Can Buried Treasure Save Afghanistan?

Iron ore mines nearby, in Western China. Imaginechina-AP

In February 1975, Mobil Oil Corp. announced a stunning find. The U.S. petroleum giant's exploratory drillers had struck oil in the Bach Ho (White Tiger) field off the South Vietnamese coast. Saigon officials, scarcely believing their luck, hastily called a press conference. They displayed a small vial of black gold from the test well and declared it was a turning point in the war. Presidential Palace spokesman Hoang Duc Nha joked that he was growing a mustache to look more like Saudi Arabia's oil minister at the time, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani. U.S. Embassy officials were just as cheerful and vocal, believing that the prospect of South Vietnam becoming an East Asian Saudi Arabia would rally the country's war-weary troops and civilians and revive U.S. congressional support for the war. The euphoria was short-lived. A few weeks later, Hanoi's Soviet-made tanks crashed through the gates of Saigon's Presidential Palace, defeating the U.S.-backed regime.

In an eerie echo of those brief, heady days in Saigon, U.S. officials are now crowing over the discovery of nearly $1 trillion worth of previously unknown mineral wealth in Afghanistan. According to The New York Times, Pentagon officials and U.S. geologists have mapped "huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium"—"enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself." (Afghans have always said their country was sitting on a fortune in gems, precious metals, and other valuable minerals. And, indeed, longtime observers shrugged off today's announcement as a rehash of decades-old assessments.) The Times quotes an internal Pentagon memo saying the country could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," and describes America's top military officer in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, marveling at the country's "stunning potential."

"There are a lot of ifs, of course," Petraeus prudently added. Finding treasure was one thing; actually getting it out of the ground will be quite another. Like Hanoi's forces, the resurgent Taliban aren't going to sit back and quietly watch while their enemies make off with the buried riches. Even if Afghanistan's mining sites and transportation routes can somehow be protected, fierce internecine disputes are sure to erupt over who will reap the benefits: the central government, the provinces, the districts, or tribal chieftains.

This week's announcement probably won't help the U.S. cause much. Many Afghans—even some engineers and university professors—have insisted for years that America's actual motivation in Afghanistan is to exploit their country's vast untapped resources. The irony is that it probably won't be U.S. mining companies that cash in. Instead it's likely to be China's state-run companies, which so far have appeared far more willing than American investors to tolerate the risks associated with operating in Afghanistan. Beijing has already won a copper-mining concession in Logar province, and seems likely to have an inside track to win future mineral-rights auctions.

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But the Americans continue to hope that some good will come from this week's news. Thoughts of getting rich just might inspire the Kabul government and its Army and police to fight a little harder. (Or maybe not—the Times reported on Friday that President Hamid Karzai himself has lost confidence that America can win the war.) At the same time, supporters of the Taliban are showing interest. A 70-year-old cleric at a Taliban madrassa near Peshawar tells NEWSWEEK he always knew that God would do justice to Afghanistan and provide what the country needs. "If a real Islamic emirate is reestablished, the natural resources of Afghanistan would be enough to support our country economically without seeking help from others," he says. The insurgents may be invigorated by a new dream: not the company of virgins after martyrdom but the vision of glimmering pots of gold on their remote and barren ridgelines.