A Trillion Dollars

Yesterday the New York Times reported a stunner which was that the United States has discovered 1 Trillion dollars in untapped mineral wealth in Afghanistan. That news would seem to be a potential game changer and I went out this afternoon to downtown Jalalabad to conduct a couple man on the street interviews with local Afghans. What a shocker – not one guy I asked had any idea about the story which took up some much of the press cycle yesterday.  Not one guy I asked had any idea what the number “trillion” represents.  Yet all understood that there is mineral wealth in the country.  What they don’t understand is how so much wealth could directly benefit them and their fellow citizens.  The concept that a Saudi style money spigot could be turned on and spent on a nation wide program of modernization which would benefit them without their having to pay a penny is impossible for your average Afghan to contemplate.

As expected the Danger Room blog brought some perspective to the story.  Katie Drummond added this post to the debate which jived with what Afghans told me today and that is the potential for mineral development is well known. What is not well known is what it takes to convert mineral potential into wealth.  Educating the Afghan  public about the requirement for all fighting to stop so that the infrastructure can be developed to not only mine but refine these minerals could be a game changer if done correctly. Imagine if every shura in every part of the country with ISAF stressed a sense of urgency about stopping all armed opposition so that the country can get the international investors in so they can start developing the resources which should make every man, woman and child in Afghanistan richer than a Saudi national.  I wonder how much pressure from below that would generate?

This is the land title storage room of the Nangarhar Provincial Agriculture Department. Some of these papers date back a hundred years and fall apart if you touch them. They are not cateloged or organized
This is the land title storage room of the Nangarhar Provincial Agriculture Department. Some of these papers date back a hundred years and fall apart if you touch them. They are not cataloged or organized

Generating popular opinion from below to pressure the various factions from on high who could pocket vast fortunes from Afghanistan’s mineral wealth may be one of the most important things we could do for the people of Afghanistan. It seems that we are getting  asses kicked by the Taliban (actually we are kicking our own asses) despite winning every firefight and there is little doubt that our feckless President will start pulling out next summer.  How fast the military can do that and what will we consider an acceptable end-state remain the Trillion Dollar Question.  The only man who can answer it is our Commander in Chief but he seems has absolutely no clue about anything is general and the art of leadership specifically.   The military/State Department will have to muddle through for lord knows how long and it will not be long before a majority of our fellow Americans ask just what the hell is the point of being there for so long while accomplishing so little at such great cost.

Back to the Trillion dollars – how do you think this mineral wealth is going to play out for the average Afghan citizen?  That may well depend on us and the rest of the international community who remain engaged with Afghanistan.  The worst case example is happening right now with the recent announcement that Afghanistan would “delay” the award of iron ore and natural gas contracts in an effort to stamp out corruption.  This “delay” sounds suspiciously like the last major award to two Chinese firms for the largest known copper deposits in the world.  Firms from American, Canada and Europe were all finalists in that bid until there was a “delay” and the Chinese came out of nowhere to win the bid.  Here is the money quote from the WSJ article liked above:

“Mining could be a major economic contributor. But the Mines Ministry has long been considered among Afghanistan’s most corrupt government departments, and Western officials have repeatedly expressed reservations about the Afghan government awarding concessions for the country’s major mineral deposits, fearful that corrupt officials would hand contracts to bidders who pay the biggest bribes — not who are best suited to actually do the work.”

The Afghans working in this office have to reputation for scrupulos honesty which is no doubt required if they want to avoid being collateral damage in a land dispute - but you see what they are working with - digitizing these form into a searchable data base should be a priority nation wide
The Afghans working in this office have to reputation for scrupulous honesty which is no doubt required if they want to avoid being collateral damage in a land dispute – but you see what they are working with – digitizing these form into a search-able data base should be a priority nation wide

Land disputes generate more killings around Nangarhar Province than Taliban attacks do.  That’s because families who are fighting over land go at it toe to toe where you can’t miss with an AK rifle.  Ten, twelve, fifteen people killed in one of these fights is rather routine.  What if these people thought the land they owned had the potential to earn them riches beyond their wildest dreams?  What if every-time any international talked to any group of Afghans The Message came out over and over and over – that message being “you have to stop the fighting and support development or your leaders will sell the future of your country away to the Chinese for pocket change and you’ll leave nothing for your children but death, disease, and a denuded country where no sane person would want to live.

