June 15, 2010

Mineral Dreams in Afghanistan's Wild West

Tyler Hicks/New York Times

The New York Times made it the lead story: “U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan.” But who will get the riches? The Times danced all around that one, and the key words sound like a hot button list for those who pay attention to how imperialism is coded in public discourse. The report was filed by a Pentagon task force for business development that had recently been transferred from Iraq.  (Did you know that the Pentagon has a deputy undersecretary for defense for business?)  The research was conducted with geologists from the United States Geological Survey’s international affairs office.  (Yes, they have an international affairs office.)  The relevant Afghani law was written by advisers from the World Bank (just happened to be passing through Kabul).   Mining contracts are being drawn up by “international accounting firms,” and the technical data is about to be turned over to “multinational mining companies.”

With talent like this, we can look forward to the day when, according to the internal Pentagon memo, Afghanistan will become “‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium.'”  Coming soon, yet another obscenely wealthy beacon of authoritarianism and Islamist terrorism.

But that’s the future, and the future could turn out otherwise.  What is interesting for the moment is how the conversion of Afghanistan into a mineral extraction colony for multinational capitalism is being framed.

The photograph above is the one that the Times appended to their article. But, this is not photographer Tyler Hicks working up the mineral story, but rather an appropriation of the image to frame that story.  As such, the implications are clear: there really is nothing and almost nobody there; the pastoral herders are incapable of the capital- and technology-intensive development necessary to convert the rocks to wealth.  So, where have we heard that before?  Well, try the American West.

Andrea Bruce/Washington Post

The idea that Central Asia is a new Wild West has been present often enough in the visual coverage of America’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.  This photograph was part of a WAPO slide show on Marine efforts to secure the area around Marja and train Afghani police at “Camp Leatherneck” there. Because the image offers a frontier outpost, we can’t say there are no more frontiers.

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Robert Hariman
See other posts by Robert here.

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