My 4000-word investigation in US magazine The Nation is on Afghanistan and the rush to exploit its natural resources. Based on explosive, leaked documents, the story uncovers how the Trump administration is pressuring the Kabul government to issue contracts to the highest bidder. Increased violence against civilians is assured. Foreign companies, Blackwater founder Erik Prince and others are all in the mix. Within hours of this report being published, I was reliably told that it was being read at the highest levels of the US embassy in Kabul and Afghanistan’s National Security Council.
Here’s my latest story in PDF form: Peace in Afghanistan? Maybe—but a Minerals Rush Is Already Underway | The Nation
My story in US publication Foreign Policy:
The founder of the military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, has a new project. He’s aiming to raise $500 million to invest in the discovery, exploitation, and delivery of resources required to produce electric car batteries. Minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and copper are mostly found in conflict zones such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.
Speaking recently to CNBC, Prince said that he aimed to end cobalt’s status as a “conflict mineral” in Congo, and his plans included regular jobs and incomes for artisanal miners who toil in in horrific conditions, in “loincloth,” according to Prince. The Congolese Chamber of Mines estimated in 2015 that there may be 2 million artisanal miners in the country digging for gold, diamonds, and minerals such as cobalt. Prince told CNBC that he wanted to create an “ethical mine” so businesses invested in his project could trace the source of the cobalt and know that it was coming from a location without any abuses. Approximately 67 percent of global mined cobalt in 2017 came from Congo.
Corporations such as Apple, the electric car company Tesla, Volkswagen, Samsung, General Motors, and Renault have all pledged to source cobalt from mines in Congo and elsewhere that don’t use child labor, but human rights groups have challenged the feasibility of this project.
It’s an ambitious goal, because Congo has a long history of atrocious mining conditions, including for children as young as 6. In 2018, CNN found that it was still common in Congo to find minors toiling in cobalt mines. Despite companies such as Glencore claiming that it doesn’t use materials from informal cobalt mines, the broadcaster discovered that, “dealers at markets in the DRC were filmed buying cobalt without verifying its source and mining method. They then send it for processing where it is mixed with cobalt from other mines before ending up in batteries that power devices [such as cell phones and car batteries] around the world.”
This is the industry that Prince is now entering, and his controversial history makes many critics cast a skeptical eye on his real agenda.
Some employees of the Prince-founded private military contractor Blackwater committed war crimes against civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. Prince has helped provide foreign troops for the army of the United Arab Emirates (whose military is today committing some of the worst abuses in Yemen) and attempted to create a private air force for the repressive government of South Sudan.
The Trump administration reportedly considered establishing a private spy network, designed by Prince and convicted Iran-Contra scandal participant Oliver North, to circumvent the so-called deep state that U.S. President Donald Trump fears is out to get him. Prince is a staunch Republican Party supporter, and his sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s education secretary. He’s facing scrutiny by Robert Mueller’s investigative team into questionable meetings in the Seychelles in January 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration, with the Russians and the UAE to reportedly discuss a back channel between Moscow and Washington.
Prince claims his trip to the Seychelles was for business purposes, that it had no connection to Trump, and that his meeting with the head of a Russian sovereign wealth fund with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin was “incidental.”
Prince is currently the head of a Hong Kong-based company, Frontier Services Group, a logistics, aviation, and security company whose primary investors include the Chinese government-owned Citic Group. Frontier focuses on protecting Chinese enterprises in Africa and Asia when working in the most inhospitable places on earth. It has invested in a copper mine in Congo, won a security contract in war-torn southern Somalia, and invested in a bauxite mine in Guinea.
Prince told Foreign Policy in an email that his plans to source cobalt will involve using “geo science expertise and certainly look to other regions of Africa, south America and East Asia to diversify the supply base of key minerals.” He said that 15 percent of cobalt in the Congo is extracted by artisanal miners and his “strategy includes professionalizing and enhancing those assets and making them compliant. We would also apply new technology to the millions of tons of tailings already existing to further extract copper and cobalt in an efficient and environmentally acceptable manner.” Prince said that he has not discussed his plans with the Trump administration.
