The main point that McNeil wanted to get across in the first half of the article is that when natural resources are discovered in less-developed countries, imperial powers come in and exploit them. But there comes a point when the cost of extracting those materials outweigh the profit from exploiting them, and Afghanistan might prove to be the case.
One of the most compelling estimates from this article is that it would take 5 to 15 years to go from where most of Afghanistan is now to an operating mine (costing anywhere from hundreds to billions of dollars), and another 5 to 15 years for the investment to turn a profit. This means about 30 years worth of dangerous work put into a country ripe with violence, corruption, and ready to collapse at any moment.
Finally, the article mentions China’s ability to exploit materials that Western nations cannot because of its state-driven policies. China already has heavy investment and influence in numerous African countries, and has brought with it its atrocious human rights reputation. The thought of China surpassing the Western nations in its quest to become the world’s dominant power (arguably it already has) by doing what the Western nations did for hundreds of years (from the 15th to 19th centuries) makes me cringe.
So if even China thinks it’s too risky to invest in Afghanistan, then perhaps no one can, for now.