Various estimates have suggested that the war in Afghanistan might cost the United States a trillion dollars. Now we find out that it’s worth it: Afghanistan has a trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth under its soil.

The cartoon in the Washington Post, by Tom Toles, says it all. In front of a cavernous mine opening labeled “Afghan Minerals,” a turban-wearing Afghan is shouting “Eureka!” What he’s excited about is not so much that Afghanistan is alleged to have more than $1 trillion is mineral wealth under its war-torn land, but that there’s now a reason for the war itself. As Toles’ caption says: “Reason for U.S. Involvement Discovered.” 

That’s funny. Toles is joking, sort of. But an AP dispatch in the Washington Post says bluntly:

Foreign countries will have another recourse to persuade their war-fatigued populations that securing Afghanistan is worth the fight and the loss of troops.

Now that’s interesting. Before, during and after the US invasion of Iraq, it was considered bad form even to suggest that the attack on Iraq had anything to do with Iraq’s oil resources, perhaps the world’s largest. Once in a while, some US official or other would let it slip. But in the case of Iraq there was no need to proclaim it, since everyone knew that Iraq was floating on a sea of oil, as Paul Wolfowitz once carelessly pointed out. In Afghanistan’s case, pretty much everyone believed that Afghanistan is a basket case and that, except for a possible pipeline route or two, there was nothing worthwhile to fight over. Now we know different, thanks to the Pentagon.

A previously unreported survey by the Pentagon, reported by the New York Times yesterday, suggests that Afghanistan has at least $908 billion in mineral wealth, including iron, copper, cobalt, gold and rare minerals such as lithium, used in the manufacture of high-tech electronics. General David Petraeus wasn’t shy about proclaiming the value of the underground wealth: “There is stunning potential here.”

It’s ironic, indeed, to hear US officials trumpeting the importance of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, since the reason for the war is supposed to have something to do with Al Qaeda and 9/11, last time I checked. But the Times reports that US officials are worried and concerned about strategic competition with China (yes, China) over Afghanistan’s minerals, ever since China signed a $3 billion deal to mine copper in Afghanistan. Says the paper:

At the same time, 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.

Today, the Senate will hold hearings on the war, raising questions about the failure of the Marja offensive, the postponement of the Kandahar offensive, the fight between the United States and President Karzai over Karzai’s insistence on striking a deal with the Taliban, and more. There’s growing discontent, inside the administration, in Congress, and among the public about a nine-year war gone awry. It’s sad, and pathetic, that a bunch of rocks under Afghanistan’s soil are being weighed in the balance, especially since that devastated nation has zero ability to create a mining industry. Of course, the idea that Afghanistan has iron, copper, cobalt and gold underneath the ground isn’t shocking, but one thing’s for sure, that mineral wealth won’t see the light of day for a generation, at least. As one expert told the Los Angeles Times: “Sudan will host the Winter Olympics before these guys get a trillion dollars out of the ground.”