When Donald Trump said in late January that America should have “kept the oil” after invading Iraq—“To the victor go the spoils,” he declared—foreign governments were horrified.
But one country is now actively promoting its natural resources to win Trump’s attention for its desperate cause: Afghanistan. The government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, has pitched Trump on its vast mineral reserves in an effort to keep the new president invested in the country’s fate.
Afghanistan’s improbable investment pitch is a sign of a new Trump-era mindset, in which foreign leaders are selling their nations in more explicitly economic terms than ever before.
Afghan officials say Trump, a veteran dealmaker, appears to be listening. “This is the first administration that is focused on Afghanistan’s economic potential, and we welcome that,” said Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington.
In a Dec. 3 phone call, Trump and Ghani discussed Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, whose value a Pentagon study has estimated at up to $1 trillion. An official Afghan readout of the call said that Trump told Ghani the U.S. wants to help Afghanistan develop its “tremendous natural resources.”
Perhaps the most notable of Afghanistan’s buried treasures are its large quantities of lithium, a silvery, soft metal crucial to laptop and cell phone batteries that’s sometimes called the oil of the future. A 2010 Pentagon memo concluded that Afghanistan could one day become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
While few people associate impoverished and war-torn Afghanistan with high technology manufacturing, Kabul’s leaders believe they have a receptive audience in the White House. Trump officials, Mohib added, “are interested in minerals—specifically lithium.”
“They’re recognizing that Afghanistan has very vast potential resources,” said Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, a top advisor to Ghani.
Mohib’s government is hardly offering to let the U.S. seize its precious minerals. But as Afghan leaders fight for survival against the Taliban, they want Trump to see their country as a business opportunity—not the expensive quagmire which led him to tweet in 2013 that the U.S. should abandon Afghanistan “immediately.”
Other countries are trying out their own pitches. Japan’s prime minister has presented Trump a plan to create 700,000 new jobs through joint projects. European diplomats are touting trans-Atlantic commerce and job creation. Even Iraqi officials are promoting the value of their oil industry for U.S. investment, though they adamantly reject Trump’s “take the oil” bluster.
“All foreign leaders are thinking, what do we play up to get this president’s attention?” said one Trump administration official.
The question is particularly acute for the Afghan government, which has proven unable to defeat a fifteen-year Taliban insurgency, and, more recently, a nascent Islamic State. Without continued U.S. support, Afghanistan’s government is at severe risk of collapse.
On Wednesday, at least 30 people were killed in a Taliban attack on a military hospital in Kabul. Last month, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan told Congress he needs “a few thousand” more troops, in addition to the 8,4000 American soldiers already there, to back up Afghan security forces suffering horrendous battlefield losses.
“If I’m Ghani and I want continued U.S. engagement, and Trump has said things like, ‘We’ve got to get the hell out of that place’—how do I get his attention?” said a former senior Obama White House official.
Ghani understands that mineral wealth “can help Trump have a different narrative for engagement in Afghanistan,” he added.
A Trump national security council official said the Trump administration has begun a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. “As a dynamic results-oriented president from the business world he’s going to look at everything with a fresh set of eyes,” he added.
The official noted that the World Bank and others have called “the proper development of Afghanistan’s extractives sector” as key to the country’s self-reliance.
Though Trump has made few public comments about Afghanistan, officials there are mindful that he has scoffed at the costly American effort in their country, launched soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and which cost the U.S. ten combat deaths and $3.8 billion in military aid last year.
“We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first,” Trump tweeted in March 2013.
Since then, Trump has grudgingly acknowledged the value of a U.S. presence in the country. “I hate doing it. I hate doing it so much,” he told Fox News in April. “But, again, you have nuclear weapons in Pakistan so I would do it.”
But at other times, Trump has cited the value of Afghanistan’s soil and rock. “Afghanistan has tremendous minerals, which a lot of people don’t know,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in August 2015.
“Nobody knew this, but Afghanistan is rich with minerals,” Trump told the talk radio host Alex Jones that December. “Not oil, but minerals.”
In fact, Afghan minerals have been much discussed at least since a widely reported 2010 Pentagon memo, developed with the help of government geologists, estimated their value at up to $1 trillion. The memo revealed “stunning potential,” Gen. David Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in the country, told the New York Times.
Of particular value is lithium, whose value has soared thanks to surging demand for rechargeable batteries to power everything from iPhones to electric cars. Lithium’s unusual properties cause it to sizzle and smoke when water is poured over it, and it is light enough to float in small quantities.
Many former U.S. officials and other Afghanistan experts warn that Afghanistan’s minerals may just be a modern twist on the old myth of El Dorado, the lost South American city of gold. Afghanistan has weak governance, rampant corruption and lacks the road and rail infrastructure, never mind the security conditions, required for a thriving industrial sector.
“It’s such an unknown. That is a fool’s errand,” said a former senior Obama official who handled Afghanistan policy. Any potential mining benefits “are decades down the road,” he added.
Others warned that even the perception of a U.S. profit motive in Afghanistan could enrage the country’s population and fuel further insurgency.
“The more this is about taking their resources for us, the harder it is to argue that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is not a version of a colonial enterprise,” said Sarah Chayes, an Afghanistan expert who served as an advisor to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen.
Chayes, author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, also warned that a rush to extract minerals would breed corruption.
That risk is likely clear to Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served worked on an anti-corruption task force during Petraeus’s tenure in Afghanistan several years ago. McMaster also spoke by phone with Ghani soon after assuming his job.
Stoking Trump’s interest in Afghanistan is the specter of competition from China, which in recent years has begun major mining operations in the country—including a $3 billion copper mine opened in 2008 but plagued by security problems since then.
“We’re here fighting and China is taking out all the minerals,” Trump said in his “Meet the Press” appearance.
“We go into Afghanistan. We’re fighting—you know, tremendous mountains and ridges—we’re fighting on one side,” Trump told Alex Jones, who runs the pro-Trump website Infowars.
“And you know who’s got their excavators on the other side?” he asked. “China!”
By: Michael Crowley