Analysis: Did the "gray lady" get played?

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The World

KABUL, Afghanistan — The New York Times' lead story Monday about “nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghaistan” was the kind of journalism that seemed at first glance to be a game changer.

Suddenly, there was something worth fighting for in Afghanistan beyond an ill-defined counterinsurgency campaign: the lithium batteries that power our cell phones. The story even quoted an internal Pentagon memo that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” And the article went further, trumpeting United States officials' belief that Afghanistan could eventually be “transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world.”

It seems the Times’ reporter, James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, did what a lot of great reporters do: He picked up on a story that had been floating around for weeks, months, years, or maybe even back to the Soviet era, depending on which geological surveys you choose to reference, and he made it relevant in the current context.

A question that many media watchers, military analysts and pundits are now wondering is whether The New York Times gave that story shape or whether it was somehow played by the U.S. military to see the value of the mineral deposits at a moment in time when Washington appears to be increasingly concerned about the public losing confidence in the war in Afghanistan.

Was it part of a concerted media campaign to make certain Pentagon memos available and have CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus weigh in with quotes for the New York Times? Risen has been defending his story, and not always in the most attractive manner.

In an interview with Yahoo’s Newsroom blog, Risen got a bit testy, saying, “Bloggers should do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas.”

Here in Kabul, I must confess that I guess I’ve been sitting on this major story for several years now.  The truth is that those of us who have been here a while knew about Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth.

To find out, I did not go under cover or hack into secret Pentagon files — I just happened to bump into a very nice man in the Kabul line at the Dubai airport, sometime in 2008. He proudly told me (in what I frankly thought was a bit too much detail) about the marble mines his organization was helping to open in western Afghanistan.

“This is the wave of the future,” he said enthusiastically. “The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that Afghanistan has more non-fuel mineral deposits than almost anyplace else on earth.”

I was actually motivated to look up the survey, which is readily available online.

The report did not exactly make for fascinating reading — unless section designators such as “Proterozoic Ultramafic Rock Area of Interest” or “Deposits related to felsic phanerocrystalline intrusive rocks” spark one’s interest. Minerals, I decided, were not my thing. I filed it away at the back of my mind as a story to follow up on some day, when Afghanistan’s political morass and security nightmare eased, giving geologists space to explore and journalists time to report.

But The New York Times beat me to it: It “revealed” that Afghanistan was sitting on, for want of a better term, a veritable gold mine. Once the Pentagon packaged the data by tacking on a speculative price tag — $1 trillion — and adding a snappy sound bite here and there, a three-year-old report based partially on decades-old data collected by the Soviets became the biggest story on the planet.

I am far from the only veteran Afghan correspondent or “Afghan hand” — NGO types, diplomats and contractors alike — surprised by the prominent play that the venerable paper of record gave to the story.

There has been quite a bit of heated online discussion of the topic over the past two days. The question that is driving us all mad is: Why on earth did the world’s most authoritative news source decide to make this its lead story?

The Pentagon, of course, could have many reasons for wanting to plant the piece. The news out of Afghanistan has been unremittingly grim for the past weeks, if not months: troop casualties are skyrocketing, the all-important Kandahar offensive has had to be at least temporarily scrapped, more and more experts are saying that it’s time to cut our losses and run.

At a recent conference on Afghanistan, attended by several of the most respected research centers, the topic that drew the most heated response was the relative positions of the foreign troops and the Taliban.

No one among the august group argued that victory was on the horizon; instead, they spent more than two hours debating the difference between “stalemate” and “defeat.”

“I told them they had already lost,” said one conference participant, speaking on condition of anonymity. The conference was trying to sail “under the radar” and was not open to the media.

“If you have 46 countries and the world’s most developed economies unable to defeat a bunch of insurgents, then you are just finished,” the attendee added.

This view was echoed at another super-secret gathering last week, where a prominent Afghanistan expert told high-level officials that it was time to get out of the country.

“You cannot win,” said the authority. “Make a deal and leave.”

This advice met with a stony silence, according to one of the attendees.

So the “news” that Afghanistan could suddenly bump up its GDP by a factor of 100 or so by harvesting its vast mineral deposits was a breath of fresh air for those still trying to drum up support for the increasingly unpopular war.

Afghans, of course, immediately began dividing up the spoils from this trillion-dollar treasure chest. If history is any gauge, then the same problems that have kept them mired in war and misery for so long — poor governance, corruption and the less-than-tender attention of the world community in general and their close neighbors in particular — will more than likely plague them again and the people will just shrug and add the theft of their national treasure to their endless list of grievances.

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