The terror attacks on September 11, 2001, fundamentally reshaped our nation. The American psyche was left bruised and battered, leading United States foreign policy to take a decisive turn. As sadness turned to scorn, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), providing legislative authorization for the War on Terror. On October 7, 2001, with the AUMF in hand, George W. Bush announced Operation Enduring Freedom, propelling the United States into a new theater of war: Afghanistan.
Sixteen years later, the War in Afghanistan has become the United States’ longest running conflict, and it’s most unpopular. By 2013, 82% of Americans opposed United States involvement in the country, a higher disapproval rate than the Vietnam War. However, a new administration is hoping to change the tides of public opinion by introducing a new selling point: the War in Afghanistan is an economic opportunity.
The $841 billion price tag the war has accumulated over the past sixteen years would say otherwise, but the administration’s proposition has nothing to do with war. It has everything to do with mining. Specifically, mining the estimated $1 trillion in mineral deposits hidden beneath Afghanistan’s soil that includes the world’s largest deposit of lithium, 60 million metric tons of copper, and 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements (REEs).
This policy frame is anything but novel. Knowledge of Afghanistan’s mineral deposits has influenced the United States’ intervention ever since we entered the country in 2001. What was once a background player in the conflict has since snatched the leading role.
While much has been written about the United States’ security and geopolitical motivations for the War in Afghanistan, relatively little literature exists on the conflict’s mineral factor. Therefore, this analysis will try to begin the discussion, identifying how the past three administrations shaped their policy directives around Afghanistan’s mineral deposits.
On June 5, 2003, George W. Bush stood in front of Camp As Sayliyah to rousingly declare “Mission Accomplished.” But in 2018, that mission seems to be just beginning.
The Bush Administration
In his September 20, 2001, address to Congress, George W. Bush made it clear the United States’ priority in Afghanistan: ending terrorism. But motivations for war are rarely single-faceted, and the administration’s actions would soon reveal one of those facets to be Afghanistan’s minerals.
It is important to note that even prior to the announcement of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Bush administration knew mineral deposits lay beneath Afghanistan – in fact, the entire global community did. Soviet mining experts made that revelation public in the 1980s, after they began collecting geological data during the Soviet-Afghan war.
The existence of this historical data suggests minerals may have been an underlining factor in the administration’s decision-making long before their official entanglement in the Afghan conflict. That would explain why, mere weeks after 9/11, and weeks before the official declaration of war, the Pentagon was already commissioning geologists to study caves throughout the country.
The administration’s first true breakthrough was in 2004 when American geologists stumbled upon copies of the Soviet’s geological surveys, which had been preserved and protected by the Afghan Geological Survey (AGS) in Kabul. With a firmer understanding of where they should be looking, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) began identifying what exactly was hidden in those locations.
The process began almost immediately. From 2004 to 2006, the USGS conducted airborne geophysical surveys of the country. This was supplemented by efforts between 2005 and 2007 to consolidate existing information about the deposits in tandem with the AGS. What they found shocked even seasoned geologists, with an internal Pentagon memo from 2007 referring to Afghanistan as a “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.” With peaked interest, experimental hyperspectral imaging surveys began in 2007. But by the time Bush’s tenure as president was over, those surveys were not yet complete.
As to what the Bush administration intended to do with that geological information, there is no definitive conclusion. Without explicit communications from within the administration regarding mineral exploitation, we have little to determine the true motivations for the scans. But the administration’s decision to document the deposits became a foundation on which to build. How exactly that information would be used was for the next administration to decide.
The Obama Administration
On the 2008 campaign trail, Barack Obama made it clear that, if elected, the United States would commit to a larger combat presence in Afghanistan. That campaign promise was quickly realized after an additional 17,000 troops were deployed to the country less than a month after his inauguration. However, as the administration made clear, reinvigorating the war effort had as much to do with eliminating terrorism as it did with helping the country rebuild – and the Bush administration’s mineral data would become a crucial part of that effort.
By 2010, the hyperspectral surveys commissioned by the Bush administration were largely complete. By June, the Pentagon was ready to release that information to the public. Boasting that the United States had discovered $1 trillion of “previously unknown” deposits, the disclosure seemed to suggest the deposits could relieve the United States from the burden of Afghanistan by introducing the country as a powerful player in the global market economy.
The administration certainly believed that to be true. In their eyes, mining had the potential to be the backbone of Afghanistan’s future economy. So, the United States’ Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) was charged with creating “mining… development initiatives to build investor confidence in [the sector].” That process included training workers, awarding mining contracts, and supplying Afghanistan with the capital necessary to build crucial mining infrastructure. The administration would make this a key platform in their reconstruction effort.
