Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Lest We Forget Lithium - or why we will never leave Afghanistan

I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.
~George McGovern, US Democrat Presidential candidate, 1972

Today, Remembrance Day, we commemorate the dead of the wars since 1914 - the hundred and twenty million souls, military and civilian, lost in conflict on the most massive scale in human history. And this year as for the last nine, we have to remember the dead of wars Britain is currently engaged in support of its American ally. Iraq may be over, but in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the Afghan war continues unabated as it has ever since the US-led invasion of October 2001.

"Old men make wars, and
young men fight them."
Barely four weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers, with the participation of Britain and Australia, American forces invaded Afghanistan and joined with the Northern Alliance rebels. In a lightning campaign, they overthrew the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban government which had hosted the al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his closest acolytes. Elections were held and the pro-western Hamid Karzai was duly installed as President. It was proclaimed that this war-torn country, at odds with first the Soviets and then with itself for over twenty years, would finally have some peace and time to repair its shattered lands.

The war was originally justified as necessary retribution for 9/11 and the incredible speed of the invasion reflected American anxieties that their high level of international support in the wake of the Twin Towers atrocity might evaporate in the event of any delay. Unlike the Iraq war, where oil was to be seen as a determining factor in the desire to invade, Afghanistan had no apparent cornucopia of raw material wealth to make an invasion a profitable option. Rather, this was a war to protect the world from terrorism, to extend democracy and, in a unique burst of right-wing altruism, to improve the position of women in a society where it had been a serious crime for a woman to emerge from the home in anything other than an all-encompassing burka.

Now, nearly a decade on, what is Afghanistan's position?

Taking to the hills in late 2001, the Taliban licked its wounds and then resumed the conflict. As the Karzai regime became more and more corrupt, blatantly stealing the Presidential election of 2009 with the approval of the Americans and British, the fundamentalists support grew again. In the conflict, over 1,200 American, 342 British and nearly 500 Canadians, French, Germans and other allied soldiers have died as well as thousands of Afghan soldiers. Largely uncounted, so too have thousands of ordinary Afghan and Pakistani civilians  perished, often caught in the crossfire or the victims of indiscriminate bombing attacks by US "drones" - robot planes piloted from the safety of a computer screen back in the United States, firing at targets on relayed satellite picture screens. The toll of dead civilians, and children especially, has been dreadful, turning more and more Afghans against the occupying forces and the government in Kabul.

As for the Americans, British and their allies, billions of dollars and pounds have been poured into a conflict in a land that has swallowed whole armies since the days of Alexander the Great. Remote and mountainous, with bitter winters and scorching summers, squaddies from Huddersfield and Glasgow and marines from Iowa have trudged across a landscape often almost as alien and inhospitable as the surface of Mars on ceaseless patrols. There, they have died under assault from snipers, guerrillas and the dreadful IED - "improvised explosive devices" - set at roadsides to destroy even well-armoured vehicles. Yet just this week, a senior British commander has warned the recent noises of optimism are misplaced and the war is as intractable as ever.

342 British soldiers have died.
So why do we continue? There is much talk of an eventual exit strategy, of handing over to the Afghan army, but  beyond vague hopes for certain conditions being met by 2014, there is no timetable. Nor will there be.

American and Britain will never leave Afghanistan unless they do so in defeat. As victory is even more unlikely, what it means is that the war will go on, but it will not continue in order to secure human rights and democracy. Rather it will continue in order to secure lithium.

Lithium is a rare white metal, the seventh (out of 32) most scarce of the chemical elements. Suitably processed, it has a wide range of applications in western society, including in medicine, but its most valuable potential is its use in electrical batteries. It is over 30% more efficient than lead acid and double as effective as zinc carbon. Currently used in the likes of laptop batteries, it will be a key resource in the years ahead as, with the world now passing peak oil production, electrical power in transport especially becomes more and more important. Electrically powered vehicles will become exponentially more practical over the next few years and the world's billion vehicles will begin a rapid transition towards battery power. Lithium will become increasingly valuable .

By an allegedly amazing coincidence, Afghanistan has suddenly been declared to be awash with valuable minerals, including huge lithium deposits - $1 trillion worth at current prices. In June the Pentagon identified Afghanistan as the "Saudi Arabia" of lithium, rivalling Bolivia as the world's largest reserve. The only problem is that much of it lies in Ghazni province, which remains largely in Taliban hands. It is perhaps more than coincidence then that, concurrent with the report, the Karzai government stepped up its contacts with the rebel movement to seek an armistice and peace talks - so far with little success.

So Afghanistan is as much an Energy War as Iraq ever was - simply about a different form of fuel. The long term strategic interests of the West come into sharp focus when George Bush's warning that the War against Terror will last for 40 or 50years. In this context, the long, slow retreat by the USA from Saudi and redeployment to Kabul takes on a very different and sinister hue to the noble war for freedom portrayed so resolutely and repeatedly by the Presidents and Premiers.

Britain invaded Afghanistan twice
in the 19th century
As we remember those who have fallen, we may also contemplate those who are yet to be cut down in their prime - the 18 and 19 year olds, fresh from school, put up against a land that held back Britain's forces a century ago and  broke the Soviet army (and arguably the entire Soviet Bloc) during the 1980s. Now, without an unforeseeable major change of policy, our forces are set to stay in one guise or role or another, dying indefinitely on the distant Bactrian battlegrounds while politicians and corporations sate their thirst for new sources of energy and money.

Caught in the midst as ever too are the Afghan people, some fighters, but most innocent, desperate victims who eke out a pitiful living at the best of times. In a just world, lithium could offer them the lifeline to a more prosperous and peaceful existence than they dare dream of for now. But just as British soldiers are set to continue to be betrayed, their bravery and bodies tossed nonchalantly by hand wringing double dealers into the cauldron of conflict, so the prospect of the Afghans' natural resources being used to the benefit of their own land seems somehow very distant still.

As the drones circle, ready to spit their latest molten arrows of death into the helpless, nameless people scattering on the ground below, we do well to recall the words of the British Opposition Leader, William Ewart Gladstone, when he railed against the second British invasion of Afghanistan in 1878:

“Remember the rights of the (Afghan)…Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God, as can be your own.”


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