Vast Stores Of Minerals 'Suddenly' Found In Afghanistan

Poor Afghanistan. We'll never leave now, we'll have to "help" them develop their new mining industries. Shock capitalism in action! WASHINGTON

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Poor Afghanistan. We'll never leave now, we'll have to "help" them develop their new mining industries. Shock capitalism in action!

WASHINGTON — 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 Blackberries.

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.

Sounds like a wonderful surprise, right? Well, here's something that adds more perspective:

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 thechart 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.

According to an article in the journal Industrial Minerals, "Afghanistan has the lowest cement production in the world at 2kg per capita; in neighbouring Pakistan it is 92kg per capita and in the UK it is 200kg per capita." Afghanistan's cement plants were built by a Czech company in the 1950s, and nobody's invested in them since the 1970s. Most of Afghanistan's cement is imported today, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. Apparently the mining ministry has been working to set upfour new plants, but they are only expected to meet about half the country's cement needs.

Why do I mention this? One of the smartest uses of development resources is also one of the simplest: building concrete floors. Last year, a team of Berkeley researchers found that "replacing dirt floors with cement appears to be at least as effective for health as nutritional supplements and as helpful for brain development as early childhood development programs." And guess what concrete's made of? Hint: it's not lithium.

UPDATE: Missed this Wall Street Journal story earlier. Money quote:

[T]he Mines Ministry has long been considered among Afghanistan's most corrupt government departments, and Western officials have repeatedly expressed reservations about the Afghan government awarding concessions for the country's major mineral deposits, fearful that corrupt officials would hand contracts to bidders who pay the biggest bribes -- not who are best suited to actually do the work.

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