Monday, June 14, 2010

Putting time on the Washington clock (UPDATED)

Today's New York Times brings us the not-so-new revelation that Afghanistan contains bountiful untapped mineral resources. You've no doubt seen this story by now, but I'm going to go ahead and excerpt at length just the same:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists.

The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.

While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Others have already reflected on the fact that this news doesn't exactly qualify as an unvarnished good: for one, it takes a lot of money and time to extract these resources, perhaps more money than you'd get from the sale of them. And on top of that, it's not like resource-rich and politically-poor countries have a really good track record with stability and nonviolence.

But the Pollyanna-ish suggestion that speculative, hypothetical mineral wealth will (/could) solve all of Afghanistan's problems isn't really what bothers me about all of this. What's most annoying is that this is exactly the sort of story we should've predicted back in the winter, not long after the President made the silly but politically essential decision to sell his "Afghan surge" decision to a reluctant majority by promising a totally unrealistic departure deadline.

Mark Ambinder and Blake Hounshell each speak to this point (to a greater and lesser degree, respectively): Hounshell says he's "skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle," while Ambinder writes that "[t]he way in which the story was presented... suggest[s] a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war." I'm inclined to agree with this latter characterization.

There's not a single serious person who thought that the July 2011 deadline to begin bringing troops home from Afghanistan was anything but a political determination; the administration can make noises about how it was essential to convince the Afghan government that it could not rely on American benificence forever and must take the lead in providing security for its own country, but no one buys it. (Check out the video from this panel at last week's CNAS Conference: from Barno to Crocker to Pillar to Tellis to Fontaine, not a single one of the speakers thinks that the deadline is realistic or operationally useful.)

And so the timing of all of this seems, as Ambinder wrote, to "engender some fairly acute skepticism." After all, Amb. Ryan Crocker's entire presentation at CNAS revolved around the assumption, the prerequisite, that for the next president to begin his term facing anything but certain disaster in Afghanistan, this administration will have to find a way to "finesse that July 2011 deadline." While progress in Afghan governance and security is obviously important to anyone's definition of "success" in that campaign, the one absolutely essential front in this war is the domestic political one. As Crocker said, the president needs to find a way to put more time on the DC clock, because the Afghanistan one ain't speeding up.

Which, when it comes right down to it, is some serious bullshit.

We all knew this war wouldn't be won in 18 months, even back in December. We all knew that to begin withdrawing troops at that point would imperil the entire effort, whatever we think about the necessity of the war or our broader chances of success. We all knew the president was bullshitting us then because Generals Petraeus and McChrystal convinced him that they could get enough done to change the optics of the war in that 18-month period, just like a gambler looking for one more bet on credit, certain he can't lose this cash that he doesn't have.

So now we're finessing that deadline, putting time on that DC clock, pushing stories that make another two or three or eight or 15 years in Afghanistan seem like steps towards the pot of lithium gold rather than a tragic extension of what has become a senseless waste of lives and money.

Almost makes you embarrassed for your government, if only for being so ham-handed.

EDIT: I should also note at least one small technical mistake in Ambinder's post that makes him sound a little more conspiracist than I feel comfortable with. Here's the entire sentence that I reproduced above in ellipsesed form:
The way in which the story was presented -- the on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less -- and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggests a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war.
First of all, there's only one Commander in Chief, and it's the president. GEN Petraeus is the commander of CENTCOM, or alternatively, the commanding general. But that's not really the thing I wanted to draw attention to.

The second half of that bit -- "weird promotion" -- refers to a place in the article where Paul Brinkley is quoted. He's correctly identified in the article as a deputy undersecretary of defense, though it's sort of confusing, because they call him the "DUSD for Business," which doesn't really exist. Brinkley IS a deputy undersecretary of defense, though, and is the director of the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Ambinder seems to be under the impression that Brinkley is a deputy assistant secretary of defense, which is a lower-tier role in the bureaucracy, and that the article is promoting him to sort of increase his gravitas or something. But no, there's no shady journalistic promotion going on here.