These titles have the potential to verify land claims which would make families rich beyond their wildest dreams. How important do you think it is that we rapidly preserve these important documents in a tamper proof format to prevent the disinfranchisment of ordinary Afghans?
These titles have the potential to verify land claims which would make families rich beyond their wildest dreams. How important do you think it is that we rapidly preserve these important documents in a tamper proof format to prevent the disenfranchisement of ordinary Afghans?

Land disputes are a problem because  the central government is not perceived as being honest in its dealings with ownership claims.  There are many places in the country where people are squatting on land which is not theirs.  The default position of the government seems to be that if  you cannot prove ownership the land belongs to the Government.  When the government moves to exert eminent domain over land it claims the results are always bloody.

The township of Amanullah Khan in Rodat district where the squatters are being burned out. The ANP has moved down in there in reposnse to sniping from the hills to the right
The township of Amanullah Khan in Rodat district where the squatters are being burned out in an effort to clear the land so it can be sold by the Provincial government. The ANP has moved down in there in response to sniping from the hills to the left.
A member of the Provincial Counsil and ANP escort work the crowd to try and prevent rioting. As this picture was taken heavy firing broke out in the valley below
A member of the Provincial Counsil and ANP escort work the crowd to try and prevent rioting. As this picture was taken heavy firing broke out in the valley below
The crowd turned hostile as the shooting started and the local pol and his escort beat a hasty retreat
The crowd turned hostile as the shooting started and the local pol and his escort beat a hasty retreat so the crowd started firing on us
The ANP established a road block on the main Jalalabad - Torkham border road about 100 meters west of the rioting
The ANP established a road block on the main Jalalabad – Torkham border road about 100 meters west of the rioting
Rioting here can get out of hand quickly
Rioting here can get out of hand quickly – there is now a lot of gunfire coming from the crowd and a fair bit of it had been directed our way until we quit the hillside and got in our car to head home.
Locals massing behind the police lines tell us their take on what is going on.
Locals massing behind the police lines tell us their take on what is going on.  They are furious at what they perceive as the powerful taking advantage of their positions to rob them of their lands and livelihoods.  

When I talked with average Afghans about this supposed 1 Trillion dollars of mineral wealth I rapidly discovered that not one them could imagine how all that money could possibly benefit them. The thought that they had rights to minerals in land they owned or that the government would negotiate for tons of cash which would be dispersed  to Afghans just like Saudis do with their oil wealth is beyond their comprehension.

This is an opportunity for us to attack a problem asymmetrically.  Our problem is that we do not have a viable partner in Afghanistan, we do not have a competent Commander in Chief, we do not have  military leadership which has the temperament or confidence required to unleash the superior problem solving and fighting skills of the junior leaders on the ground and we do not have anything remotely resembling professional or competent diplomats. What we do have is a compelling story line which would resonate with the Afghan people if it were messaged correctly. That story line is simple – if you do not force an end to the fighting, if you do not force accountability in your leaders, if you do not stand up for your rights and human dignity then a Trillion Dollars, which should belong to you  is going to flow directly into the banks of Dubai and the coffers of the Peoples Republic of China.

25 Replies to “A Trillion Dollars”

  1. Why is everybody getting so excited about this? A trillion dollars worth of minerals isn’t really all that much.

    One trillion dollars worth? Lets say you build infrastructure, mine, refine, export at … 20% monetary return on geological resources. (My experience is limited to precious metal refineries, I’m not sure how the numbers lie for lithium but this is my best guess). anyway: That’s 50 billion dollars of “money” made. (mineral != money !!!)

    Let’s say that 50% of that actually makes it back to the people (and that’s while listening to “imagine” by that former beatles guy), 25 billion for 28 million afghanis, hell, let’s call it $1M dollars per head over a time period of … 50 years. That evens out at $20 000 a year … below the American poverty line and not quite enough to turn “dark ages with cellphones” into “affluent desert oasis” I imagine.

  2. Thank you Tim. This post absolutely hit it on the nail for me, and I was inspired. The people will support what they help to create. Better yet, they will support it if they know they will get something out of it. Owning their land, and having someone outside of the Afghan government verify that, would give the people some ammunition in their fight against a corrupt government or even criminal enterprise. It would give them the ability to say ‘this is my land’, and that is a powerful concept.

