Is Afghanistan the New Old West for Claim-Jumping?

The Claim-Jumping of the Old West

The Claim-Jumping of the Old West










By Bill Distler

“Privatization of Afghanistan’s state-owned companies, which controlled many of the country’s mineral resources, was ongoing but not complete.”  (From the 2011 edition of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Minerals Yearbook)

We have been at war in Afghanistan for over 14 years.  This answers the first four journalistic questions of who, what, where, and when, but it doesn’t answer the most important question.  Why?

To understand U.S. involvement in Afghanistan today it might help if we re-learn a common term from the Old West. The term is “claim-jumping”.  In the history of the Old West, as taught to us by Hollywood movies of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, claim-jumpers were right up there with the bushwackers, dry-gulchers, cattle rustlers, and horse thieves who played the necessary villains of the story.  Some of our greatest Hollywood heroes, including Audie Murphy (a World War II hero in real life), the Lone Ranger, Gabby Hayes, and John Wayne, had run-ins with these varmints.

The summary for Audie Murphy’s movie “Duel at Silver Creek” gives a good explanation of the depths of depravity to which claim-jumpers will sink.

“A band of ruthless claim-jumpers invade the local area and begin robbing, extorting, and killing miners who have struck it rich.  Of course, there are no witnesses to bring those responsible for the crimes to justice.”

Can studying history, even Hollywood history, help us to recognize similar events in the present?  If we see present day corporate claim-jumpers as the same type of low-down varmints who stole from honest, hard-working miners in the Old West, will it help us understand why the U.S. military stays in Afghanistan?
The Minerals Yearbook of the U.S. Geological Survey from 2011 tells us that JP Morgan Chase is investing in gold mines in Afghanistan.  The 2012 entry tells us that Exxon Mobil is considering bidding on oil leases in northern Afghanistan.  The 2011 entry also tells us that “Privatization of Afghanistan’s state-owned companies, which controlled many of the country’s mineral resources, was ongoing but not complete.”  Doesn’t this define 21st century claim-jumping?  Two corrupt governments, the United States and Afghanistan, let their soldiers die while they facilitate the corporate theft of a country’s resources.

In the late 1990s, several companies, among them Unocal of the U.S., Bridas of Argentina, and Daewoo of South Korea, made offers to the Taliban government to build a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan to Pakistan.  But as soon as the Taliban were driven from power in late 2001 by the U.S. military, any discussion of the pipeline as a reason for the U.S. invasion was presented by the mainstream media as a peace activist’s fantasy.  Media commenters repeatedly told us that “No Blood for Oil” did not apply to this war.  Now we find that the pipeline idea never died, it was just hiding.

On December 13, 2015, the presidents of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, the prime minister of Pakistan, and the vice president of India met in Turkmenistan.  A table with four buttons was set up so that the leaders could simultaneously press buttons that would initiate the construction of the TAPI natural gas pipeline.  (TAPI is the acronym for the four countries now involved in the pipeline construction.)  This groundbreaking ceremony came after years of negotiations between the four countries on issues of pipeline security and pricing agreements.

The groundbreaking was big news in south Asia and was covered by major newspapers in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  It should have been big news in the United States too, but, except for one paragraph in Foreign Policy online, the U.S. media ignored the story.  It was even ignored by the Houston Chronicle, the hometown newspaper of the biggest U.S. pipeline construction companies.

A U.S. State Department spokesman told the Press Trust of India that “the United States congratulates Turkmenistan and its partners on the recent ground breaking for the construction of the natural gas pipeline in Afghanistan…”  Yet, the U.S. media decided that this was news that U.S. citizens did not need to know.  (“US Welcomes Ground-Breaking Of TAPI Pipeline”, NDTV, Dec 16, 2015. NDTV is from New Delhi.)

Many peace advocates suspected from the beginning that this natural gas pipeline was one of the ways that the coalition of the greedy expected to profit from this war.  But the story that the media promoted continuously after Sept 11, 2001 was that Afghanistan was just a worthless pile of rocks that had no economic value; therefore, the goal of the war must be to deprive terrorists of a base and, as a bonus,  to spread democracy, help women, and rebuild the country.

In 2010 the New York Times reported on “newly discovered mineral deposits” in Afghanistan.  The article by James Risen stated that according to U.S. officials “the previously unknown deposits…are so big…that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world.”  (“U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan”, NY Times, June 13, 2010) (

But news of mineral riches in Afghanistan was not really new.  In fact, the treasures of Afghanistan have been known for centuries.

