Great resources,
Wealth galore;
Guess there’ll be
Another war.

As if war, tyranny, drugs, corruption, disease and misogyny weren’t misfortune enough for Afghanistan, now the Pentagon reports that it also suffers that worst affliction of all–mineral resources. “What did we do to deserve this?” cry the Afghans. “Now they’ll never go home!”

You betcha. Why else, countless observers point out, would the Pentagon be announcing the “discovery” of vast deposits of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, and lithium. This isn’t exactly hot news. The first press release to this effect came from Marco Polo. It was followed up in more detail by the Soviet Union during its own unhappy occupation, and now the Chinese already have a deal going for a copper mine.

The preponderance of Washington (and world) opinion is that this timing is meant to stanch the flow of our NATO allies scrambling for the exits. Not to mention the similar nosedive of American public opinion.

If Western folks can just be persuaded that they can siphon off some of these riches for themselves, they may be more willing to stay and prosecute the occupation. And if nothing else, surely no one wants between $1 and $3 trillion worth of wealth falling into the hands of the Taliban, or worse, al-Qaeda.

You’ll note that nowhere in all the excitement so far has anyone suggested how the exploitation of these minerals might in some small way benefit the local population. Such an outcome would require strong government regulation, potent labor unions, effective environmental controls, and an honest administration. Good luck. We don’t even have those in the United States.

More typically, extracting mineral wealth in poor countries dislocates poor farmers, exploits workers, draws shameless mining companies, pollutes the water, ruins landscapes, corrupts officials, and triggers foreign intervention. Some locals do get jobs, but often even this work goes to imported rootless workers. Local residents would be expected rather to continue growing heroin to maintain their own survival. Most profits would go to foreign investors and plenty of the local share would find its way to banks in Singapore, Hong Kong, Zurich, and Wall Street.

All of which could make you suspect why the Pentagon is suddenly so involved in geology. You don’t suppose it’s interested in extending the occupation or expanding riches for multinational corporations? Well no, we can probably write those suspicions off. We’re not into conspiracy theories.

In any event, whoever exploits Afghanistan’s resources is facing a long wait for cash flow. Mines have a serious need for roads, heavy equipment, electricity, railroads, water, and living amenities. All of these remain in short supply over there. Not to mention security, of which there is basically none without calling on NATO, warlords, or the Taliban. If the U.S. stays on, it will be our military doing the dirty work; if we leave, it will be the warlords or the insurgents doing it, heavily subsidized by the mining corporations.

The future for your average Afghan, consequently, is bleak. There’s only corruption and devastation on the horizon, of which Afghanistan has already suffered enough.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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