However, the administration’s lofty goal to make Afghanistan’s minerals the foundation of its economic development collided with growing private interests they inadvertently helped cultivate. When the Pentagon peaked public interest with their study, they may have done their job too well. As a Pentagon spokesman told The Times, the trillion-dollar figure imposed on the deposits was deliberately chosen because it “seemed to be newsworthy.” And that calculated move would have unintended side effects.
With the money in mind, private interest in Afghanistan’s minerals began focusing less on the minerals’ role in reconstruction efforts and more on their role in potential resource profiteering. Lithium is essential for technological innovation. The copper market has become a billion-dollar industry. The world’s supply of rare earth elements is almost exclusively controlled by China. Exploiting any of these resources would have carved out a significant market share for any private corporation lucky enough to get their hands on them.
By the time Obama’s tenure had ended, Afghanistan’s mining sector was no more developed than it was previously. Eight years after attempting to rebuild the country, the administration’s goal of reconstruction was replaced by the goal of a complete American withdrawal from the conflict. But just because their policies failed does not mean their actions were forgotten. The bifurcated messaging that emerged following the public release of the Pentagon’s “discovery” created dueling beliefs: Afghanistan’s minerals were either best utilized by Afghanistan or best exploited by the United States. And as the next administration would prove, opening the floodgates to that ideological struggle would have drastic consequences.
The Trump Administration
During a military forum prior to his election, Donald Trump was questioned over his interest in Iraqi oil. Explaining his belief that the United States should “take the oil,” Trump justified his response by reiterating the old adage, “to the victor belong the spoils.” For two conflicts so intertwined, it should be no surprise to hear that his position on Iraq’s resources spills over to his position on Afghanistan’s. And as a result, the narrative of Afghanistan’s minerals has taken a decisive turn.
This change to the United States’ strategy in Afghanistan began before Trump had even been inaugurated. On December 3rd, 2016, a phone conversation between Trump and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani first heralded this shift. While discussing the role of the United States in re-stabilizing Afghanistan, Ghani shifted the topic to mining. What followed was a discussion of Afghanistan’s lithium deposits, the country’s undeveloped mining sector, and finally the most important conversation piece: why American industries were not benefiting from Afghanistan’s mineral deposits.
As a businessman, Trump understandably values the creation of industry. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the exploitation of minerals has had a magnetic effect on the administration. The $1 trillion estimation placed on the deposits is once again circulating within the White House, with aides to the president revealing the deposits are the only thing Trump finds appealing about re-entering the war. That would be a logical rationale to explain the administration’s recent meetings with Afghan mining officials, American extractive companies, and industry experts.
From a surface-level view, this strategy seems strikingly familiar. The goal of cultivating the mining sector to grow the industry and strengthen Afghanistan’s market appeal seems to be lifted right from the pages of the Obama administration’s reconstruction plans. But one thing remains strikingly different. Whereas the Obama-era mining strategy was designed to benefit Afghanistan, sources close to the White House have revealed the Trump administration cares little about that. As one aide noted, “Trump wants to be repaid” for United States intervention, and that repayment is the country’s deposits.
But foreign policy analysts are united in the belief that extracting these deposits would require an escalation of the conflict. And an escalation is coming. The administration has changed the rules of military engagement in Afghanistan, giving military troops more freedom to enter violent skirmishes with the Taliban. The CIA’s role in the country has been expanded, limiting the transparency of counterterror operations in the country. In August, the administration even considered replacing the entire United States combat presence with private military contractors, who would be entirely self-funded by the country’s minerals.
This seems to be the new era of the War in Afghanistan, a far cry from the de-escalation the Obama administration tried so hard to begin. Whether it will be a winning strategy is hard to speculate. Regardless of the outcome, it may still become a PR nightmare for the United States. As Laurel Miller, a senior analyst at RAND has articulated, “It would be dangerous to use the potential for resource exploitation as a selling point for military engagement… That kind of argument could fuel suspicion about America’s real intentions in Afghanistan.”
The Trump administration is still young, meaning there is still room for Afghan security policy to change and grow. However, the motivations behind those policies seem to be firmly written in stone. Unlike the previous two administrations, the Trump administration will not need to question what role mineral deposits will play in the war in Afghanistan. Rather, what they must grapple with is deciding at what cost.
Historical scholars will ponder the actions of the Trump administration. An unprecedented presidency makes for a wealth of analysis, just as Obama’s presidency did, and Bush’s did before him. The policy changes to the War in Afghanistan will undoubtedly be an important element of that discussion.
Writing for the New York Times just days after the public was alerted to Afghanistan’s mineral deposits, Donald McNeil offered a sobering reminder: “The great empires of the world were built thanks to gold mines, not atop them.” A reminder Donald Trump would reiterate seven years later when he made clear, “We are not nation-building again.”