UPDATE: Let me just tell you, I am shocked, SHOCKED!, to learn that there are people in the U.S. government who think that the July 2011 timeline is unrealistic.

Six months after President Obama decided to send more forces to Afghanistan, the halting progress in the war has crystallized longstanding tensions within the government over the viability of his plan to turn around the country and begin pulling out by July 2011.

Within the administration, the troubles in clearing out the Taliban from a second-tier region and the elusive loyalties of the Afghan president have prompted anxious discussions about whether the policy can work on the timetable the president has set. Even before the recent setbacks, the military was highly skeptical of setting a date to start withdrawing, but Mr. Obama insisted on it as a way to bring to conclusion a war now in its ninth year.

For now, the White House has decided to wait until a review, already scheduled for December, to assess whether the target date can still work. But officials are emphasizing that the July 2011 withdrawal start will be based on conditions in the country, and that the president has yet to decide how quickly troops will be pulled out.

Even if some troops do begin coming home then, the officials said that it may be a small number at first. Given that he has tripled the overall force since taking office, Mr. Obama could still end his term with more forces in Afghanistan than when he began it.

Don't worry, though -- they've been saying "contingent on conditions on the ground" all along!

UPDATE 2: And just for shits, here's the DoD press conference transcript with DUSD Brinkley and one of the fellas from the U.S. Geological Survey, in which they basically admit that there's no new data here.

11 comments:

  1. "Almost makes you embarrassed for your government, if only for being so ham-handed."

    I'm embarrassed for Italy tying Paraguay 1-1.

    SNLII

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  2. not a single one of the speakers thinks that the deadline is realistic or operationally useful.

    Didn't Pillar indicate that there should at least be some appearance of adherence to the withdrawal of troops alongside that deadline, in his opening remarks? I think you're right, but as I recall Pillar stood out from the rest in suggesting that it should at least be acknowledged, if not fully employed.

    Either way, the lithium story is clearly meant to counter the largely negative stories on Afghanistan from the previous newsweek, and it's clumsy and blatant in its attempt.

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  3. Didn't Pillar indicate that there should at least be some appearance of adherence to the withdrawal of troops alongside that deadline, in his opening remarks? I think you're right, but as I recall Pillar stood out from the rest in suggesting that it should at least be acknowledged, if not fully employed.

    Karaka -- I didn't mean to suggest that every one of the speakers was on the same page overall, just that everyone basically agreed that the withdrawal timeline was nonsense. Pillar, of course, shares my opinion that sticking around even longer isn't going to help the CT mission IN AFGHANISTAN, which is the administration's justification for the whole deal.

    I probably should've just left him out so as to avoid confusion. The point I was trying to make is that there's basically not a single human being alive who thought that the withdrawal timeline was realistic from the perspective of strategic and operational success.

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  4. "We all knew that to begin withdrawing troops at that point would imperil the entire effort."

    Who's we? I must be in the minority of that group. IMO, Iraq needed a large CF footprint to settle it; A'stan has always needed a small SF footprint.

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  5. Who's we? I must be in the minority of that group. IMO, Iraq needed a large CF footprint to settle it; A'stan has always needed a small SF footprint.

    Mike -- This, again, is an example of my rushed and ineffective writing. I didn't mean to suggest that this was the only way to accomplish the mission (as I pointed out in reference to Pillar, some of us think we've done all we can from a CT perspective to this point), but rather that if you buy the rationale that a big-footprint COIN effort is essential to accomplishing the mission, you're not gonna get it done in 18 months (esp. when that means the new forces will only have arrived six months before people start leaving).

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  6. Gulliver, you totally beat me to this one...it's what happens when you're in meetings all day. Anyway, I was surprised by the whole "scoop" angle because I was at a meeting, two years ago--almost to the day--where all of this was briefed by the USGS and the Naval Research Labs (the Army Corps of Engineers was hosting). I remember the slides were fascinating. The one thing that's not in the articles, and I went back to my notes and the meeting was on the record, was that the USGS did one round of 1 meter pictures (2007) and then two rounds of 60cm pictures in 2008. Anyway, they discussed a 12M copper deposit and at least 22 billion in silver, gold etc. Those were preliminary numbers but you covered the interesting parts better than I could.