China is a key transit point for cobalt, because Chinese companies dominate the supply chain, placing Prince in prime position to capitalize, given his deep ties to Beijing. Many Chinese firms have also been found to buy cobalt mined by children in Congo. Prince told FP that although China already produces around 50 percent of the world’s electric cars, Frontier is not expected to participate in this initiative and instead remains focused on logistics and transportation support, not resource and mining development. Prince said that he anticipates a “geographically diverse set of investors joining us.”
It will be difficult for any company to ethically mine cobalt, copper, and other resources in a nation such as Congo that has a history of mass violence, corruption, and inequality fueled by its rich minerals. Indeed, the Trump administration already sanctioned a wealthy Israeli businessman, Dan Gertler, in 2017 for allegedly corrupt behavior around the sale of Congolese oil and mineral rights. Lobbyists in Washington have been busy over the last few years persuading politicians to ease sanctions against Congo for its flagrant corruption and human rights abuses. The recent election there may only worsen the instability, with massive fraud credibly alleged against the declared winner.
But these resources also exist in Afghanistan, where Washington already has a large and longstanding military footprint. Prince is never hesitant to advocate what most observers regard as mercenaries. Indeed, he recently suggested that withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria should be replaced by private contractors and has stated publicly that he believes in privatizing the entire conflict in Afghanistan. He argues that he can engineer victory against the Taliban with a relatively small number of contractors. He toldCNBC earlier this month that China was worried the United States would “abandon” Afghanistan and terrorism would increase as a result.
This is the stated reason given by hawks in Washington and Europe to support an indefinite occupation of the country regardless of the civilian toll. Trump has pledged to withdraw around half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in the country. He eventually wants to remove all of them.
The Blackwater founder is also determined to exploit the country’s largely untapped resources. Prince has met with senior Afghan officials and ministers, opened a Kabul office for Frontier Services Group, and is aiming to build alliances with tribal elders in areas where minerals have been found. (Prince said that his plans to extract resources in Afghanistan have no connection to establishing an electric car battery fund.)
Prince’s record in conflict zones provides little reason to believe he has either the inclination or ability to mitigate violence in Congo or Afghanistan.
Electric cars may well help the world lessen its carbon footprint, but this benefit seems negligible if thousands of the world’s poorest people will suffer to soothe the consciences of Westerners who want to go green.
Prince is just one player in the global rush to secure valuable minerals in the production of cell phones, electric car batteries, tablets, laptops, and other modern inventions, but he has the potential to deepen the instability that’s an inevitable part of the resource curse in distressed nations.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent investigative journalist who has written for the New York Times andThe Guardian. He is the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and a forthcoming book on the global war on drugs. @antloewenstein
My film Disaster Capitalism, with director Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade, has screened around the world this year (with more to come including an invitation to a major human rights film festival in the US in early 2019).
After one of the recent screenings in Sydney, this review by Jim Mcllroy appeared in Green Left Weekly:
Disaster Capitalism is a groundbreaking documentary film about Bougainville, Haiti and Afghanistan, revealing the dark underbelly of the global aid and investment industry. The film offers important insights into a secret multi-billion dollar world by investigating how aid money is actually spent — or misspent.
Prominent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein joins award-winning filmmaker Thor Neureiter on a four-year journey through the world of shady mining companies, corrupt and failing governments and resilient local communities.
Narrated by Loewenstein, the film takes us to war-torn Afghanistan to interview leading community figures struggling to defend local village residents against the depredations of overseas mining companies. He reveals the startling fact that the US has spent more on so-called “development aid” in Afghanistan over the past 15 years than it did on the entire post-World War II Marshall Plan to reconstruct a devastated Europe.
Despite this huge sum, Afghanistan remains a failed, corrupt state, riven by an endless war with the reactionary Taliban. The great majority of its people live in dire poverty and insecurity.
Speaking at a showing of the film at the Edmund Rice Centre on November 14, refugee rights activist Phil Glendenning noted the Afghan government still spends half of its national budget on defence and security. Yet the ongoing violence still leaves people desperate for peace.
In Haiti, the film shows the terrible aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and the failure of UN and other foreign aid to significantly improve the conditions for the poor majority. Thousands died because of dysentery introduced to the country by UN personnel.
