Trump’s New Afghanistan Strategy: Keep the Minerals!

Winning hearts and mines. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Donald Trump spent most of his campaign sounding like the adult son of George Wallace and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. But every once in a while, he’d sound like Noam Chomsky.

“We have done a tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East — we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity,” Trump said at a Republican primary debate. “The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away — and for what?”

These and other pronouncements led some (foolish bloggers) to wonder if Trump might revive the American right’s long-dormant tradition of isolationism — and, thus, keep the U.S. out of another misbegotten war.

There were many flaws in this hypothesis. Chief among them was that it ignored the true source of Trump’s incredulity when he asked “for what?” — in truth, the mogul wasn’t reviving the right’s isolationist streak, so much as its colonial mercantilist one.

In recent days, the president has struggled to justify his military advisers’ request to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. After investing 16 years’ worth of blood and treasure into fighting the Taliban (and empowering brutal Afghan warlords) — with precious little to show for it beyond fields of dead soldiers and civilians — Trump has had trouble signing off on yet another “surge.”

But then, he learned about the minerals. As the New York Times reports:

In 2010, American officials estimated that Afghanistan had untapped mineral deposits worth nearly $1 trillion, an estimate that was widely disputed at the time and has certainly fallen since, given the eroding price of commodities. But the $1 trillion figure is circulating again inside the White House, according to officials, who said it had caught the attention of Mr. Trump.

… Officials said Mr. Trump was determined not to spend American lives and treasure in Afghanistan only to watch China lock up its rare-earth deposits, which are used to make products from wind turbines to computer chips.

This commander-in-chief will not send America’s sons and daughters to die in a foreign land unless our nation’s core security interests — or one of his billionaire friends’ financial interests — are at stake:

Stephen A. Feinberg, a billionaire financier who is informally advising Mr. Trump on Afghanistan, is also looking into ways to exploit the country’s minerals, according to a person who has briefed him. Mr. Feinberg owns a large military contracting firm, DynCorp International, which could play a role in guarding mines — a major concern, given that some of Afghanistan’s richest deposits are in areas controlled by the Taliban.

To be fair to Trump, he isn’t wholly out on a limb here. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations both explored the possibility that developing Afghanistan’s mining industry could prove a win-win for American corporations and the local people: American technology would allow the nation to capitalize on its mineral wealth, while its mineral wealth would allow U.S. companies to capitalize (even more) on the invasion. Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, is reportedly keen on this concept.

But past U.S. administrations never conceived of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth as the primary reason to prolong our involvement in the country. And were Trump to pursue this objective today, he would likely need to send U.S. troops into high-risk combat situations with the Taliban in Helmand Province. Beyond the direct threat to American lives such a gambit would create, there’s also the danger of feeding the Taliban top-notch propaganda. It’s hard to win hearts and minds, when you’re also trying to win minerals and mines.

Trump’s New Afghanistan Strategy: Keep the Minerals!