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Afghan War Uncertain, So Are Minerals

Tony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies produces so much excellent analysis so quickly that it sometimes gets lost in the rush. With all the starry eyed talk of Afghanistan's trillion dollar asset bank -- also known as mining deposits -- Cordesman's flinty-eyed scouring of the issue caught our eye.

Following is an edited version of his excellent piece about whether Afghanistan is worth U.S. blood and treasure, how much treasure Afghanistan may really have and what it means to them and to us:

There is nothing more tragic than watching beautiful theories being assaulted by gangs of ugly facts. It is time, however, to be far more realistic about the war in Afghanistan.  It may well still be winnable, but it is not going to be won by denying the risks, the complexity, and the time that any real hope of victory will take. It is not going to be won by “spin” or artificial news stories, and it can easily be lost by exaggerating solvable short-term problems. Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain. The US has no enduring reason to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. It has far more important strategic priorities in virtually every other part of the world, and inserting itself into Russia’s “near abroad,” China’s sphere of influence, and India’s ambitions makes no real sense. Geography, demographics, logistics, and economics all favor other nations, and no amount of academic hubris can realistically model American reform of the “Stans” in ways that are cost-effective relative to other uses of US resources. The carefully spun good news story about Afghan minerals may or may not prove to be economically realistic. It is all too typical of a long series of “breadbasket” arguments that take problem countries and argue that their natural resources can make them wealthy or that they can become major exporters of agricultural products. In practice, it will be at least half a decade before Afghanistan’s mineral resources will pay off, and the key outside investors are likely to be Chinese, Russian, and local. It is very unlikely that firms can compete without bribes and incentives as the cost of doing business, and even if US registered companies do invest, they are likely to operate as non–US entities in ways than minimize any economic benefits to the US.

The key reasons for the war remain Al Qa’ida and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism, and the fact the conflict now involves Pakistan’s future stability. One should have no illusion about today’s insurgents. The leading cadres are far more international in character, far better linked to Al Qa’ida and other international extremist groups, and much closer tied to extremists in Pakistan.  If they “join” an Afghan government while they are still winning (or feel they are winning), they are likely to become such a sanctuary and a symbol of victory that will empower similar extremists all over the world.

Experts disagree sharply about Pakistan’s instability and vulnerability in the face of a US and ISAF defeat in Afghanistan. There is no way to predict how well Pakistan can secure its border and deal with its own Islamic extremists, and Pakistan is both a nuclear state and a far more serious potential source of support to other extremist movements than Afghanistan. A hardline, Deobandi-dominated Pakistan would be a serious strategic threat to the US and its friends and allies, and would sharply increase the risk of another major Indo-Pakistani conflict.

It should be noted, however, that the US may be forced into leaving Afghanistan regardless of its intentions to stay, or face conditions that make any stable form of victory impossible. Containment from the outside may be the only choice, and having to leave Afghanistan does not mean having to abandon Pakistan. Maintaining a major civil and military aid effort to Pakistan, and keeping US capabilities to work with Pakistan in UCAV and other strikes on insurgent networks is also an option. So is working with Russia to support a rebirth of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and to pin down the Taliban and other insurgents as much as possible.

Moreover, it is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades –regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan. Moreover, the trade-offs involved do raise serious questions about whether the same – or a much lower – investment in helping key allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco would do far more to provide overall security.

The fact is, the strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and essentially too close to call. The main reason is instead tactical. We are already there. We have major capabilities in place. If we can demonstrate that the war can be won at reasonable additional cost in dollars and blood, it makes sense to persist. But, only if we can demonstrate we can win and show that the additional cost has reasonable limits. Containment and alternative uses of the same resources are very real options, and would probably be more attractive ones if we could somehow “zero base” history. The reality is, however, that nations rarely get to choose the ideal ground in making strategic decisions. They are prisoners of their past actions, and so are we. These uncertainties would be less important if it were possible to argue convincingly that the war can either clearly be won, or must be lost. No one can do this on the basis of the current evidence and indicators....

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