Rare-Earths; Reason For Our Long Stay in Afghanistan

This Second Anglo-Afghan War campaign medal from 1878-80 was awarded to a sapper, Yahooda Suckojee, of the Bombay Sappers and Miners. Queen Victoria’s image graces the front, and troops marching with an elephant carrying a gun is on the flip side. Sappers are combat engineers responsible for duties such as building bridges, clearing or planting minefields, the construction and repair of road and airstrips. Oh, and explosives, lots and lots of explosives. Credit: Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890) was a medalist and sculptor; Leonard Charles Wyon (1826-1891) was a engraver of coins; and Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) was artist and illustrator. All three Brits contributed to the design of the campaign medal, which sits in the Collection of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira.

What are rare-earths? I’m no scientist, but they’re on the periodic table as lanthanides, which are broken out into 17 similar heavy metals with a lustrous silver or white appearance. In addition, yttrium and scandium are included as rare-earths because they’re frequently found in ore deposits with lanthanides, but they differ in electronic and magnetic characteristics. Guess what they’re used in? Cell phones, laptops, drones, satellites, wind turbines, electronic cars, lithium batteries, hypersonic weapons. Add in some precious metals, and guess which country is sitting on about $3 trillion worth of these natural resources? I’ll wait. A reason for our nation-building effort?

It should be common knowledge. Scientific American reported on it in September of 2011. Did I mention the emeralds and other precious stones being illegally mined? Russia conducted a geodetic survey when they were in country, and we picked up the plans and ran with them. What else happened in 2011? A lot of things—Occupy Wall Street, Fukushima, Arab Spring, Burmese parliament meeting for the first time in 20 years, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed, US-South Korea trade deal, Russia accepted into the World Trade Organization, after 9 years US troops leave Iraq, Gabrielle Giffords shot. Oh, and a SEAL mentions, out loud, that he killed Osama Bin Laden. Whether he killed him or delivered the coup de grace doesn’t really matter. The mastermind behind the 911 attacks was dead, avenging the horrific loss of 2,977 American lives lost on 911. That would be the cue for the US to pull up tent pegs in Afghanistan. Or was it? $3 Trillion? Wait? When did we know about these rare-earths?

Anyone read “The Way of the Reaper” by U.S. Army Ranger sniper SGT Nicholas Irving? The subtitle of his second book is “My Greatest Untold Missions and the Art of Being a Sniper.” One of those missions was highly odd, but I didn’t think much of its possible significance at the time. Irving isn’t one for ear protection. It annoyed him, and who can blame him. Fortunately, one fateful night, although they were expecting contact and supposed to be wearing ear protection, Irv was not. They were walking, spread out, in the pitch black of an Afghanistan night with the spotter at the back. Irv heard a very faint splash. Something told him to go back and look for his spotter, lucky for his buddy, he listened to his gut. The telling was a mix of incredulity and weirdness from a soldier’s perspective. The Ranger had fallen into “a kind of vertical subterranean tunnel that plunged him a hundred or so feet beneath the surface and required him to be rescued by the Combat Search and Rescue team.”

Irv’s job was to keep the man talking. He was injured and immersed in water; it became increasingly clear that hypothermia could be affecting his cognitive abilities and spirit. The first rescue team could not retrieve him because their equipment didn’t extend deep enough. Another outfit returned and extracted the soldier without the equipment falling in the hole. The spotter broke his leg and left the service. (I read this in the paper version of the book. When I went back to find the passages on the Kindle edition, I couldn’t find it. That is not the first time, electronic copy has been changed.)