    A program that could be implemented is to do exactly what we did with the Iraqi Survey Group. Dedicate a warehouse to collecting, interpreting, and scanning every land title in Afghanistan. Then insure every land owner and family who is entitled to that land, sees the results. It is an investment that we could do, that would have a lasting impression on Afghanistan, and impact governance and business well after we leave.

    It will do another thing as well. It will force the Afghan government to recognize these titles, because now there would be a third party to sign off on the stuff. This Afghan Survey Group should also have the same attention as elections from the international community–complete with monitors and whatever. Hell, put a UN monitor into the thing, or send Jimmy Carter to watch over it. Do whatever it takes to digitize and legitimize those land claims. The point is, this little act of verifying who owns what in Afghanistan, might actually get those owners and Afghans enthused about their country again. Especially if they knew that their land had value in the form of mineral rights. It is also important to farmers or grazing rights, and I am sure Afghans battle over that stuff all of the time.

    It also does another thing. Mining companies coming into Afghanistan could be rest assured by who the real owners of the land are. A third party verification system could help minimize disputes and get families on the path of ending feuds that should have been settled years ago.

    As it stands now, it sounds like it is still just a free for all because no one wants to officially verify who owns what. The government benefits from this because they can just go in and take it. They like the chaos of it, because they can take advantage.

    The final point is hope. It sounds corny, but to a nation ravaged by war, hope is something that can certainly help lift the spirits and keep everyone focused on a singular goal. The more we can give people the chance of sharing in that mineral wealth, and do that through action and not just words, the better. And there are not that many opportunities to do something like that, from an outsiders point of view, but verifying land ownership can be one of those–and with drastic results.

    Plus, verifying the people’s land titles would piss off Karzai and company, and force them to acknowledge the existence of such a thing. People with land titles can then have negotiating powers with the government, and government would actually have to deal with those individuals, as opposed to imposing imminent domain. I say anything we can do to empower the people of Afghanistan to keep their leaders in check, the better. Good post and lots of food for thought Tim.

  3. From the land of walls…here is a country that has survived for centuries: Why and how has this happened? What energies have continued within its culture to create this reality?

    Titles to land that rot in rooms over decades rot with many knowing such: Why?

    After 8 plus years, America has now come to that point where the “perfect storm” approaches. How do we intend to meet our “mission statements” if this happens?

    So, our soldiers save the country, only to have it overtaken by those who have always been part of the “shadow power structures” we refused to recognize, nor deal with in a direct and fatal manner.

    Drugs you say? Who cares what the cash crop is today, or tomorrow (minerals, perhaps?); these people have their power centers and the players are in fact playing…for keep, unlike the Americans and friends of America.

    We lost the chance when we blew through this country years ago…

    Think Obama-Mao is stupid? Sure, but he has played his game his way and it seems to me most are rolling over while he marches on. We might get pissed enough to vote his totalitarian, malignant narcissistic ass out of office in a couple of years, but the damages he and his pals will have done may take decades to correct.

    Know your enemies…inside and out if you seek to arrive at a point of victory. Obama-Mao is an enemy till he shows me he’s not!

  4. Zar, zan or zamin are at the root of all crime in Pashtunistan. Americans have just as much chance of successfully interjecting themselves into the distribution and re-distribution of zamin as they do of match-making dutiful zan for all good men.

    We have distributed a hell of a lot of zar, though.

  5. tell us all how things are right on the verge of turning around. Tell us that the old liberal dream of transforming impoverished nations into a likeness of our own image. Tell us how much the life of an average Afghani has improved after we have spent 20 grand on him over the last 9 years

  6. As my name may imply, I’m knowledgeable on this subject.
    All I am going to say is “GOOD LUCK”.

    If they are looking for guys give me a shout!

  7. Here’s one for you: It is now being reported in America that there are 17 Afghan men, in the Afghan military, Afghan officers, who came to America to learn how to fly airplanes, combat aircraft, 17 natives who have somehow “disappeared” from the American military base into parts unknown, yet with id’s that could get them onto our military bases and perhaps into secured areas.

    Would it be fair to assume these 17 missing soldiers of mother country Afghan were considered valid candidates by their peers and those American leaders responsible to be pilots, worthy of American training, all expenses paid, etc.?