Instead of using aid to re-develop destroyed public infrastructure, the US and other rich countries focused on setting up free-trade zones to further exploit local workers with encouragement from corrupt Haitian politicians.
Loewenstein also visits Bougainville, currently a province of Papua New Guinea, which was ravaged by a long civil war in which a reported 20,000 people were killed. The war was launched by the PNG government, with the full backing of Australia, when local people rose up against the destruction of their island by mining giant Rio Tinto in the 1980s.
We hear the voices of independence leaders and local women villagers, who express a desire to control their own affairs as a precondition to any new resource projects being initiated.
The film is partly based on Loewenstein’s 2015 book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. For the book, Loewenstein travels across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the US, Britain, Greece and Australia to witness the reality of rampant capitalism. He discovers how companies cash in on organised misery in the hidden world of privatised detention centres, militarised private security, aid profiteering and destructive mining.
Loewenstein concludes the film by stating: “In the end, the solution lies with the people and communities.”
Disaster Capitalism starkly exposes the reality of big business and its agents in utilising natural and human-made calamities for greed and profit. It ends on a hopeful note that communities which suffer this exploitation are beginning to rise up and demand their right to democracy and real development in the future.
I recently published a major investigation into Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his aims to exploit resources and minerals in Afghanistan. It was published by the global broadcaster TRT World and created waves.
Yesterday Prince himself was interviewed on the TRT World program, Nexus, and directly asked about my reporting that he travelled to Afghanistan as “Trump’s advisor” and met with senior members of the Afghan Ministry of Mines. He didn’t refute or deny anything and instead seemed to basically confirm it.
The whole interview with Prince is superb, grilling him about his past work and future plans, but the relevant section about Afghan resources, his plans and my reporting begins at 13:27:
My year-long investigation in TRT World, the global news network that reaches 260 million people in 190 countries, about Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his attempts to exploit Afghan minerals (plus here’s background to the making of this story that continues to reverberate around the world):
The founder of the notorious, and now defunct, Blackwater, has been making headlines for trying to privatise the Afghan war. What has gone unreported are his plans as “Trump’s advisor” to extract the country’s immensely rich mineral wealth.
Erik Prince, the founder of the private military company Blackwater, now known as Academi, has trained his sights on mining natural resources in war-torn Afghanistan, according to multiple sources and Afghan officials.
Details from Afghan officials and conversations with two sources knowledgeable about Prince’s movements in Kabul say he is looking into opportunities to mine Afghan minerals and visited the country in early 2018 and September to explore these possibilities.
His proposal included finding rare earth minerals in some of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions, allowing the United States to source valuable lithium for batteries, along with other deposits, and provide jobs to Afghans.
Prince and his associates met key figures in the Afghan mining ministry in January 2018, an Afghan government official with knowledge of Prince’s schedule told TRT World.
Team4RMC—an Afghan security company that was assisting Prince—requested a meeting for him with Afghan Mining Minister Nargis Nehan to discuss his plans to invest in the country, and described him as a “current advisor” to President Trump.
Prince and his associates, including Frontier Services Group head in Afghanistan, Shahin Mayan, met officials at the Afghan Ministry of Mines on 13 January.
Mining Minister Nargis Nehan was out of the country, so they met a deputy minister and other officials.
Team4RMC claimed Prince was also meeting President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and other high-level officials.
In late 2017, according to a Kabul-based source and Afghan mining expert, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of safety and losing his job, officials from the Department of Commerce and United States Geological Survey working with the United States embassy in Kabul, visited the country to investigate ways in which minerals could be found and mined.
The Afghan mining expert tells TRT World that the Trump administration officials sought access to the resources map archive, researched by Soviet geologists in the late 1970s and 1980s and by American geologists after 2001, to determine the quality of the minerals and see samples of them.
The Soviet mineral data charts are far more extensive than the US efforts, according to an Afghan mining expert who has been researching the issue for over a decade and has documented the various local and foreign attempts to exploit the country’s resources.
This, the expert says, could be because the Soviets progressed further with their mining plans; they extracted uranium samples from Khwaja Rawash mountain in Kabul, exploited oil and gas from the country’s north in Amu Darya and coal in Baghlan province.