The 1981 National Geographic Atlas of the World said about Afghanistan:   “The fertile valleys and mineral-laden foothills of the Hindu Kush have been conquered repeatedly since antiquity.”

In the 1960s, the Minerals Yearbook of the U.S. Geological Survey reported that Afghanistan was rich in natural gas, copper, iron ore, gold, silver, and precious gems.  Afghanistan has chromite that hardens steel.  It has barite that is used in oil well “drilling fluid.”  The 1963 Minerals Yearbook entry on Afghanistan says “known natural gas reserves are substantial and have potential significance.”  The 1982 entry says about the Hajigak iron ore deposit that “a 1977 independent survey concluded that the deposit was large enough and of a sufficient grade to support a major iron and steel industry.”

The high point of reporting by the Minerals Yearbook came in 1992, when they reported on “The country’s rich reserve of natural gas, estimated at 2,000 billion cubic meters…”  The Yearbook also reported “copper ore from a reserve estimated at 360 MMT (million metric tons)” and that “rich reserves of iron ore were estimated at 1,700 MMT.”

This knowledge should have served as the starting point for journalists seeking background on Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  But reporters must have asked the wrong people for information.  They consistently reported that Afghanistan had no economic value aside from pomegranates, pistachios, sheep, and goats.

Against this tide of misinformation  a few brave souls tried to tell  the true story to the American people.    In an opinion column in the New York Times in November 2001 M. Ishaq Nadiri, a professor of economics at New York University, wrote that Afghanistan “…once exported natural gas to the Soviet Union.  It has large reserves of copper and high grade iron ore.”  (“Rebuilding a Ravaged Land”, NY Times, Nov. 26, 2001) ( (

In a December 2001 column in the Christian Science Monitor, John F. Shroder, Jr., a professor of geology at the University of Nebraska, said that he had studied the natural resources of Afghanistan for decades and that it had “what may be the world’s largest copper deposit and the third-largest deposit of high-grade iron ore, in addition to reserves of gas, oil, coal, precious stones, underground water, and plentiful limestone to make concrete…”  Professor Shroder said that several American companies had called him “to find out more about the prospects for post-war mining and hydrocarbon acquisition.”  (“Help Afghanistan exploit its riches”, CS Monitor, Dec. 14, 2001) (

This news might lead a thoughtful reader to question the nobility of our motives in Afghanistan, but the day after Professor Shroder’s column appeared, the New York Times rode into town to put the kibosh on any growing suspicion. In its usual inconclusive style, the Times both denied and confirmed that there might be something of interest inside Afghanistan.  The first sentence of their article said that, “There is no oil in Afghanistan, but there are oil politics.”  But later the article says, “Oil companies and regional experts wonder whether significant new oil and gas reservoirs will be opened to foreign investment.”  Here the author is referring to oil and gas reserves in the countries north of Afghanistan.  (“As the War Shifts Alliances, Oil Deals Follow”, NY Times, Dec. 15, 2001.) (

Throughout the early 2,000s, Afghanistan was repeatedly described as a pathway for the oil and gas of central Asia, but not as having any value of itself.  The reporting by the Minerals Yearbook changed dramatically from 1993 until 2006.  In 1994, the huge mineral potential reported on in 1992 changed to “Afghanistan…has never been a significant producer of any mineral commodity.”  (This was technically correct but hid the larger picture.)   In 1996, the copper deposit at Ainak, described by Professor Shroder as possibly the largest copper deposit in the world, became “a small copper deposit at Ainak.”  This downplaying of Afghanistan’s minerals continued until 2007, when it once again became acceptable to hint that Afghanistan was rich.

From 1989 until 1993 the Minerals Yearbook printed maps of Afghanistan showing the location of major mineral deposits.  There were two spots marked NG, for natural gas, in northern and northwestern Afghanistan.   (A map and text can be found by searching for: 1992 Minerals Yearbook. Asia and Pacific, Afghanistan)  (   After 1993, there were no maps.  This coincided with the downplaying of reporting on minerals.

What might account for this change in reporting?  In 1992 the Najibullah government, which had been supported by the Soviet Union, was defeated by the mujahedeen, the fundamentalist movement supported by the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence services.  In January, 1993, Bill Clinton took office.  By 1994, the brutality and corruption of the mujahedeen led to the rise of the Taliban.  Was a decision then made within the US government to quietly facilitate access to Afghan minerals by US corporations?

