Throughout the 19th century and the early part of the 20th the British and Russian empires waged a titanic struggle for control over the interior of the Eurasian continent. At stake was control over Persia, India and vast swathes of Central Asia. Dubbed the Great Game, to this day it conjures images of intrepid explorers, contests for the allegiance of native tribes and the works of the great British author, Rudyard Kipling.
The players have changed, but the struggle for control of Central Asia goes on. The British may have largely left the field, but the Russians remain. Other players, such as the Chinese have entered the game as well, and we are in many ways the heirs to the role the British Empire played in this epic contest.
Unfortunately, it appears we play the game very badly.
Several years ago, a geological survey of Afghanistan conducted by the United States Government reached a startling conclusion. That nation was sitting on $1 trillion in mineral wealth. Underneath one of the world's poorest and most primitive nations lay vast deposits of copper, iron, gold and lithium. It was potentially enough to transform Afghanistan and to make the companies who would do the mining a fortune.
Afghanistan lacks any ability to exploit these riches itself, and so it has turned to the practice of awarding foreign companies the right to mine on its soil. This is done pursuant to an auction system by which the winning companies effectively lease concessions to operate mines for fixed periods of time. To date, two major awards, one for the development of oil fields, the other for the extraction of copper deposits have been made.
Both have gone to Chinese firms.
In 2007 China signed a $3 billion deal with the Afghan Ministry of Mines and secured access to the copper deposits in the Mes Aynak region, 30 miles south of Kabul. The Chinese firm, which won the concession, was the China Metallurgical Group, a state-owned enterprise. The deposits located in Mes Aynak are estimated to be worth $88 billion.
In December 2011 China's National Petroleum Corporation, also owned by the Chinese government, became the first foreign company to tap into Afghanistan's oil and gas reserves when it was awarded the right to develop the Amu Darya Basin fields in Afghanistan. The tender covered an area of roughly 4,500 square kilometers in northern Afghanistan, with five known fields containing an estimated 87 million barrels of crude oil -- enough to supply 11,000 barrels per day for 20 years. The ultimate value of the oil contained in the fields is unknown but is likely to run well into the billions of dollars.
To date, we have had 1929 American servicemen killed in Afghanistan. Another 15,516 have been wounded. The cost of the war to the United States is now in excess of $518 billion. That this nation has paid such a staggering cost to impose some measure of security on this distant and inhospitable land and is now watching while other nations step in to gain financially is almost unthinkable.
But it gets worse.
The process by which the mineral deposits have been surveyed, cataloged and then auctioned off to companies owned and operated by the Chinese government is actually organized and run by the US Government using US tax payers money. Yes, you read that correctly, you are paying out of your pocket for the system, which is handing over Afghan mineral wealth to the Chinese.
Within the Department of Defense (DOD) is a little known outfit called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Working with the Unites States Geological Survey and using all sorts of advanced capabilities exclusive to DOD, like surveillance drones and satellite imagery, this organization has so far spent $20 million on locating, surveying and selling off Afghan mineral deposits.
This figure does not include the likely much larger price tag associated with security for these projects. The Afghan Government is creating special security forces to guard mine sites. There are, for example, 1500 such personnel at the Aynak mine. US troops also patrol the area and keep Taliban forces from disrupting work on the mine. All of this is funded by the coalition, and the lion's share of all that money comes from the United States. In 2011 alone the United States provided $104 billion in aid to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
It is the explicit, stated policy of the United States Government to facilitate the expansion of US business abroad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made the point on multiple occasions that the future of the American economy is increasingly dependent on our ability to compete and win overseas against foreign economic competitors. Speaking only a couple of months ago to American corporate executives at a conference she stated, "We had fallen behind some other countries - some of them our friends and allies - when it came to using diplomacy to promote economic interests," Clinton said. "American companies haven't always seen the federal government as an ally, and I know the State Department hasn't always been the first call when they're looking for help. We can and will do better."
Apparently, none of that makes any difference to the Department of Defense and the other US Government agencies that are busy using American taxpayers money to help the Chinese steal yet another march on us. Instead these agencies are doing everything in their power to facilitate the acquisition of huge deposits of mineral wealth by our greatest long-term strategic adversaries, the Chinese.
After news of the award to China of the concession for exploitation of the Amu Darya oilfields broke, Congressman Walter B. Jones (NC-3) blasted the Administration. In an open letter to President Obama, Jones demanded an explanation as to why U.S. taxpayer dollars were being spent to help facilitate Chinese mining operations. He also demanded to know how many American servicemen had been killed and wounded on operations related to providing security for Chinese mineral extraction activities. "It is completely unacceptable to send our young men and women to protect China's interest in Afghanistan's natural resources," said Jones.
No word on a response from the White House. Maybe someone should write another letter to the President. Maybe someone should remind him that the objective of this game is to win.