There’s no evidence that Prince met Ghani or Abdullah, but if he did it would be significant: the New York Times reported in March that Ghani was angry with Prince for meeting his rival Atta Mohammad Nur in Dubai in December 2017.
When I contacted Prince in June, his spokesman said that he “currently had no mining interest in Afghanistan” and denied having any company presence in Kabul.
However, the Kabul-based mining expert—with direct knowledge of the company’s operations— confirms that Frontier Services Group had established an office in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, with Mayan leading the company in Afghanistan.
According to TRT World’s source in Kabul, Prince has so far adopted a three-pronged strategy to build trust with Afghans and convince them to work with him.
First, he is attempting to work with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and his political party.
Second, he is trying to collaborate and gain the trust of tribal elders and political leaders including Atta Mohammad Nur, and make connections with ethnic groups and influential Pashtun leaders, as well as supporting political candidates in the 2019 presidential election.
Finally, he wants to introduce himself to the Afghan people through the Afghan media including a major TV interview with Kabul-based, Tolo News, in September.
Prince’s private security record shows that he thrives financially in places of insecurity.
In Afghanistan, his ability to extract resources will depend on paying off the right warlords and government officials as well as building the most brutal militias to wrestle control of minerals from insurgent groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State (Daesh) which make huge amounts of money from illicit mining.
The US State Department, when asked for a statement on Prince’s involvement in Afghanistan, declined to comment directly about it, saying that, “Afghan mineral rights are an Afghan issue,” and suggested I speak to the Afghan Ministry of Mines with any questions.
An Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum spokesperson, Abdul Qadeer Mutfi, tells TRT World, “We are currently in the process of amending our minerals law and will be open to receiving proposals that meet our needs and fit the legal framework.” He also says the Afghan government is committed to keeping an “open and accountable extractives sector”.
Another spokesperson, Bhavana Mahajan, told me that the Afghan government hadn’t yet “received anything official” from Prince about his mining plans though the Ghani government was “open to doing business and exploring partnerships.”
A United States Geological Survey study in 2010 estimated that untapped Afghan minerals—including copper, iron ore, rare earth elements, aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium—are worth between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. Prince’s priorities according to mining experts are lithium, gas and gold.
In February 2018, USAID hosted 80 private business interests in Kabul to explore Afghan resources but USAID refused to disclose who attended the event despite my repeated requests.
President Donald Trump had expressed interest in exploiting Afghanistan’s vast, largely untapped mineral wealth to offset the expenses of the long war, the longest in US history, which has cost the United States over one trillion dollars.
Trump’s interest in Afghan mining and potential economic gains increased after separate meetings last year with Ghani and Michael Silver, the CEO of American Elements, an advanced metals and chemicals production company.
Trump and Ghani agreed in September 2017 to allow US companies access to Afghanistan’s rare earth minerals. Three senior aides of Trump met Stephen A. Feinberg, the billionaire owner of the mega military contractor DynCorp International, last July to explore mining options, the New York Times reported.
Afghans are suspicious of any foreign companies aiming to exploit theirresources. The arrival of Prince on the scene could further raise tempers in Afghanistan.
Prince is infamous in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world because of Blackwater’s atrocious record in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. His contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007 and Prince has been involved in building a mercenary army for the UAE.
Strong networks, weak alliances
Trump’s White House reportedly considered in 2017 establishing a global network of privatised spies organised by Prince and the Blackwater founder is working with the Chinese government to secure its resources in African and Asian nations.
Prince and his family have a long connection to the Republican Party, they’ve been big donors for years, and he considered a US Senate run in 2017, while his sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s Education Secretary.
The New York Times recently reported that Prince visited Kabul in September to discuss his plans to privatise the war and exploit the nation’s minerals. The story stated that Ghani had repeatedly refused to meet Prince despite repeated requests to do so. Prince was said to be building political alliances with Ghani’s opponents to secure access in Afghanistan.
Prince has urged Washington to appoint an American “viceroy” to run the war and argued that “until those plans are enacted there will not be any economic improvements for the people of Afghanistan.”
Will Afghans benefit?
The Afghan mining industry has remained relatively small for decades due to ongoing violence, insecurity and corruption. The Taliban earns large amounts of money from illicit mining, along with the drug trade, but it benefits very few civilians.