In the 19th Century, the Lion and the Bear, England and Russia, were suspicious of the other’s empire-building intentions. England feared Russia overtaking India via Afghanistan, and Russia eventually did advance to the Afghanistan border. The British fears were not unfounded, but any plans the Russians had for further advancement never materialized. The first Anglo-Afghan War ran from 1839 to 1842 and was intended to settle a regime change dispute within Afghanistan. It ultimately resulted in the annihilation of Major General William George Keith Elphinstone’s Army. Among the units present were Bombay and Bengal sappers and miners. I’ll go out on a limb and say they could have stumbled across something way back then, but that is not known. The Second Anglo-Afghan War from 1878 to 1880 was a decisive British Raj victory, avenging the horrors of the first go-round and establishing Anglo control of the region. The Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 was an invasion of India from the British perspective and an uprising from the Afghanistan perspective. Afghanistan won its diplomatic independence, and Britain won and established Indian border and assurances of no further hostilities.

Afghanistan enjoyed a time of relative peace and advancement—in the population centers at least—from the 1930s through the 1970s, including securing more freedoms for women. Then, as always happens, the communists seized power and everything went to hell. That pissed off the conservative rural Afghanis. The Soviet-Afghan War ran from 1979 to 1989. What could the USSR do on the eve of its collapse with its men getting slaughtered by CIA-weaponry in the hands of the mujahideen? Payback for Vietnam’s a bitch! (Yay, CIA—for once!) Plus, it’s not like they could linger and take up mining. These metals, oxides, elements, were/are spread out in two wide bands, not concentrated in central locations. There’s no point mining if there’s no way to transport the rare-earths. A railroad system through the treacherous,  scree-covered Hindu Kush Mountains seemed as daunting then as it does today. Plus, civilization was just outside the electronic and digital explosion, that innocent age when we needed quarters at the phone booths, not minute pieces of metals for the manufacturing of a digital arsenal. The Russians went home and their veterans believe they fought to advance the plight of the international worker.

Afghanistan’s history is far more complex than I’ve boiled it down to here. An excellent two-part You Tube video entitled “Afghanistan: The Great Game,” Part I and Part II, by Rory Stewart is worth watching, but. he doesn’t mention the country’s natural resources. Stewart, who is British, was a candidate for Leader of the Conservative Party in 2019. His father was a senior Secret Intelligence Service official, and he himself is a member and served from 2013 to 2014 as chairman of the European side of Le Cercle, which is the Atlantic-centric, conservative, increasingly Christian, and spy version of Bildeberg. That such a thing exists, should it actually exist, is almost enough to give one hope.

So, what gives? I have no clue, except to say that China has or had access to its own rare-earths—then its internal market for consumer good expanded astronomically. It’s now in a situation in which it needs to increase production to meet both its domestic market and exports. The US is not comfortable with China making parts for our weapons systems. So, Afghanistan… What if nation-building was not the end but the means? Where is the president of Afghanistan with his helicopter and four cars filled with money? First reports said Tajikistan. Now its Uzbekistan, a former US ally that now is cozying up to Russia and China. What exactly were we doing from 2011 to 2021? Can we make our own electronics now? Was bin Laden the hook for public acceptance? Tell me it’s all a conspiracy theory, and that we didn’t sacrifice 3,000 civilian souls, and then $700 billion plus 2,372 military lives so we could have the means to produce devices that addict and enslave us? I pray Le Cercle has a 100-year plan.

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4 thoughts on “Rare-Earths; Reason For Our Long Stay in Afghanistan”

  1. At the least, it solidifies my belief that the nations leaders (any nation!) Donna think much beyond the present. No second and third order effects. No understanding of compound variables. No rational long term ideas for interacting with other nations, cultures or situations.

    The best leaders we ever had were those brilliant minds who researched history and studied governments, and then crafted our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

  2. This topic (rare earths) came up several times over the years on the hill-seem to recall having the same conversation in 2003-2004, 2007-2008 and again maybe 2011-2012 about the potential-but each time it somewhat trailed off as there was no dedicated effort to pursue them and it was in the hardest corner of the hard job jar where there was just no willingness-organization-plan to explore, build-out and extract them (in a country where the poppy trade was “king.”)

    You might be able to find some evidence of the discussion in congressional records from over the years but we had only a handful of strategic resource experts and the main focus was other places-Africa, South America, etc…and looking at things like cobalt, lithium and energy related resources (and precious metals.)

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