Is Afghanistan really the next El Dorado?

Color me skeptical. The past few weeks have seen a spate of news suggesting that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan isn’t going well at all. For starters, the assault on Marjah last spring failed to achieve any decisive strategic goals. The much-heralded summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and downgraded, and U.S. officials have ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Color me skeptical. The past few weeks have seen a spate of news suggesting that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan isn't going well at all. For starters, the assault on Marjah last spring failed to achieve any decisive strategic goals. The much-heralded summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and downgraded, and U.S. officials have been steadily lowering expectations. We learnt over the weekend that U.S. intelligence is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption, which means we are getting sucked back into "nation-building" instead of focusing our assets on destroying al Qaeda (which is what President Obama said he'd do when he (foolishly) decided to increase the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. The Taliban managed to bomb Afghan President Hamid Karzai's semi-bogus "peace jirga," and Karzai himself is said to be losing faith in our ability to prevail and hoping to cut a deal with the Taliban.

So today -- surprise, surprise -- comes news that Afghanistan isn't a poor country whose primary strategic asset is its ability to grow opium poppies. Nope, turns out Afghanistan is just brimming with iron ore, lithium, cobalt, copper, and other strategic minerals. This report -- which comes from "a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists" may well be completely correct, but isn't the timing of the release a mite suspicious? This looks to me like an attempt to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn't going well.  

As Jack Snyder noted in his book Myths of Empire, the "El Dorado" myth is a common justification for imperial expansion. Great powers often convince themselves they have to control some far-flung area because it is supposedly rich with gold, diamonds, oil, etc., and that physical control is essentially to preserving access to them. In most cases, however, the cost of trying to control these areas isn't worth the resources they contain, and it usually isn't necessary anyway. Gulf Oil used to pump oil from Marxist Angola, and those pesky Iranians would be happy to sell us oil and gas and give us fat development contracts for their petroleum industry if only we were willing to do business with them. 

Color me skeptical. The past few weeks have seen a spate of news suggesting that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan isn’t going well at all. For starters, the assault on Marjah last spring failed to achieve any decisive strategic goals. The much-heralded summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and downgraded, and U.S. officials have been steadily lowering expectations. We learnt over the weekend that U.S. intelligence is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption, which means we are getting sucked back into "nation-building" instead of focusing our assets on destroying al Qaeda (which is what President Obama said he’d do when he (foolishly) decided to increase the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. The Taliban managed to bomb Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s semi-bogus "peace jirga," and Karzai himself is said to be losing faith in our ability to prevail and hoping to cut a deal with the Taliban.

So today — surprise, surprise — comes news that Afghanistan isn’t a poor country whose primary strategic asset is its ability to grow opium poppies. Nope, turns out Afghanistan is just brimming with iron ore, lithium, cobalt, copper, and other strategic minerals. This report — which comes from "a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists" may well be completely correct, but isn’t the timing of the release a mite suspicious? This looks to me like an attempt to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn’t going well.  

As Jack Snyder noted in his book Myths of Empire, the "El Dorado" myth is a common justification for imperial expansion. Great powers often convince themselves they have to control some far-flung area because it is supposedly rich with gold, diamonds, oil, etc., and that physical control is essentially to preserving access to them. In most cases, however, the cost of trying to control these areas isn’t worth the resources they contain, and it usually isn’t necessary anyway. Gulf Oil used to pump oil from Marxist Angola, and those pesky Iranians would be happy to sell us oil and gas and give us fat development contracts for their petroleum industry if only we were willing to do business with them. 

We don’t need to control Afghanistan in order to gain access to whatever minerals do exist, because whoever is in charge is going to have to sell them to someone and won’t be able to prevent them from being sold to us (even if indirectly) if we want to buy (that’s how markets work). And if we want to make sure that U.S. companies have the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to mine these resources some day, it might be a good idea if we didn’t spend the next decade blundering around and angering the local population.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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