Opinion |

Fool's Gold: Donald Does Afghanistan

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Mining in Afghanistan: An American helicopter flies near a gold mine site in Nor Aaba, Takhar Province. Detractors of plans to exploit the mineral wealth point to the absence of infrastructure and warring clans. November 26, 2010
Mining in Afghanistan: An American helicopter flies near a gold mine site in Nor Aaba, Takhar Province. Detractors of plans to exploit the mineral wealth point to the absence of infrastructure.Credit: Omar Sobhani, Reuters

One ridiculous campaign promise Donald Trump never made, was “We’re going to fight a war in Afghanistan, and they’re going to pay for it.”

But even after seven months in the job as leader the free world – during which he belatedly discovered that Mexico won’t pay for a wall on the border with America – the dumb ideas keep coming fast and furious. It’s as if he never won the election and is still making property deals, or is on the campaign trail making empty promises to people who don’t know better.

Afghanistan has apparently never been one of Trump’s favorite subjects, but to the extent he spoke about it at all, it was to say that the U.S. should bring home the last of its troops. The 16 years that Americans fought and died there was a waste of lives, money and time.

Last week, however, Trump was convinced by his advisers to stay the course in Afghanistan. What that means is a little unclear.

Apart from giving up on the idea of “nation building” and sticking to killing terrorists, there’s little meat to the plan. We can assume that the emphasis on hard power, versus mushy stuff like building democratic institutions or digging wells, was designed to make the idea more palatable to the hard-nosed president.

But the real way to Trump's heart was to put Afghanistan in business terms. In short, if American troops stay on, U.S. companies could get mining rights to Afghanistan’s mostly unexploited mineral deposits. The profits would help to defray the $700 billion the U.S. has spent over the years battling the Taliban and developing the country.

A bad deal

To some, that sounds like a crude plunder of another country’s natural resources, the kind of war that went out of fashion after the 19th century.  

But apart from a fleeting attachment to Confederate statues, Trump doesn’t think in big historical terms. On the other hand, he does see himself as a wheeler dealer. Indeed that is how he seems to view the office of president -- a dealmaker who happens to sit in the Oval Office instead of the corner suite in Trump Tower.

Trump leaving the dais after addressing the nation on Afghanistan

As Trump has made clear over and over again, he doesn’t see America as fighting wars, maintaining alliances, or signing trade agreements because it is the preeminent world power responsible for keeping order in the world and defending democratic and liberal values. As he has stated repeatedly, America should come first. If has to dispatch troops to help some other country, there should be something in it for the taxpayers.

So, for Trump, America’s presence in Iraq was a bad deal because the U.S. got nothing back in return. As he told CIA employees last January, Trump said the U.S. had erred in withdrawing troops without holding on to its oil. “The old expression ‘To the victor belong the spoils,’” Mr. Trump declared. “You remember?”

In Afghanistan, Trump the businessman seems to have his eye on the country’s deposits of gold, silver and platinum, iron ore, uranium, zinc, tantalum, bauxite, coal, natural gas and copper. Some even say Afghanistan could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” the raw material used in phone and electric car batteries. A U.S. Geological Survey conducted in 2010 estimated all of this stuff was worth $1 trillion. Erik Prince, the billionaire who founded Blackwater and is loudly urging America to privatize the Afghan war, to him, evidently agrees with these gauzy assessments.

The New York Times says Trump's aides used the lure of this treasury trove to entice a reluctant president into committing more military resources to Afghanistan. Even the government in Kabul was marketing the idea. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, who had long opposed the idea of developing the mining industry for fear the money would disappear in a sinkhole of corruption, changed his mind when Trump took office and has reportedly boasted to him in about the money to be made. Kabul is now talking about $3 trillion worth of minerals.

Do you mind if we dig here

That’s where the dealmaker-in-chief should be scratching his orange head and asking himself why those Afghans would suddenly be effectively volunteering to pay for a war by turning over the country’s resources to American companies when the U.S. government has been fighting for free all these years.

The answer is that they’re selling him a pig in a poke.

The infrastructure in Afghanistan does not lend itself to developing the nation's mineral wealth: A miner walking to the job at an emerald mine, Panjshir Valley.Credit: Ahmad Masood, Reuters

The minerals may be there, but try getting them out of the ground and then out of the country when you’ve got Taliban fighters shooting at you and there is scarcely a paved road or a railway, much less a seaport. Afghanistan’s most promising lithium deposits are in areas largely under the control of the Taliban.

In any case, commodities prices have fallen since 2010. Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is worth a lot less than the U.S. Geological Survey estimates and nothing like the Afghanistan fantasy figure. In fact, the cost of extracting them may wind up being higher than the value of the minerals themselves on the market.

Trump has many flaws as a president and a person, but his legendary deal-making powers were supposed to be his big asset.  As his checkered real estate career testifies, he oversold his abilities, but even if he hadn’t, presidents aren’t deal makers and wars like the one in Afghanistan aren’t business.