A very big bucks new twist has been added to the context of Afghanistan: the U.S. has discovered some $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan — a finding that is likely to urge some to keep the U.S. there, some to pull out, rosy predictions about Afghanistan’s easier future, and gloomier predictions that with the country’s stultifying corruption the find could eventually trigger more corruption and more internal bloodshed.
The New York Times has the story HERE — a story that is getting huge play on weblogs (with ideological twists added depending on the writer’s viewpoint.) But here are the key facts from the Times piece:
The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.
While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.
“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
The Times notes that the money from these deposits could “dwarf” Afghanistan’s present economy, which relies on such things as the production of opium, big-time narcotics trafficking and financial help from the United States and other countries.
“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.
Most news stories that come out of the blue from sources come out for a reason. And some will wonder if a spate of stories about Afghanistan corruption and the war now becoming longer than Vietnam has anything to do with the timing.
Already Paul Jay, writing on the Huffington Post, is asking some questions about the timing of the news:
Did a 2007 report of massive mineral deposits in Afghanistan affect President Obama’s 2009 decision to widen the scope of the Afghan war?
Is a recent New York Times article omitting that possibility?
A U.S. Geological Survey has shown that Afghanistan is one of the worlds’ biggest depositories of minerals and precious metals. Include on that list, a lithium find that could be as large as Bolivia’s, now the world’s major source of the rare mineral.
He summarizes the Times piece and then writes:
The problem is, what the NYT describes as “beyond any previously known reserves” and “the previously unknown deposits”, were in fact quite well known — in 2007, well before President Obama made the fateful decision to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan.
One did not need to read an “internal Pentagon memo” to find about the discovery. Just visit the public web site of the U.S. Geological Survey and read the press release “Significant Potential for Undiscovered Resources in Afghanistan Released: 11/13/2007 10:00:00 AM” and you will find the following: “Afghanistan has significant amounts of undiscovered non-fuel mineral resources according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2007 assessment . . . Estimates for copper and iron ore resources were found to have the most potential for extraction in Afghanistan. Scientists also found indications of abundant deposits of colored stones and gemstones, including emerald, ruby, sapphire, garnet, lapis, kunzite, spinel, tourmaline and peridot. Other examples of mineral resources available for extraction in Afghanistan include gold, mercury, sulfur, chromite, talc-magnesite, potash, graphite and sand and gravel.”
In an interview with USGS’s Stephen Peters published at the same time on the same site, Peters says there are “Known deposits of asbestos, mercury, lead, zinc, fluorspar, bauxite, beryllium, and lithium.”
In the NYT story this is all presented as a recent and pleasant surprise to the Afghan government.
Read it in full.
Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell also raises an eyebrow:
Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there’s less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry’s website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there’s more here). You can also take a look at the USGS’s documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.
Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen suggests was generated by a Pentagon task force seeking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at the chart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.
Don’t get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it’s been through over the last three decades.
But I’m (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It’s also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment.
Moreover, before we get too excited about lithium and rare-earth metals and all that, Afghanistan could probably use some help with a much simpler resource: cement.
Go to the link and read it in its entirety.
It’s clear the find will be viewed in various ways by various people with various viewpoints. But two things are fact: the minerals hold the potential of great amounts of money for Afghanistan — but the minerals will not be a magic wand to sweep away rampant corruption and fierce internal battles.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.