Our Stake in Afghan Mining

At the time, our meeting seemed like nothing more than a strange coincidence.

The scene was a restaurant patio in Moss Beach, California. The sun had set. People clustered around firepits to keep warm. (It was, after all, July in northern California.) We pulled up two chairs and after a few minutes fell into conversation with the couple sitting to our right. The usual preliminaries: he traveled frequently to India and Asia on business, we learned, and she had some kind of corporate job in the Valley. I can’t remember if I ever found out what it was.

Nobody was really interested in talking about work anyway. Almost immediately our conversation veered – I can’t remember how; I think it had to do with an appreciative remark about the lack of humidity on the West Coast — away from polite chatter about their lives in California to their daughter’s life in Florida. She had just moved there, close to the military base where her fiancé was now stationed. He was suffering from PTSD, which his mother-in-law-to-be attributed to an incident in Afghanistan not too long ago, when he inadvertently directed a combat unit into the line of fire.

Just a few minutes after the conversation had taken this grim turn, another couple pulled up chairs. They had moved to Silicon Valley from India years ago. The husband was some kind of engineer. They had come to Moss Beach that evening with their two adult sons, one of whom was getting ready to leave the next day – for Afghanistan. He wasn’t going there to fight, but to work for a food relief effort. He seemed confident and courageous. His mother could not disguise her worry.

And so it turned out that everyone in our little group had had their lives touched by the US war in Afghanistan: the six Americans who gathered to warm themselves around the firepit might make a good study in diminishing degrees of separation. We shared a connection to the war; we talked about wounded soldiers, hungry villagers and Bagram prison (where Daphne had gone in February of 2011 to chronicle human rights abuses, leaving me and the dog at home to worry for her safety). We remarked on how uncanny it seemed that all of us should have some connection to the war in Afghanistan. Nearly ten years after September 11th, 2001, it was one thing we all had in common.

Everybody put a brave face on. We talked about how Kabul is fascinating and what an adventure the young relief worker was about to have; we all tried to say some reassuring things about how resilient the young couple in Florida would turn out to be.

When this morning I remembered our accidental meeting around the firepit, I wasn’t thinking about the upcoming anniversary of September 11th and our disastrous conduct of the War on Terror there and around the world. I was, instead, reading a story by Graham Bowley on the front page of today’s Times about plans to extract a “trillion” in mineral wealth from underneath the soil of Afghanistan.

Judging from Bowley’s report, it would seem there’s big trouble ahead: the Taliban and tribal chieftains are trying to expand and claim new territories, so the mining will take place on their lands; this factionalism and corruption at all levels of government means it is unlikely that contracts (for mineral rights or infrastructure upgrades) will be awarded without bribery or criminal involvement. It also seems uncertain that the environment will be protected, human rights will be respected, or that “ordinary people” will benefit from the boom.

Ordinary people in Afghanistan have good reason to worry that criminals and corrupt officials along with global mining giants will rob them of their chances at a better life. But ordinary people in America – like the people who gathered around that firepit in Moss Beach in July – have reason to worry about Afghan mining as well. Why? It has to do with where our money goes – not just the billions of federal dollars that have already been squandered in Afghanistan, but billions in private funds (like pension funds) invested with and managed by America’s big banks.

Big banks already have a stake in mining Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. For example, Bowley mentions an “investment consortium organized by JP Morgan Chase” involved in gold mining. It’s odd that in that same paragraph he fails to note that Chase is also involved in the oil fields of Amu Darya. That operation is being conducted by China National Petroleum Corporation, and China National Petroleum Corporation is a subsidiary of PetroChina –a company in which JP Morgan Chase is heavily invested, and whose involvement in the genocide in Sudan has been the focus of shareholder resolutions and human rights campaigns.

In another post about JP Morgan and PetroChina, written in the wake of London Whale scandal, I asked whether JP Morgan was capable of managing its human rights risk. Bowley’s article raises a similar question for me. It’s unclear what credible assurances about risk management or environmental and human rights monitoring the bank can give shareholders and customers regarding its involvement in Afghanistan’s mining and oil industries. JP Morgan shareholders may find themselves unwittingly entangled in the plunder of Afghanistan’s buried treasures, and the civil conflicts, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation their extraction seems bound to entail.

One wonders whether we have learned anything at all in the past eleven years.

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