World Economy

US Mercenary Eyes Rare Afghan Metals Worth $1t

Prince envisions that the US will get access to Afghanistan’s rich deposits of minerals such as lithium, used in batteries; uranium; magnesite; and rare earth elements, critical metals used in high technology from defense to electronics. One estimate valu
Many experts on Afghanistan mock the founder of the mercenary army's concept of privatizing the war there. Many experts on Afghanistan mock the founder of the mercenary army's concept of privatizing the war there.

Mercenary turned private security tycoon Erik Prince has famously pitched an audacious plan to the Trump administration: Hire him to privatize the war in Afghanistan using squads of "security contractors."

Now, for the first time, Buzzfeed News is publishing that pitch, a presentation that lays out how Prince wanted to take over the war from the US military—and how he envisioned mining some of the most war-torn provinces in Afghanistan to help fund security operations and obtain strategic mineral resources for the US.

Prince, founder of the infamously powerful Blackwater mercenary army, briefed top Trump administration officials directly, talked up his plan publicly on the DC circuit, and published op-eds about it.

He patterned the strategy he's pitching on the historical model of the old British East India Company, which had its own army and colonized much of Britain's empire in India. "An East India Company approach", he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "would use cheaper private solutions to fill the gaps that plague the Afghan security forces, including reliable logistics and aviation support".          

But the details have never been made public. Here is the never-before-published slide presentation for his pitch, which a source familiar with the matter said was prepared for the Trump administration.

  Rich Mineral Deposits  

One surprising element is the commercial promise Prince envisions: that the US will get access to Afghanistan’s rich deposits of minerals such as lithium, used in batteries; uranium; magnesite; and “rare earth elements”, critical metals used in high technology from defense to electronics. One slide estimates the value of mineral deposits in Helmand province alone at $1 trillion.

The presentation makes it plain that Prince intends to fund the effort through these rich deposits. His plan, one slide says, is “a strategic mineral resource extraction funded effort that breaks the negative security economic cycle.” The slides also say that mining could provide jobs to Afghans.

“What is laid out in the slides is a model of an affordable way for the US to stabilize a failed state where we are presently wasting American youth and tens of billions of dollars annually,” a Prince spokesperson emailed BuzzFeed News Thursday.

Defense Secretary James Mattis “did meet with Prince earlier this year”, a defense department spokesperson said. “He meets with people all the time to listen and hear new ideas.” The CIA declined to comment. It’s been widely reported that the Pentagon pushed back against Prince’s concept, and that national security adviser H.R. McMaster was opposed to it as well.

Prince currently runs a Chinese security and logistics company, as BuzzFeed News has previously reported. Still, in his pitch to America’s policymakers, he plays the US against China. One slide, devoted to “market manipulation in rare earth elements,” presents China as dominating the market for the valuable minerals.

Ironically, the statement from Prince’s spokesman said Prince’s Chinese company, Frontier Services Group, would participate in the Afghanistan plan, and “would provide logistics support to the extractive firms with secure transportation and camp support.”

Many experts on Afghanistan mock Prince’s concept of privatizing the war there.

 RE in Afghanistan and China

Despite being one of the poorest nations in the world, Afghanistan may be sitting on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world, valued at nearly $1 trillion, scientists say.

Afghanistan is loaded with minerals deposited by the violent collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. The US Geological Survey began inspecting what mineral resources Afghanistan had after US-led forces drove the Taliban from power in the country in 2004.

In 2006, US researchers flew airborne missions to conduct magnetic, gravity and hyper spectral surveys over Afghanistan. The aerial surveys determined that Afghanistan may hold 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, and lodes of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium.

For instance, the Khanneshin carbonatite deposit in Afghanistan’s Helmand province is valued at $89 billion, full as it is with rare earth elements. The task force valued Afghanistan’s mineral resources at $908 billion, while the Afghan government’s estimate is $3 trillion.

China has abundant and diversified rare earth resources. Rare earth elements can be divided into the light RE, medium RE and heavy RE by their atomic weight, physical and chemical properties. Light RE are mainly found in Baotou of Inner Mongolia and Liangshan of Sichuan while the other two categories of RE are found in Ganzhou of Jiangxi and Longyan of Fujian.

During the recent decade or so, China’s RE deposits are quickly diminishing. China once owned as much as over 70% of RE deposits in the world, but by the end of 2016, the proportion had fallen to 37%.

At present, the annual production capacity of China’s RE extraction enterprises is over 300,000 tons. However, annual global demand is less than 200,000 tons, including 50,000 tons to 60,000 tons on the international market and 100,000 tons on the domestic market. China still dominates the global RE market.

 Who is Erik Prince?

Prince, a former Navy SEAL, helped found Blackwater in 1997. The mercenary company rose to prominence after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Blackwater won hundreds of millions of dollars of US government contracts in the wars, but the company became associated with some of the most notorious episodes of the American occupation of Iraq.

In 2004, insurgents ambushed Blackwater contractors in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and strung up the charred bodies from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Then in 2007, Blackwater guards protecting a US convoy opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, killing several unarmed Iraqi civilians.

With its name associated with some of the darkest incidents of the US war in Iraq, Blackwater rebranded itself as Xe Services LLC in 2009, and Prince sold the company soon after.

He testified recently to the US House Intelligence Committee for its Russia investigation and has deep connections into the current White House. Prince’s name came up in connection with the Russia imbroglio in April when The Washington Post published a story about what it described as a secret meeting between Prince and a Russian with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.


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