Jim Risen has a blockbuster story about a gift and a curse for Afghanistan’s blighted and beleaguered economy: geological research indicating the existence of enormous amounts of potential mineral wealth.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberries.

So if you were still operating on the presumption that the real reason we remain at war after nine years is something to do with the world’s least efficient way to establish and control an oil pipeline, you’re so 2000-and-late. What, you thought it was a coincidence that the Center for a New American Security established its natural-resources/defense program so soon after the first wave of its leadership entered the Obama Pentagon and State Department? It’s a shame we can’t manufacture cellphone batteries from your vast deposits of naivete.

But I digress. This could potentially work out well for Afghanistan’s opium-and-foreign-aid dependent economy. But Risen details the ways in which the so-called “resource curse” is primed to take effect after the discovery: massive official corruption; weak legal understandings controls delineating ownership and revenue-sharing between national and provincial authorities in mineral-rich areas; decades of warfare. And now, naturally, someone’s telling Risen about the specter of great-power resource competition that just so perfectly implies a new rationale for extended war and post-war foreign influence:

American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.

Hey, just because something aligns with a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it lacks geopolitical impact.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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