Posted by: Christian | December 15, 2008

Copper, Fence Sitting, Hazaras and Russia

Four for one post today.

Item #1: the price of copper is collapsing. Bad news for Afghanistan. Very bad.

When I wrote in July about the massive Chinese investment in the Aynak copper mine (in Logar province) the price of copper was near historic highs. As you can see from that chart, it is way down. The mine was expected to provide revenue to the Afghan government in an amount that would have been equivalent to 40% of the 2006 budget of Afghanistan. In other words, the Aynak mine would be a cash cow for the government (and a cash cow that doesn’t involve begging from foreign donors).

Now, I’m no economist, but I lived in British Columbia long enough to know that when the price for a natural resource goes down significantly, operations that involve extracting that resource shut down – mines close, towns die and government revenues are hit hard. Now in Aynak there are not just the issues of security and logistics, there is the issue of a plummeting commodity price for copper. Anybody think that the Chinese will operate Aynak as some form of charity? I would guess that, disregarding the security factor, the project will be shelved until commodity prices rise (you know, when the global financial crisis fully repairs itself).  Bottom line: bad news for the Afghan government’s desire for independent financing.

Item #2: Fence-sitting in Afghanistan.

Graeme Wood writes in the New Yorker, about an encounter ANA forces and Canadian soldiers had with a local:

The team cornered a farmer, who confirmed that some villagers had persuaded the Taliban to set up their heavy machine gun in another area, in case the Canadians sent in artillery to destroy the position. The team seized on the disclosure as a sign that the villagers could rise up against the Taliban. The farmer shook his head. “No,” he said. “We can argue with you. Not with them. If we say just one thing against the insurgents, they will come and kill us.”

“Have the insurgents come back to say that to you?” the Canadian asked.

The farmer leaned in and looked around. “They always come here.”

A somewhat related photo, via here:

How perfectly logical of this villager. The practice of fence-sitting in Afghanistan is, as I wrote earlier, a practice that is seen in wars and insurgencies throughout the world and throughout history.

Item #3: Mono-ethnic Afghan National Police (ANP) units.

This New Yorker article, despite some questionable historical background, has some very interesting points. I really don’t know much about the ethnic mix of ANA/ANP units. The issue is definitely worth exploring further.

The article notes that there is an all-Hazara ANP unit in a Pashtun area. The unit is apparently quite effective, but…:

Alessandro Monsutti, an anthropologist who has studied the Hazaras, fears that the short-term gain of the Hazara units’ efficacy may be outweighed by long-term harm. “They’re very efficient for narrow, military targets,” he told me. “But what about rebuilding the country?” [Tom] Donnelly, too, acknowledges that the use of ethnic militias could lead to explosive retribution when NATO leaves Afghanistan.

Item #4: NATO transit routes to Afghanistan.

Anybody who has been paying attention lately will have noticed that NATO supplies are having some “difficulties” making it from Karachi to Afghanistan. General Petraeus has remarked about the “new urgency” in finding an alternative route. That route, obviously, means Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan. A Russian official commented:

A Russian official said today that if relations with NATO were positive he wouldn’t rule out helping the alliance further with inland transportation or air corridors for getting supplies into Afghanistan.

“Looking at the map we see many roads and paths going to Afghanistan but in fact they are dangerous to step on,” Mikhail Margelov, Chairman of Russia’s Committee for Foreign Affairs and a member of the Federation Council, said today during the same conference, organized by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. “The Russian corridor is the safest. That is why NATO and Russia have a common interest.”

Germany is already transiting supplies along that route by rail. Might a NATO-Russia deal be in the works? I say probably. Putin The Russian government is pragmatist. They/he does not want the southern tier of its “near abroad” controlled by the Taliban. It has been noted that as the strength of the insurgency increases, Russia becomes more cooperative with facilitating a US/NATO presence in central Asia and Afghanistan. Of course, Russia may have some quid pro quo request. That would be Latin for “Enough with the plans for NATO expansion.”

Pick a route, any route:

There was already an agreement reached earlier this year that was put on hold during the Russo-Georgian dust-up. More on that here.

If  I’m going to apologize for the gratuitous use of vanity links (linking to your own work), I might as well repeat them:



  1. I think you stock investors out there better get rid of any Star Wars/rocket shield invested capital quite quickly too. From a cost-efficient perspective, wont the russian route be bloody economical suicide, though? And wont this become a regular duckhunt for various islamic insurgencies along the way?

  2. Christian,
    What’s the “questionable historical background”? Am always happy to be corrected.

  3. Less so correcting than debating. I did like the article, I’m just a grumpy historian. After quickly re-reading (it’s been a while) this is what I noticed:

    I disagree on the characterisation of an “ethnically fissured society” and lean towards the works of Bernt Glatzer and Conrad Schetter. There are ethnic fissures, yes. But also other considerations that often override this.

    As for the Soviet Afghan War, it’s probably worth mentioning that the Soviets never took on the Hazarajat as the Hazaras were far too busy killing each other there and were at the best of times a most minor threat.

    As for Mazari being anti-Taliban, this is the Hazara fan club version. He was fighting Massoud at the time and went to negotiate with the Taliban. The Hazara Akbari faction was not happy and started to fight the Taliban. Taliban get grumpy and their guest “dies.”

    And I have talked to Hazaras that are fond of Iran (of the educated type who lived in Mashad). No survey numbers, but other scholars may be able to answer this question.

    No serious problems with the article in totality. Minor stuff. And jsyk, I don’t use “questionable” as a euphemism for “bad.” When I think something is bad I say it directly.


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