Donald Trump loves a good deal. And sitting in Afghanistan, much of it in Taliban-controlled regions, there’s a doozy: deposits of rare-earth minerals once estimated to be worth $1 trillion. So the president is considering keeping troops in the country so that they can blaze the way to the country’s untapped natural resources and give America a big fat payday. This might be a good deal, but it’s not a good idea.
The New York Times reports that Trump has been meeting with multiple people, including President Ashraf Ghani, about how to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral deposits. Others advising Trump include billionaire Stephen A. Feinberg, whose army of mercenaries, DynCorp International, could guard the mines and possibly avoid sending in more American Troops, an idea Trump does not like. Following Steve Bannon’s recommendation, Blackwater founder Erik D. Prince is also involved in the conversation now.
If this plan sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The Times offers this helpful background on the doomed quest to mine Afghanistan:
The lure of Afghanistan as a war-torn Klondike is well established: In 2006, the George W. Bush administration conducted aerial surveys of the country to map its mineral resources. Under President Barack Obama, the Pentagon set up a task force to try to build a mining industry in Afghanistan — a challenge that was stymied by rampant corruption, as well as security problems and the lack of roads, bridges or railroads.
None of these hurdles has been removed in the last eight years, according to former officials, and some have worsened.
Also, don’t forget, the Helmand Province is where most of the undiscovered rare-earth elements are believed to be located. The Helmand Province is also largely still under Taliban control. So it’s not just like there’s a big steamy pile of money sitting inside of a quiet hillside. The effort to extract Afghanistan’s natural resources would almost surely be a bloody one.
It would, however, be lucrative. As China currently controls the vast majority of the planet’s rare-earth minerals, everyone else is looking high and low for new deposits, since we need these hard-to-find resources to build electronics like smartphones, self-driving cars, and wind turbines. There’s even been a decades-long effort to pull rare-earth minerals from the ocean floor, a boondoggle with a cast of characters that includes the CIA. Some believe that we can avoid a catastrophic shortage by extracting the rare-earth minerals out of used electronics. No matter how we get them, we do need the minerals that Afghanistan might have—the ones we may or may not have to destroy the Taliban to get.
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, also has good reason to persuade Trump into leaving American troops in his country. Since Trump took office in January, Ghani and his government have been talking up the economic promise of Afghanistan’s mineral resources, especially lithium, a comparatively rare earth element that’s used in cellphone and laptop batteries. There’s a lot of money to be made in Afghanistan’s supposed lithium stores, so much so that the Pentagon said that Afghanistan could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” in a 2010 memo.
This is the point in the story where everybody likes to remember what Trump said when he spoke at the CIA, just after his inauguration. You know the one. When he said that the US should have “kept the oil” after invading Iraq. “To the victor go the spoils,” Trump said. Among the moral quandaries of a principle like this, the president doesn’t seem to understand that this adage might not work in Afghanistan, because it hasn’t worked for nearly a decade. As the Times reports, the conditions that prevented the Bush and Obama administrations from getting to the mineral deposits are actually worse than they were a few years ago.
But Donald Trump loves a good deal. Historically, greed has led the man to leave a path of destruction behind him on his pursuit of profit and glory. That sort of habit makes some people rich in the business world, at the expense of making others poor. When you’re talking about global politics and terrorism, however, people die, and nations fail.