You have, in one news cycle, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai—now deeply disliked and discredited in the US, although, previously, installed in his job by the US—saying as how he doesn’t believe
US forces can help his government win against the Taliban. Hence, he’s making common cause with the enemy and, accordingly, hanging the US out to dry. Only defeat itself could be a worse theater of operations scenario: the government that we’re defending, and the army that we’re counting on to take up the cause, are going over to the other side.
Then in the next news cycle: The US government points out that, largely unbeknownst to the Afghan government, Afghanistan has mineral deposits—a trillion dollars of deposits
—that could transform it from one of the poorest nations in the world into quite a rich one. The Pentagon reports that Afghanistan could, apparently, become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
Now, let’s deconstruct: Karzai’s game is obviously changed. Where before he was a two-bit drug-lord middleman, the US some months ago informs him he’s potentially one of the richest men in the world. So, likely, it’s not just that he now sees the US as a loser, but, rather, he’s looking to the Taliban to be a counter-bidder. Who’s going to offer him the biggest slice of the pie?
What the Obama White House is saying, in its turn, is that, where before there was no discernable reason for us being in Afghanistan, now there is a clear reason to be fighting there. Afghanistan, like the Middle East, suddenly has geo-economic relevance to our lives—and geo-political relevance if somebody else, for instance, the Chinese, steps in and corners the lithium trade.
So here’s the situation we’re setting up: We’re fighting a war with a wholly untrustworthy, indeed, renegade ally who, even when the stakes were low, was one of the most corrupt men in one of the most corrupt parts of the world—and now the stakes are immeasurable higher. Plus, we’re really stuck there. The odd Obama determination to win—or not lose—in Afghanistan now becomes an epochal and imperial war for rare resources (ahhh…lithium).
This is, of course, absurd and, at best, exaggerated: visions of wealth that require—at least!—a few generations of technological and economic development to unearth. And also novelistic: a crafty local despot wise in the ways of the double cross, an idealistic and determined—and inexperienced—American president, plus gold at the end of a very long rainbow, and, as of last count, 100,000 American troops.
Who is fooling whom? And who would you bet on?
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.