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What's Behind the Convenient Timing of the Afghanistan Mineral Story?

Why publicize information that's been public for months? Might it have something to do with the fact that Afghanistan is the longest war in U.S. history?

WASHINGTON, Jun 14, 2010 (IPS) - The timing of the publication of a major New York Times story on the vast untapped mineral wealth that lies beneath Afghanistan's soil is raising major questions about the intent of the Pentagon, which released the information.

Given the increasingly negative news that has come out of Afghanistan - and of U.S. strategy there - some analysts believe the front-page article is designed to reverse growing public sentiment that the war is not worth the cost.

"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 publicising or re-publicising valid (but already public) information about the region's potential wealth?" wrote Marc AmBinder, the political editor of 'The Atlantic' magazine, on his blog.

"The way in which the story was presented - with on-the- record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM [Gen. David Petraeus], no less - and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense [Paul Brinkley] suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war," he added.

The nearly 1,500-word article, based almost entirely on Pentagon sources and featured as the lead story in Monday's 'Early Bird', a compilation of major national security stories that the Pentagon distributes each morning, asserted that Afghanistan may have close to one trillion dollars in untapped mineral deposits. These include "huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and critical industrial metals like lithium", the story said.

Afghanistan's total annual gross domestic product (GDP) last year came to about 13 billion dollars.

One "internal Pentagon memo" provided to the Times' author, James Risen predicted that Afghanistan could become "the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium,' a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberrys".

"There is stunning potential here," Petraeus told Risen in an interview Saturday. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant," he said of the conclusions of a study by a "small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists".

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose recent efforts to begin a reconciliation process with the insurgent Taliban have been criticised by the Pentagon, quickly seized on the report.

In a hastily arranged press briefing Monday, Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the report was "the best news we have had over many years in Afghanistan".

Other commentators, however, suggested the news about Afghanistan's underground wealth was not all that new.

As noted by Blake Hounshell, managing editor at 'Foreign Policy' magazine, the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) already published a comprehensive inventory of Afghanistan's non-oil mineral resources on the internet in 2007, as did the British Geological Survey. Much of their work was based on explorations and surveys undertaken by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980's.

The nearly trillion-dollar figure is based on a simple tabulation of the previous estimates for each mineral according to its current market price, according to Hounshell.

So, the question for many observers was why the article, which dominated much of the foreign news in the network and cable broadcast media during Monday's news cycle, was published now.

Risen himself suggested an answer in his story, noting "American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan."

Indeed, U.S. and NATO casualties have risen sharply in recent weeks; a four-month-old counterinsurgency offensive to "clear, hold, and build" in the strategic region around Marja in Pashtun-dominated Helmand province appears to have stalled badly; and a planned campaign in and around the critical city of Kandahar has been delayed for at least two months.