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At stake in US military efforts to stabilize Afghanistan: At least $3 trillion in natural resources

  • The U.S. has spent upwards of $700 billion on Afghanistan's war, and the Trump administration is hoping to recoup some of that via its vast mineral wealth.
  • An Afghan spokesperson told CNBC that Trump's attention to the country could be a 'strategic win-win' for both.
  • A recent study pegged natural resources in the country as worth at least $3 trillion, but the Taliban remains a key hurdle to any development efforts.
President Donald Trump greets members of the US military alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) following a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, July 20, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump greets members of the US military alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) following a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, July 20, 2017.

As President Donald Trump recently declared the U.S. is "getting very close" to a strategy aimed at turning the tide of Afghanistan's prolonged and bloody conflict, there's more at stake than just military victory.

The Trump administration is under increasing pressure to sway the course of the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and left at least 20,000 wounded. "We must face facts; we are losing in Afghanistan, and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide," Sen. John McCain said this month, after announcing he would introduce a new Afghan strategy.

Since 2001, the U.S. has spent an estimated $714 billion in war and reconstruction in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) July report. That comes to about $3.9 billion a month to run the Afghan war.

Trump is seeking a military win in Afghanistan, but American efforts there may yet reap financial gains. Afghanistan possesses rare minerals crucial for industrial manufacturing, including copper, gold, uranium and fossil fuels — making the country ripe for development that can boost the economy and fund its reconstruction. In a partial survey conducted by the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, the country's mineral wealth is estimated at $3 trillion, more than enough to compensate for the war's cost.

The U.S. president has previously expressed interest in Afghanistan's vast mineral deposits as a tool for stabilizing the country. The White House is considering sending an envoy to Afghanistan to explore mining possibilities, the opening salvo in what is likely to be a long-term effort to harness the country's natural resources.

"Since the Afghanistan mission is predominantly seen from a military point-of-view in the U.S., I am assuming that it was meant to draw attention to other opportunities and facts that offer strategic and win-win prospects," Afghan government spokesperson Javid Faisal told CNBC in an email.

View of a gold mine in Nor Aaba, Takhar province, Afghanistan.
Omar Sobhani | Reuters
View of a gold mine in Nor Aaba, Takhar province, Afghanistan.

Batteries and natural gas

Stephen Feinberg, the billionaire financier who owns the military contractor DynCorp International, is informally advising Trump on Afghanistan, according to a report in The New York Times, which said the company may potentially play a role in safeguarding American mining operations.

"We have no expectation of supporting commercial mining programs, but continue to work at the direction of the U.S. government," a DynCorp representative told CNBC. DynCorp has operated in Afghanistan since 2003, providing aviation, logistics, training, intelligence and operational solutions where needed.

Yet while Trump is looking at the possibility of the U.S. cashing in on the poor war-torn country, others have already started. Northern Afghanistan is rich with natural gas reserves and has attracted Russia's attention for decades.

During the Soviet invasion, Russia laid the framework to control Afghanistan's natural gas but abandoned the effort after the Taliban seized control of the country.

Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani spoke with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier about lithium deposits in Helmand province, which could be put to work by European companies. The element is a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries used in smartphones and electric cars, and for its part Germany is eyeing Afghan lithium for its automobile industry.

Elsewhere, China has taken the lead in exploring its neighboring country's natural resources. In February, CNBC reported that China's Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) is planning to extract $100 billion worth of copper from Afghanistan. Back in 2007, the company leased land near Kabul for $3 billion.

At one point, the Taliban had given the project a green light. However, the project has been delayed because archaeologists discovered a 5,000-year-old Buddhist city in the exact location that holds the world's second-largest copper deposit.

Brent Huffman | Saving Mes Aynak.

In the award-winning documentary film "Saving Mes Aynak" director Brent Huffman shows how China's copper ambitions, along with the corruption in the Afghan government, are threatening to erase the priceless cultural heritage and history of Afghanistan.

"American investment could potentially be worse," Huffman told CNBC recently.

He added that money from the sale of the mining rights could "solely benefit a very small number of corrupt officials," a legitimate fear given Afghanistan's checkered history with what the Brookings Institution recently called "predatory crime and corruption."

In response, government spokesperson Faisal told CNBC that the country "will do everything possible to fight corruption, be transparent, accountable and stay within the bounds of laws governing mining." He added that China's Mes Aynak project is now on hold.

The stalled Chinese mining project partly reflects a volatile security situation that has persisted since the invasion nearly 16 years ago. According to the United Nations, civilian deaths are at a record high since the conflict began, while the U.S. has suffered new military casualties. Meanwhile, the Taliban has been gaining ground and there is also a growing ISIS presence in Afghanistan amid a rash of suicide bombings and beheadings.

The Taliban connection

Despite the Taliban's well-known depredations, the insurgency group is not officially recognized as a terrorist group by the United States, and nearly 50 percent of Afghanistan is under Taliban control, according to SIGAR estimates.

In fact, in 2004, the 9/11 Commission concluded that some State Department diplomats were willing to "give the Taliban a chance" because it might be able to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Part of that stems from the insurgent group's awareness of Afghanistan's natural resources and their savvy in leveraging that bounty. At one point in 1997, a Taliban delegation came to Sugarland, Texas, and met with Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL) executives to discuss oil and gas pipelines in a deal worth a reported $2 billion. The deal fell through because the Taliban wanted official U.S. recognition of their regime.

However, the Trump administration may find the Taliban less than willing to be a partner in stabilizing the country. The group has urged U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan, and asked Trump not to "hand over the Afghan issue to warmongering generals" as the president weighs a new strategy.

On Tuesday, the Taliban wrote in an open letter that Trump must "understand the realities as a responsible president of the United States, and then make decisions based upon them."