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Will Afghanistan Become the Saudi Arabia of Lithium?

Lacking a legitimate rationale for staying in Afghanistan, Washington has finally admitted the country is vital to the future of America’s strategic mineral interests.
 
 
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It seems that Afghanistan is a never-ending font of surprises. For decades U.S. officials took the position that Afghanistan held nothing of value for the United States, especially in the form of vital strategic resources. That assumption was a major reason for America’s consistently dismissive attitude toward Afghanistan up until the Soviet invasion of 1979 and why the U.S. was content to turn the country over to Pakistan and Saudi Arabian interests following the Soviet departure. Then on June 13, 2010 the New York Times reported in a front-page story that a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists had suddenly discovered a vast treasure of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth worth nearly $1 trillion dollars.

But the story of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth isn’t a new one nor did the Pentagon just “discover” it. According to a Reuters report of March 16, 2009, over a year ago, Afghanistan’s minister of mines, Mohammed Ibrahim Adel, cited U.S. Geological Survey data in declaring that “In the field of minerals, Afghanistan is the richest country in the region, much more, hundreds of times more.”

Even the Times story admits that the survey information, on which the Pentagon assessment was based, came from data collected by Soviet mining experts nearly 30 years ago. American geologists became aware of it in 2004, but the data languished until 2009.

But the most revealing quote in the Pentagon report wasn’t so much that Afghanistan does indeed contain a vast wealth of minerals or even that the U.S. has carelessly overlooked a vast source of wealth for an impoverished nation. No. The key to understanding the report was framed by the reference that “Afghanistan could become the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium," and Saudi Arabia is where the real story behind the headlines begins.

This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been used as a model for Afghanistan’s future. One might go so far as to say today’s Afghanistan and its Taliban scourge already bear the stamp of being made in Saudi Arabia.

According to author Gerald Posner in his book, Secrets of the Kingdom, the anti-Soviet Afghan war was as much a godsend for the Saudi royal family as it was for the Afghan Islamists. “Some prominent Saudi officials, like Prince Bandar, as well as his father, defense minister Prince Sultan, saw the Soviet aggression as a chance to form a closer bond with Washington. It was a rare chance, they argued to other Saudi ministers, to replace Israel as America’s strategic partner in the Middle East. And as far as the Americans were concerned, the Saudis had suddenly become a cash cow.”

The term Taliban and the movement itself were unheard of in Afghanistan until 1994. Prior to the Soviet invasion, the Taliban mentality and the madrassa structure did not exist. As an invention of Pakistan’s military intelligence with outside help, the Taliban were not recruited from inside Afghanistan but from Pakistani madrassas. This process was funded, not by Afghans, but by the Saudis and other Arab countries that continue to seek the long-term goal of a political and religious transformation of South Asia combined with the dissolution of Afghanistan as a nation state.

The Taliban version of Deobandi Islam practiced in Pakistan and the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia were both alien to Afghan practice. Suicide bombings did not exist in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation nor even when the Taliban took control in 1996. The Afghan people never willingly embraced extremist Islam. These ideas were forced upon them under circumstances beyond their control.

From the very beginning, the United States really had no conception of what to do in Afghanistan except to follow the lead of the Saudis, with some American diplomats benignly visualizing that a Taliban victory would simply turn Afghanistan into a miniature Saudi Arabia. In his book, Taliban, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid quotes one diplomat as saying, “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.”