    Why would the “cream of the crop” go AWOL in America? What of their love for their native lands? They’re desire to rid the country back home of “bad guys” by fighting for peace, freedom, and justice for all?

    This story is not ended yet; its truths not exposed. However, when was the last time you recall hearing of such a thing?

    Rotting surveys of property lines, sitting in a room abandoned, decaying daily…while the male “best of the best” desert their posts in America.

    They do grow the best opium and hashish, no?

    Maybe they are naturally afraid of heights? High mountains…to tough to tame, or fly over I suspect!

    What price victory? Who cares, you say?

  8. Afghans bugging out in the west is normal and quite logical. Many Americans whose families came here from Europe have relatives for whom avoiding conscription was part of America’s charm. Who in their right mind would want to live in Afghanistan when the US was the other option?

    I’d look in Colorado. There is a significant Afghan population based on former translators growing there.

  9. Canonner No. 4, jJust a guess at a translation for the unenlightened (myself included):

    zar = cash
    zan = women
    zamin = land

    Yes? Makes sense, to me at least.

    Tim, as usual I’m very interested to hear your take on things. When I first heard about this I thought it could be a total game changer and act as leverage to keep us in the fight. It seems like that’s too optimistic, and that we’ll probably let Afghanistan go back to the warlords or the Taliban and leave the PRC to strip it clean of anything that can fill their coffers. It’d be a damn shame if that happens.

  10. This mineral story is pure propaganda. The ‘wealth” has been known about for decades. The story is designed to give a ray of hope to those wondering how the Afghans are going to pay for security forces costing six-ten times a GNP based on NATO spending and drugs.

    Mines are not a way to end the war. A peace settlement must come first to reduce the security forces needed and then after a non-corrupt government is in place the mineral wealth can be exploited. If not any extra wealth found will just be destroyed or looted and exacerbate the conflict. See Congo for what happens in rentier states with mineral wealth.

  11. LOL just seen on msn.Japan gets priority in afghan mining.will they have sent aid and money.

  12. the chinese part was intresting
    how big is team china in afghanistan? will they buy it all?

    gem mining supported Ahmad Shah fight during the Soviet stay in Afghanistan. is the mining still on? scale?

    my uneducated opinion is that if the Soviet Union failed with the western cenralized (Kabul goverment) approach then why should others succeed? Send Karzai back to US, disband the Kabul hive, go for provinces, appoint Sir Tim governor-general, spend more on contractor teams Team Canada style, back them up with russian choppers… LOTS of choppers )
    yeah, as they say in motherland – science-fiction book store is on the second floor )

  13. I’ve been one of your silent lurkers for quite a long time and I owe you a kind word of appreciation for the this wonderfully informative place you’ve created. You’ve been a great source in my effort to follow the war and local/political Afghan happenings where my cousins have been serving, on and off, in a military capacity.

    Casey Research is calling this “new find” a piece of agi-prop, discounting the claims from the Pentagon as completely bogus. Merely another effort to bolster rapidly failing public support for this war.

    Here’s the report, their credentials are embedded in the piece, take it for what you will. I’m disinclined to believe anything coming out of D.C. anymore and find the Casey Group’s opinion highly credible.


  14. Zar is gold but close enough. Nailed the land and women. ; )

    $1 trillion is great. It isn’t going to sustain a country forever. But it sure beats $1 trillion in poppy. This will create some legitimate cash, attract international investors, etc. There is a lot of potential. Sadly, I am going to put money on all the zar being squandered away by means of corruption — I’ll liken this to the poor lotto winners who end up in more trouble from a drastic influx of cash than they did without it.

    Anyway, teshakur Tim for all the insight.

  15. Going back to the post by Michael Hawkins….

    I gotta agree with Tim on this. Note: I thought I was the only person in the world who still used the word “feckless”, and I got it from John Wayne. (Wil Andersen in The Cowboys)

    You are assuming this find to be a zero sum game. Granted, by your numbers each Afghan would likely “only” realize a $20K profit per year from the exploitation of the minerals in their land. But the profits from mining and refining this stuff would be a godsend for a country which, in its best year has 80% unemployment and whose citizens on average make less than $200 per annum. How would you like to increase your income by 100 times what you currently earn?