Is this just a peace activist conspiracy theory?  Or was there an actual conspiracy?  (They do happen, you know, that’s why we have the word conspiracy.  Read your Shakespeare.)  Is the phrase “No Blood for Oil” just a left wing bumper sticker, or does it accurately reflect a blueprint for corporate claim-jumping?  You be the judge.

Aside from the TAPI pipeline there are many opportunities for the coalition of the greedy to make a killing, so to speak, in Afghanistan.  Selling weapons to both sides, opium smuggling, and overcharging for shoddy construction and useless consulting fees are just a few examples, but the opportunity to steal minerals is one of the driving forces that makes the war continue.  Some people argue over which is the one true reason for the war, but there is enough money floating around to supply several categories of theft.

Alfred McCoy, in his recent article on the opium trade in Afghanistan, reported that the 2013 opium harvest “generated some $3 billion in illicit income, of which the Taliban’s tax took an estimated $320 million…”  This tax contributes over half of the Taliban’s revenue, according to the article, but that leaves $2.68 billion in profits that someone else is getting. (“How a Pink Flower Defeated the World’s Sole Superpower:  America’s Opium War in Afghanistan” by Alfred McCoy,, 2-21-2016,) (

If you want quick money with a relatively small investment, and you don’t care how many people’s lives you destroy, then opium would probably be your theft of choice.  If you have a little more time and money, then shoddy construction or useless and overpriced consulting fees might be your best bet.

But if you have the money and the patience to play the long con, stealing the minerals of Afghanistan would probably have the biggest payoff.  The Afghan government estimates that there could be $3 trillion worth of our minerals under their soil.  Corporate America, by placing a few corrupt officials in the right  places and paying a few modest bribes, can underpay Afghan mine workers to dig up their country’s resources and ship them out while corporate CEOs hardly break a sweat, unless they’re sitting in a sunny outdoor café, conspiring to steal more stuff.

There is one other consideration that makes minerals important. Even though, at the moment, the U.S. is at an all- time high of fossil fuel production, we still need imports to satisfy our huge energy needs.  Some countries are even more dependent on fossil fuels than we are.  Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, depend on fuel exports for their income.  Rapidly expanding economies like China and India depend on imports.

The U.S. may not need all the fossil fuels of Afghanistan and central Asia for its own economy, but it may be just as important to U.S. corporations to control and restrict the flow of fuel to rival economies, especially China.  This could account for the desperation that leads the U.S. government to allow the Pakistani intelligence services to shelter and arm the Taliban while our soldiers die in Afghanistan fighting a proxy war with Pakistan.  While the TAPI project has been delayed by the fighting in Afghanistan, China opened its own gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to western China in 2009.

Near the end of his second term, President Karzai of Afghanistan was being called paranoid by the New York Times because he said the goal of U.S. policy was to weaken his country, not to strengthen it. (“How is Hamid Karzai Still Standing?”, NY Times magazine, Nov. 24, 2013) (  But was it paranoia or an accurate description of U.S. actions?  Just look at what we have done. Under U.S. guidance, Afghanistan, year after year, has slid down the Transparency International corruption index until it is now tied for second most corrupt nation on earth.

The October 2015 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction shows that over 99% of our tax spending in Afghanistan has gone to military spending or supporting a corrupt government.  Less than 1% has gone for food, clothing, and shelter for some of the poorest people on earth, the Afghans, now suffering through their 38th year of war.  What better way to steal the mineral wealth of Afghanistan than to create a weakened government and a starving people?

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his brilliant “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, said that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”  In order to be at peace, the American people must reject the wealth that comes to us from slavery and stealing.  We will have to push the corporations aside and create meaningful jobs for everyone so that we can go back to earning our living in ways that complement the health of the planet and its inhabitants, plant and animal alike.  And we will have to vote or run for office so that we can have public servants who serve peace and stop using our military as a security service for fossil fuel companies.

Dr. King also said that an important reason for forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and for speaking out against the Vietnam War was “To save the soul of America.”  If we are going to save the soul of America and bring relief to our suffering sisters and brothers in Afghanistan and in all the wars we are involved in, then our nation must stop being a leader in war and become a leader in peace.

Bill Distler;  360-224-3579;