Afghan minerals in the crosshairs of Blackwater’s Erik Prince

Erik Prince, chairman of the Prince Group, LLC and Blackwater USA, holds up a picture showing the affect of a car bomb while testifying during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill October 2, 2007 in Washington DC. The committee is hearing testimony from officials regarding private security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

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.

Prince, who is the chairman of logistics firm Frontier Services Group, had pitched a plan to privatise the Afghan war and mine the country’s minerals to the White House last year.

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.”

The Pentagon has expressed opposition to Prince’s plan to privatise the Afghan war but has made no official comment about his desire to exploit its resources.

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.

It is a tantalising but dangerous prospect that could ease Afghanistan’s over-reliance on foreign aid provided Afghans get to reap the benefits.

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.

Erik Prince, chairman of the Prince Group, LLC and Blackwater USA, holds up a picture showing the affect of a car bomb while testifying during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill October 2, 2007 in Washington DC. The committee is hearing testimony from officials regarding private security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Erik Prince, chairman of the Prince Group, LLC and Blackwater USA, holds up a picture showing the affect of a car bomb while testifying during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill October 2, 2007 in Washington DC. The committee is hearing testimony from officials regarding private security contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trump is now pushing for direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government while encouraging US-backed, Afghan troops to withdraw from vast parts of the country.

Afghans are suspicious of any foreign companies aiming to exploit their resources. 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.

Prince is under scrutiny for meeting a senior Russian fund manager allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Seychelles in January 2016 and is accused of lying to Congress about it.

President Trump rejected Prince’s plan to privatise the Afghan war, but he has continued advocating this year for the privatisation of the Afghan conflict.

The Taliban announced that they also opposed Prince’s plans, as has the Ghani government.

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.”

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.

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