The Kabul mining source says that the mining industry is currently valued at $1 billion annually with 25-30 commodities being extracted. Countless more commodities are in the country but exploration and extraction are minimal.
Prince and his associates are attempting to enter the Afghan resources market at a time of intense insecurity in the country. The Afghan Ministry of Mines is a notoriously corrupt government body where there is no transparency around its decisions to appoint contracts to favoured bidders.
Prince’s company is unwilling to reveal its plans publicly because mining resources in a war zone is controversial, always occurs without community consent, and inevitably worsens violence in the areas targeted for exploitation.
The Ghani government recently signed large contracts with Afghan and foreign companies in a veil of secrecy to exploit resources in some areas controlled by insurgents.
Opponents of privatising Afghanistan’s resources, such as Integrity Watch Afghanistan and international NGO Global Witness, have expressed concern that without major governance changes these contracts will only worsen violence and entrench the power of warlords.
In a joint opinion piece by the two groups in January, they wrote that the Trump administration and Ghani government risked echoing a colonial past.
“For Afghans, whose ancestors fought against imperialism just as Americans did, that is a recipe for outrage,” they said.
During my two trips to the country to investigate the resources industry, in 2012 and 2015, it was nearly impossible to find any civilians in Kabul or in the countryside who supported its growth. They all feared worsening violence if anything was extracted because of corruption, looting and the formation of militias around the mines. Ordinary Afghans are rarely consulted about mining plans in their areas and mining contracts are never transparent.
An hour from Kabul, the people living near the Aynak mine – one of the largest copper deposits in the world, which has been leased to a Chinese company – have poor education and little access to water.
During a 2015 visit, the residents of Davo village near the mine told me that they had been promised primary and high schools, new roads, electricity, and a large mosque.
“Our expectations went up, but in the end, nothing was delivered,” Mullah Mirjan, a community leader told me at the time.
In the last 7+ years, I’ve been investigating and reporting on disaster capitalism around the world. This culminated in my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, and the documentary, Disaster Capitalism.
There’s a great, long essay in the US magazine Public Books about disaster capitalism in the modern age, written by US academic Tom Winterbottom, and he assesses the various ways that three writers view the issue: Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and me. Below are some extracts from the essay:
That there are many cases of disaster capitalism is a point made by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe (2015), and in the 2018 documentary Disaster Capitalism. In these comprehensive and unsettling works, he covers war (in Afghanistan), aid (in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake), and environmental exploitation (in Papua New Guinea). He also cites many other examples of exploitative economic practices—those that aim to make money for corporations or purposefully impoverish citizens—in Greece, the UK, the US, and Australia.
Early on in the book, Loewenstein makes an important terminological point: “Whether we call this disaster capitalism,” he writes, “or just a product of the unavoidable excesses and inequalities of capitalism itself, the end result is still a world ruled by unaccountable markets.” Although Loewenstein neglects to flesh this out, it is a crucial observation: what he sees in disparate locations and contexts is not necessarily produced or predicated by a disaster or extraordinary event. The crisis that Loewenstein documents pervades capitalist societies and lies in actors systematically embracing exploitative and damaging practices in the unfolding of the neoliberal story.
Be it detention centers in the US, relief aid in Haiti, military contractors in Afghanistan, economic sanctions on Greece, complicit corporate-sponsored NGOs in the developing world, or prison systems across much of the Western world, “predatory behavior” does vary “from country to country, but the strategy is the same: exaggerate a threat, man-made or natural, and let loose unaccountable private-sector contractors to exploit it.” Loewenstein frequently uses the term “disaster” seemingly interchangeably with terms like “exploitative,” “crisis,” and “predatory” as descriptors of capitalism. That he settles on no single word is not a weakness, but rather an intriguing diagnosis: capitalism in its current expression and at its worst is all of those things and more.
Once you pry open the terminology a little bit, as Loewenstein implies, one finds that the leverage of “disaster capitalism” now stretches far beyond that which Klein identified. In Loewenstein’s reckoning, there are still the more “traditional” disasters and economic shock therapy “solutions,” and perhaps it is those more obvious shocks that generate the conditions that allow for a particularly nefarious and obvious expression of largely harmful neoliberal capitalism, as is beginning to unfold in Puerto Rico.