    In addition, the spending by all those now more affluent folks could jump start a private sector economy which would benefit not just the Afghans, but the region. And the minerals in question are not the only resources Afghanistan has to offer. Afghanistan was, before the Russians, a net exporter of agricultural goods (not just opium) and could be again. Also, I know for a fact that there is some gorgeous stone in Farah Province just waiting for some entrepreneur with a few extra bucks and a vision to start quarrying and selling the stuff worldwide. With increases in mining, agriculture, construction and other businesses, jump started by expoiting the minerals identified in this and other articles, Afghanistan could ween itself from the international tit and truly be independent. The Afghans could afford to build all the infrastructure which we (the rest of the world) now grudingly provide in limited quantities. Like roads, schools, hospitals, libraries, dams and electric generation plants (hydro and other), and *ahem* maybe even their own version of Disney World. And all of that would cost us (US taxpayers) NOTHING. The effect of that initial $1 trillion over 50 years (your figure) could make life a whole lot better for all of us. After all, happy folks seldom blow themselves up in public squares or fly airplanes into skyscrapers. Rich ones do, of course. But who said that rich folks are necessarily happy.

  16. Let us assume for a moment that our military leaders do have a winning formula presently being employed. Further, let us assume they will be successful in these adventures, albeit later than hoped for, but with our government’s backing and support while implementing their grand strategies.

    Whoopie! Next up will be the stories that we need to give more time for the Afghan infrastructure to evolve into an energy force that is both active and dependable, thus requiring our guys and those remaining NATO personnel to remain on active duty, doing active things to support, protect and mirror all those efforts that the natives will be expected to perform while we re-arrange the “metrics” employed to measure every effort by all who are in theatre.

    See that light at the end of the tunnel?

    On second thought, how about while we patiently wait for the natives to catch up to reality, other world events come into play which drive not only our attention away from this part of the world, but also our cares for what may or may not happen? What’s a “superpower” to do?

    With a flotilla of 11 American ships coming into the Persian gulf, will Israel really come to depend on Obama-Mao’s word to protect their country? Will Russia want to invade any neighbors who used to be part of the old Soviet Union? Think China will play an economic game or two with their eye on Taiwan? Can Mexico build enough coffins for those being murdered in the drug war as we work on securing our borders?

    How about those dead birds and other sea life in our Gulf of Mexico? See the unemployed workers who used to make a fair and decent living standing in line waiting to get benefits from BP or it’s pal the US government? Will the west coast teamsters join more groups in protesting Israel’s ships that come to our ports and not be unloaded?

    Will Obama-Mao miss a golf game on the weekend for work at the White House? Remember, if it’s Wednesday, it’s party time at the White House!

    No…mineral, ore deposits, etc. don’t matter much to those living in Afghanistan: Allah is where the action is, has been, and will be for some time to come.

    Have we forgotten one of the golden rule’s of war: When you’ve got your enemy down on the ground you always kick him! You keep him down on the ground until surrender…or death!

    Read your Plutarch!

  17. Looks like the good General McChrystal won’t be going out on patrol any time soon, seeing as how he had to insert a boot into his mouth! Bottom line: Military leaders at the tip of the “political smear” must learn quickly how to pirouette or suffer being dropped.

    Office bet: Guess the day McChrystal is canned. (Suggestion: after the November elections).

    Obama-Mao is the greatest CIC this country ever produced, except for Gen. George Washington and err… where’s my meds?

  18. Gus, why You keep calling him Obama Mao? As by my understanding Mao was a straightforward action type of guy.

  19. Leonid: The Cult of the Individual is often used to describe Mao and his type of communism. Reverence for Mao, the dear leader…thus Obama-Mao.

    Of course, Obama does not have the real balls that Mao had, nor the thrill for active–in your face, man to man revolution. He’s too pretty and a true metrosexual at best.
    He intends to fight with words; sets up others die for him, as many malignant narcissists seem to behave. Mao would have rolled this clown long ago, though, or I rather expect converted him into a “useful idiot” of the first making (which one could argue he in fact is)!

  20. Thanx RJ, got the cult part. So Obama is a sort of an american Gorbachev. As Gorbachev for russians in time of crisis was just all about pretty words and nothing else. Gorbachev was a lawyer too. Makes one think that lawyers should be banned from politics forever.

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