – such as the post-independence civil war in Angola between the MPLA and Unita movements, and the wars of the 1990s in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – have had competition over precious minerals as a key component (see “Rush and Ruin: The devastating mineral trade in Southern Katanga, DRC” [Global Witness, 29 September 2004]).

These examples all come from Africa. But many cases of conflict elsewhere, from Burma to Iraq, also have a strong resource component that must be included in any overall analysis.

The global connection

A part of the deep background of these internal and transnational disputes is a long-term phenomenon described by some economic geographers as the great “resource-shift”. This notion is intended to convey the move from a period when the pioneers of industrial revolution in western Europe and the United States relied for growth on domestic resources to one where they have become more dependent on imported minerals. Britain, for example, was largely self-sufficient in coal, iron, copper, tin and lead throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the United States well into the 20th century (see Paul Rogers, ed., Future Resources and World Development [Plenum Press, 1976]; Zuhayr M Mikdashi, The International Politics of Natural Resources [Cornell University Press, 1976]).

As the 20th century progressed, the resource-depletion of most industrial states meant a greater requirement to import such minerals, mainly from the global south; central and southern Africa and the high Andes were particularly important sources. (Japan, which possessed few mineral resources – apart from coal – was a singular case within this overall pattern. This lack, combined with the country’s political turn to military-led nationalism in the 1930s, was the underlying driver of its expansionist plans for a “greater east-Asia co-prosperity sphere”).

This “resource-shift”, much of it taking place during (and facilitated by) the era of colonialism or post-colonialism, was mainly from north to south; but in the 21st century, the rapidly growing demands of China and other emerging countries is transforming – and complicating – the process (see Ewan W Anderson & Liam D Anderson, Strategic Minerals: Resource Geopolitics and Global Geo-Economics [Wiley, 1997]).

In this larger context, the issue of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth transcends Washington’s immediate political calculations, and goes to the heart of the profound changes underway in the world’s political power-balance (see “Iran-Turkey-United States: Gaza’s global moment”, 3 June 2010).

The Afghan link to these global dynamics may relate in particular to ore-deposits of two metals: cobalt and lithium (see Stefan Nicola, “The world’s next resource conflict”, UPI, 22 February 2009)

Cobalt has long been important as a key constituent of a range of ferro-cobalt alloys, vital because they retain their shape at very high temperatures and thus can be used in jet-engines, missile-exhausts and high-speed turbine-blades. Lithium, with a range of uses, is now a hugely valuable constituent of rechargeable batteries, especially for the new generation of electric vehicles that are just coming onto the market. Perhaps the most interesting connection is that some kinds of batteries now utilise lithium and cobalt in a single system.

The Iraq war may have been about more than control of oil, even though Iraqi oil-reserves are nearly five times greater than the United States’s; and the Afghanistan war is certainly not just about high-value metals. Yet the resource issue does overhang the Pentagon’s immediate need to sustain its campaign (see “Afghanistan: a phantom endgame”, 3 May 2010).

Moreover, this connection between resources, foreign policy and power-projection will become more vital over the 2010s, in Afghanistan as elsewhere. Many of its outcomes will relate to China’s industrial needs and its growing competition with the United States. In the absence of a much-needed transformation in the understanding of national and global security, this may indeed become the “great game” of the next decade.

About the author: Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University and is openDemocracy’s international-security editor.