    One thing though, in some of the posts you linked to, there's a nice discussion going on about Collier and his arguments on natural resources and conflict. Any takers on that front here? I'm more of a central-west Africa analyst on the conflict-resources issues and I'm not sure how much of that applies in this context.

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  7. As a geologist .... we have to jump through hoops to describe mineral deposits as a reserve (proven or probable, with the economics having been worked out) or a resource (measured, indicated, inferred, with no assurance of economic viability). What is prohibited, is multiplying the insitu tons by the grade by the current price of the commodity, to come up with a big number. This is what DOD did.

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  8. What is prohibited, is multiplying the insitu tons by the grade by the current price of the commodity, to come up with a big number. This is what DOD did.

    Here's a clip from the press conference transcript demonstrating exactly that (along with the admission that this isn't new work):

    Q Could -- just want to make sure I understand. So the figure of nearly $1 trillion (dollars), over $900 billion (dollars), that estimate does not include lithium. And then I have another question after that.

    MR. BRINKLEY: That's correct. That estimate only includes I believe, and again I think it's $900 billion (dollars) based on math that was done in December of last year, at whatever the commodity prices were at that time -- it does not include lithium nor does it include oil and gas.

    Q And then once again if I could just ask in layman's terms, what did this follow-up survey last year uncover or clarify compared to the previous survey you did in 2007? I apologize if this sounds like you've already covered this.

    MR. BRINKLEY: Jack, I don't know if you want to talk about the -- I mean -- I'll offer some explanation. The work that is under way, the identification based on economic criteria of the top 24 potentially valuable sites in the country, the field surveys to gather samples, core samples from this information to take and do laboratory work and analyze and verify the value, that work is what has been launched since last summer. And that work is beginning to deliver the detailed results, some of which you see in the package you have today.

    That is new and different, the field work to gather that data. The survey work Jack is describing is thermal geomagnetic and spectral imaging work that was done -- and Jack, if you want to add color to that -- that dated back to 2004 to help build a database of where to look.

    In other words, the overhead survey work combined with Soviet data gave an indication as to where valuable deposits may be. But you can't ask a company or international -- or anyone to really invest in something that hasn't been sampled physically, data gathered, which that's the work now under way with the Afghan geological survey -- validation of the quality of the ore, its potential economic value.

    That's a necessary piece of work that we now have under way in partnership with USGS to take us to the next step, which would be enabling the international community to understand the economic viability of developing this resource. And so that is a -- hopefully, that distinguishes.

    Jack, do you have anything to add to that?

    MR. MEDLIN: Well, the only thing I would add is that what we're trying to do is to verify, basically, the existing data, and for the most part that's Soviet data. So that's the important thing that we're trying to do at the moment. In 2006 and 2007, we started basically gathering new data and information.

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  9. Re "...not a single person alive..."

    Well, other than Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal, who were quite clear that 18 months was going to be long enough to see positive change.

    I agree your president's lack of skepticism about his generals' advice, not exactly a first for American presidents historically, was unfortunate. But he was sold on their plan. I think that bears repeating these days.

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  10. So that explains it!

    I wondered what the big deal was. I thought it well established that there is a lot of untapped mineral wealth in Afghanistan. I didn't understand what was so different about the lithium "discovery," and now I see that it isn't any different.

    But don't worry folks! Crocker says "look out for a Kerry-Lugar II" (his recommendation?) so it will all turn out well in the end. I mean, we can't dole out the money properly as it is, we really don't know where any of it is going, we don't know the long-term effects on governance, so hey, let's do more of the same.

    Jeez, I really respect the guy, but that CNAS Panel 2 threw me for a loop (well, the two minutes that I could bear to watch.) My fellow Americans - we suck at South Asia. Rubes fiddling on the way to fiddler town.

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  11. Gulliver,

    Ok, the updated post sounds more like the Gulliver voice that I'm used to reading :).

    Just trying to keep you honest :).

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