WASHINGTON - The timing of the publication of a major New York Times story on the vast untapped mineral wealth that lies beneath Afghanistan's soil is raising major questions about the intent of the Pentagon, which released the information.
Given the increasingly negative news that has come out of Afghanistan - and of U.S. strategy there - some analysts believe the front-page article is designed to reverse growing public sentiment that the war is not worth the cost.
"What better way to remind people about the country's potential bright future - and by people I mean the Chinese, the Russians, the Pakistanis, and the Americans - than by publicizing or re-publicizing valid (but already public) information about the region's potential wealth?" wrote Marc AmBinder, the political editor of 'The Atlantic' magazine, on his blog.
"The way in which the story was presented - with on-the- record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM [Gen. David Petraeus], no less - and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense [Paul Brinkley] suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war," he added.
The nearly 1,500-word article, based almost entirely on Pentagon sources and featured as the lead story in Monday's 'Early Bird', a compilation of major national security stories that the Pentagon distributes each morning, asserted that Afghanistan may have close to one trillion dollars in untapped mineral deposits. These include "huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold, and critical industrial metals like lithium", the story said.
Afghanistan's total annual gross domestic product (GDP) last year came to about 13 billion dollars.
One "internal Pentagon memo" provided to the Times' author, James Risen predicted that Afghanistan could become "the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium,' a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberrys".
"There is stunning potential here," Petraeus told Risen in an interview Saturday. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant," he said of the conclusions of a study by a "small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists".
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose recent efforts to begin a reconciliation process with the insurgent Taliban have been criticized by the Pentagon, quickly seized on the report.
In a hastily arranged press briefing Monday, Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the report was "the best news we have had over many years in Afghanistan".
Other commentators, however, suggested the news about Afghanistan's underground wealth was not all that new.
As noted by Blake Hounshell, managing editor at 'Foreign Policy' magazine, the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) already published a comprehensive inventory of Afghanistan's non-oil mineral resources on the internet in 2007, as did the British Geological Survey. Much of their work was based on explorations and surveys undertaken by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980's.
The nearly trillion-dollar figure is based on a simple tabulation of the previous estimates for each mineral according to its current market price, according to Hounshell.
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So, the question for many observers was why the article, which dominated much of the foreign news in the network and cable broadcast media during Monday's news cycle, was published now.
Risen himself suggested an answer in his story, noting "American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan."
Indeed, U.S. and NATO casualties have risen sharply in recent weeks; a four-month-old counterinsurgency offensive to "clear, hold, and build" in the strategic region around Marja in Pashtun-dominated Helmand province appears to have stalled badly; and a planned campaign in and around the critical city of Kandahar has been delayed for at least two months.
The latest polling shows a noticeable erosion of support for Washington's commitment to the war compared to eight months ago, when President Barack Obama agreed to the Pentagon's recommendations to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bring the total U.S. military presence there to around 100,000 later this summer.
Moreover, what little support for the war remains among the publics of Washington's NATO allies - never as high as in the U.S. in any event - is also fading quickly. NATO and non-NATO countries, excluding the U.S., currently have about 34,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan.
On the eve of a NATO ministerial conference in Brussels last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that Washington and its NATO allies had very little time to convince their publics that their strategy against the Taliban was working - a message that has since been strongly echoed the coalition's commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and by Petraeus himself.
Indeed, the administration is committed to a major review of its strategy in Afghanistan at the end of the year, and Obama himself has pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011.
Obama is already coming under pressure from right-wing and neo-conservative media - some of which have been cultivated by Petraeus, in particular - and Republican lawmakers to delay that date.
That view was seconded last week by former Petraeus aide, Lt. Col. John Nagl (ret.), a counterinsurgency specialist who is now president of the influential Center for a New American Security.
Nagl worked closely with Petraeus in authoring the much- lauded 2006 U.S. Counter-Insurgency Field Manual, which stressed the importance of efforts to influence media perceptions in any counterinsurgency campaign.
"The media directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counter-insurgents, their operations, and the opposing insurgency," they wrote. "This situation creates a war of perceptions between insurgents and counter-insurgents conducted continuously using the news media."
In that respect, the appearance of the Times story Monday looked to many observers like part of an effort to strengthen the case for giving the counterinsurgency effort more time.
In an interview with Politico's Laura Rozen Monday, former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani said he had commissioned the assessment of Afghanistan's mineral wealth. "As to why it came out today... I cannot explain," he said.