The Afghanistan Minerals Story: News, Or Propaganda?

Marc Ambinder gives reason to be very skeptical about the news of a massive mineral find in Afghanistan:

For one, a simple Google search identifies any number of previous stories with similar details.

The Bush Administration concluded in 2007 that Afghanistan was potentially sitting on a goldmine of mineral resources and that this fact ought to become a central point of U.S. policy in bolstering the government.

The Soviets knew this in 1985


A former senior State Department official said that regular discussions between the U.S. and the Karzai government over how to best exploit the resources for potential future use were ongoing when he was privy to those discussions around 2006.

By 2009, the government had already begun to solicit bids for various mining opportunities.

But it’s the timing of today’s story that makes Ambinder suspicious:

The way in which the story was presented — with 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 suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war. Indeed, as every reader of Jared Diamond’s popular works of geographic determinism knows well, a country rich in mineral resources will tend toward stability over time, assuming it has a strong, central, and stable government.

Risen’s story notes that the minerals discovery comes at a propitious time. He focuses on lithium, a critical component of electronics. One official tells him that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” — a comparison to oil. (I can see it now: “We must wean ourselves off our dependence on foreign lithium!”)

The general perception about the war here and overseas is that the counterinsurgency strategy has failed to prop up Hamid Karzai’s government in critical areas, and is destined to ultimately fail. This is not how the war was supposed to be going, according to the theorists and policy planners in the Pentagon’s policy shop.

What better way to remind people about the country’s potential bright future — and by people I mean the Chinese, the Russians, the Pakistanis, and the Americans — than by publicizing or re-publicizing valid (but already public) information about the region’s potential wealth?

So, is this news, or simply a strategically placed story in The New York Times at a time when the public mood on the Afghan War is continuing to sour ?

To borrow an old phrase, cui bono ? Who benefits from a story that suddenly makes Afghanistan look like a more important place than it might actually be ?

I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

UPDATE (JAMES JOYNER): I expand on this quite a bit in my New Atlanticist piece “Afghanistan Mineral Riches: Beware the Hype.”

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Asia, Middle East, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    A classic information cascade:

    triggered when a new value-network

    gets hold of it

  2. Except that this clearly seems like a story handed to the reported by “sources” who may well have ulterior motives.

    It isn’t news, it isn’t “new” in any respect.

  3. john personna says:

    We can’t prove from the outside whether the story was “placed” with ulterior motives, but we can observe that it could work either way. Someone at the Times could take sudden interest in the story, possibly because the zeitgeist was tipping that way. Then the same zeitgeist fuels the cascade.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    If it’s propaganda it’s very badly done. A sudden bonanza of mineral wealth does not make me believe we should stay in Afghanistan, quite the reverse. It makes me think Congo. Tribal pseudo-countries don’t suddenly turn into Denmark just because there’s gold in them thar hills.

    Makes me think we should probably get the hell out of the way.

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    What a good idea Michael. Let us turn the potential of unlimited weath over to the Taliban. Would you pease identify your place of residence to them so they do not target me when the have the means to do so. One thing about an announcement of the potential of mineral wealth is it is quickly verified or proven to be false. This administration would not lie, would they? Certainly the source of this information has got to be the government.

  6. Wayne says:

    Besides the claim to the contrary by many in the past, Afghanistan has been known to have large quantities of minerals resources for a long time now. Only problem is the Country has been too unstable to take advantage of them. Besides what many believe, “sometimes” being poor is a result of personal choices instead of the lack of opportunities. Sometimes not.

  7. Scott says:

    I think it’s propaganda to try and push excuses to stay. Liberals have largely sold out, and are just as pro-war was the conservative chickenhawks now.

    We’ve seen it in the past with “Oh, we have to make sure their army is ready” or “Oh, we have to make sure they get an election”. This is the same propaganda that comes out every few months saying we killed “top officials” of terrorist groups. I think we killed Al Qaeda’s #3 half a dozen times now.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:


    I don’t usually waste my time engaging you, but I’d actually love to hear your plan.

    1) Find a map of Afghanistan. Take note of the surrounding countries. Take note that it is a landlocked country.

    2) Tell me how we can control the production and shipping of minerals out of Afghanistan.

  9. Wayne says:

    Reply MR
    Just like any other landlocked country does.

    Reminder, we do truck supplies in and out of the country now.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:


    You didn’t look at the map, did you?

    Truck to where? Iran? Pakistan? One of the former Soviet ‘Stans?

    On what roads? Seriously: get on Google Earth and take a look at the system of roads.

    Who do you think owns those mountain passes and has for centuries? Are you going to exterminate the Pashtuns? Because otherwise they’ll be up there behind a rock shooting at your trucks and then, guess what? No trucks. You know how little it takes to stop a miles-long truck convoy on a one-lane road through steep mountain passes?

    If you want to move this mythical trillion dollars worth of bulk mineral wealth you need roads, ports, ships, infrastructure, insurance, investors, soldiers, cops, skilled workers. How do you even get your thousands of trucks into Afghanistan? Let alone the fuel to run them? We can’t train Afghans to function as police, let alone minimg engineers.