In the background, however, a more unsettling picture also emerges, in which those exploitative machinations continue to take hold, progressively and aggressively, even without a disaster or shock. Indeed, after reading Loewenstein’s book, one is left wondering what isn’t impacted by the nefarious tendrils of “disaster” capitalism—education, the aid system, non-profit organizations, the democratic electoral system, privacy, healthcare, big tech, big data, underemployment. Nothing is safe from the imperial reach of a commodified system of capital. Disaster or not, it now seems that capitalism seeks to get into unexplored cracks and expand whether or not we like or even recognize it. A disaster often serves to foreground these ever-present traits. As such, “disaster” may no longer refer to specific shocks or changes in the economic system but rather to the system itself. “Disaster” can serve as a modifier concerning the very nature of capitalism and its development within a broad framework of neoliberalism. That is, it is inherently disastrous and in crisis, not exceptionally.
Klein, Monbiot, and Loewenstein chime with the positive possibility of resolution and change, often by citing cases in which the greedy reach of capitalism has been at least limited: the ongoing fight for Puerto Rico is testament to that. The three authors also ultimately demand—somewhat hopefully, or perhaps hopelessly—a need for modern societies “to view humans as more than just consumers.” Monbiot goes further, pushing for a “regime change,” in which the system is replaced rather than reformed.5 As such, their objective seems not to be “benevolent capitalism” or “sustainable capitalism” but rather “not capitalism.”
Richard Keeble is one of Britain’s leading journalism academics and he’s taught at the University of Lincoln for many years. Author of seminal books on reporting, his latest, just released work is co-edited with John Mair and it’s called, “Investigative Journalism Today: Speaking Truth to Power“. It features a range of writers exploring the importance of investigative work from the English and non-English speaking world:
Rumours of the death of investigative journalism have been greatly exaggerated. This book is proof enough of that. Examples from the corporate and alternative media across the globe highlight the many imaginative and courageous ways that reporters are still “kicking at the right targets”.
I’m honoured that Keeble’s chapter positively interrogates my work, especially around disaster capitalism, and he’s allowed me to post it here: keebleloewensteinchapter
From the introduction:
Antony Loewenstein is an Australian investigative reporter, freelance author, photographer, blogger and campaigner. He has written for a wide range of publications – both mainstream and alternative –such as the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Green Left Weekly, New Matilda and Counterpunch. His books include My Israel Question (2006) and The Blogging Revolution (2008 and 2011). His 2010 ABC Radio National feature documentary, A Different Kind of Jew, was a finalist in the UN Media Peace Awards. And his book, Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism Swallowing the World (2013) has been followed up with a documentary film, Disaster Capitalism, about aid, development and politics in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.
Profits of Doom also serves as a useful case study to examine Loewenstein’s investigative strategy in more detail. As this chapter will argue, Loewenstein draws creatively from a wide range of genres –peace journalism, investigative reporting, literary, long-form journalism, counter journalism and activist reporting – making his reportage both important and original. In particular, the study will focus on his investigative techniques, his ideological/political attitude – and his distinctive investigative writing style.
My film Disaster Capitalism with director Thor Neureiter continues to spread around the world. Thor was recently in Melbourne for the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival and the film is screening soon in Australia, the UK and elsewhere.
New Zealand outlet Foreign Control Watchdog has published a review of the film written by Jeremy Agar:
The years roll by but the news from Afghanistan scarcely changes. From the dry hills in landlocked Asia we glimpse mad mullahs shooting their rifles into the air. We see Humvees straining up a mountain pass and wait for the ambush. Underneath the banner news rolls through: a suicide truck has blown up a dozen pedestrians in Kabul.
Few of the many disasters that our information screens send our way are as wearying as the scenes from this war, the one that 30 years ago was dubbed “the forgotten war” because sometimes, back then, it wasn’t getting much air time. These days we’re all too likely to hear the inevitable soothing words that follow from the President, but whoever he is this time, no-one is listening.
On comes an American general. Just a few more troops, he assures us, and all will be well. Just a few more years and we’ll deliver you a shiny new democracy. Be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.But despite the assurances of the nation builders, peace in Afghanistan hasn’t been built in centuries. The waste, the futility of it all has a cartoonish quality: the US Army as Homer Simpson; the jihadi as … Jihadi. Boring. We flick the channel to the newest cooking show.
It’s the lack of any of this tedium that makes Antony Loewenstein’s analysis so welcome. By steering clear from cliché we’re allowed to see Afghanistan as the sort of place – an open plain, not some dizzying crag – that is not all that different from some parts of Loewenstein’s native Australia, perhaps, or America. He gets driven just an hour from the capital and talks to some quite normal locals. They were promised decent jobs and social development from a mine. It becomes clear that the foreign corporation never intended to make good on the deal, and that the Government’s undertaking to hold the company to account was similarly fraudulent.
Back in Kabul Loewenstein seeks answers from the bureaucrats who oversee the mining industry, No, Mr X is unavailable; Mr Y is busy. Mr Z? No, it is not possible. Leave the building. In other words, standard obstruction, standard corruption. Afghanistan’s misery is not primarily religious or tribalist. It’s the lack of trust that spawns those reactions. Fanaticism and tribalism are the poisoned fruit that grow from the seed of betrayal.
Loewenstein is showing us that, far from being uniquely messed up, Afghanistan is a template for a more general failure. That the mining company happens to be Chinese is an additional advantage in that the offender is not wearing the usual black hat. Villainy is not the monopoly of swaggering Uncle Sam. Take unaccountable big money and a corrupt State and moral failure is universal.
A modernist Afghan is interviewed, putting the case for the US to remain. If the troops go, he suggests, the warlords will swarm into the vacuum and there will be chaos and killings for an indefinite period. But what’s the alternative? The Vietnam gambit was often “to destroy a village in order to save it” – that’s a quote from the 1960s, not a mischievous paraphrase – and killing in Afghanistan will beget only more killing. Maybe everyone else just needs to leave them to it.
Loewenstein tells us that the amount the US military has cost in Afghanistan is more than what it invested in Europe after World War 2. As his topic of disaster capitalism is to do with how the world’s bullies go about “making money from misery”, that might be a reason his treatment ignores all the fundamentalist mayhem.
The huge spend has been about resisting the Taliban and now ISIS – and before that, let’s not forget, the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the Soviet Union). As such, while the post-World War 2 Marshall Plan set the US up for global dominance and hastened Europe’s recovery, the misadventures in Afghanistan have been unproductive to a point that future observers might regard as inexplicable (even Establishment types are now saying that about the domino theories that launched the Vietnam follies).
Just as it’s more than a truism – more a platitude – that wars never turn out how the belligerents intended, so too are the conventional wisdoms that inform life at home a poor guide for how Johnny Foreigner will react to being invaded. He won’t like it. So, it is that while the wise men in Washington are accustomed to thinking in terms of spending money in order to achieve results, in Afghanistan the opposite occurs. More money and more soldiers equal more chances for cock-ups and corruption.
As a frequent US visitor puts it here: “The more I go, the less I see”. More money being poured into the sinkhole makes matters ever worse. As he notes, saving money takes too much time. We’re in a hole. Keep digging and we’ll find a way out. Duh (the joke is that sometimes you win even when you lose. Vietnam now is much as US warmongers would have hoped it would have turned out to be had they won the war).
Haiti & Bougainville
Loewenstein’s other visits were to Haiti and Bougainville. In the former, US cash was meant to aid recovery from a devastating 2010 earthquake. This was very much a Clintonian intervention. We see Bill and Hillary in all their smarmy complacency rabbiting on about an investment zone where their corporate mates provide factory work for locals at five dollars a day. But the enterprises are not where the quakes struck. There, nothing has changed.
The final stop is closer to Loewenstein’s Aussie home, where another mining giant, Rio Tinto, has left a ruined landscape and a shattered society. Villagers faced a basic dilemma, one that confronts all such ravaged places: Do they want the mine to reopen so that they have a job, or do they want it to remain closed so that they can somehow, sometime, recover a stolen identity? It’s a fitting place to end this skillfully constructed doco.There is one final deft detail, tying the themes. Just as we’re given Afghanistan minus the hackneyed images, we see the usually ubiquitous Donald Trump only to conclude matters. He has spent one trillion dollars on mining ventures.