No, There is No New $1 Trillion Motherlode in Afghanistan

June 17, 2010 by  


By Katie Drummond, Wired Magazine

Despite what you may read this morning, the U.S. military did not just “discover” a trillion dollars’ worth of precious minerals in Afghanistan.

The New York Times today proclaimed that Afghanistan is apparently poised to become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” — a metal used to produce gadgets like iPods and laptops. The discovery will also, according to Pentagon documents quoted by the Times, fundamentally transform the country’s opium-reliant economy.

But the military (and observers of the military) have known about Afghanistan’s mineral riches for years. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Navy concluded in a 2007 report that “Afghanistan has significant amounts of undiscovered nonfuel mineral resources,” including ”large quantities of accessible iron and copper [and] abundant deposits of colored stones and gemstones, including emerald, ruby [and] sapphire.”

Not to mention that the $1 trillion figure is — at best — a guesstimate. None of the earlier U.S military reports on Afghan’s mineral riches cite that amount. And it might be prudent to be wary of any data coming out of Afghanistan’s own Mines Ministry, which “has long been considered one of the country’s most corrupt government departments,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

And the timing of the “discovery” seems just a little too convenient. As Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy notes, the Obama administration is struggling to combat the perception that the Afghan campaign has “made little discernible progress,” despite thousands of additional troops and billions of extra dollars.

Still, Pentagon officials are touting the find as a potential economic game-changer — and one that could end decades of conflict. But whether it’s oil or coltan, rich pockets of resources are always a mixed blessing. Just ask children in Congo, home to 80 percent of the world’s coltan supply, who were forced to mine for the precious metal that was later used to manufacture tech gadgets.

It’ll take years, and a ton of capital investment, before Afghanistan’s deposits can even be mined. And when they can, it’s anybody’s guess who’ll actually be profiting. Hounshell sums up the mess nicely:

Meanwhile, the drive for Kandahar looks to be stalled in the face of questionable local support for Karzai’s government, the Taliban is killing local authorities left and right, and the corruption situation has apparently gotten so bad that the U.S. intelligence community is now keeping tabs on which Afghan officials are stealing what.

UPDATE:

One retired senior U.S official is calling the government’s mineral announcement “pretty silly,” Politico is reporting. “When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970s the [U.S. government], the Russians, the World Bank, the U.N. and others were all highly focused on the wide range of Afghan mineral deposits. Cheap ways of moving the ore to ocean ports has always been the limiting factor.”

At least two American geologists have been advising the Pentagon on Afghanistan’s wealth of mineral resources for years. Bonita Chamberlin, a geologist who spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, “identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2001. In 1995, she even co-wrote a book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan,” on the topic. And Chamberlin worked directly with the Pentagon, after they commissioned her to report on sandstone and limestone caves mere weeks after 9/11.

“I am quite surprised that the military is announcing this as some ‘new’ and ’surprising” discovery,’ she told Danger Room in an e-mail. “This is NOT new. Perhaps this also hints at the real reason why we would be so intent on this war.”

And Jack Shroder, a geologist at the University of Nebraska, told the Associated Press in 2001 that mineral deposits in Afghanistan were so rich, they could be vital in rebuilding the country. He’s collaborated with Pentagon officials since the 1970s, when he worked on mapping the country. In 2002, Shroder was approached by several American companies who hoped to start mining the area.

It’s not clear exactly what those experts shared with military honchos, but the Pentagon’s knowledge of Afghanistan’s minerals clearly preceded the 2004 discovery of “an intriguing series of old charts and data,” as the Times reports. In 2002, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the U.S. Department of Interior’s Mineral Yearbook, among other atlases, noted Afghanistan’s “significant deposits of gold, precious stones and other minerals waiting to be mined.”

But whatever the U.S military knows, and no matter how long they’ve known it, Russia likely has ‘em beat. At a 2002 conference on rebuilding Afghanistan, reps from several countries complained that Russia continued to withhold decades-old information about mineral deposits in the country.

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Comments

One Response to “No, There is No New $1 Trillion Motherlode in Afghanistan”

  1. Bill Distler on July 5th, 2010 2:48 pm

    The Minerals Yearbook mentioned in the article should be looked at by everyone interested in the issue of the “newly discovered” minerals. Minerals Yearbook is the official survey conducted by the USGS of minerals of the world. The 1982 and 1992 entries on Afghanistan are particularly interesting. The 1982 entry says that the iron deposit at Hajigak is of a sufficient size and grade to suppport a major iron and steel industry. The 1992 entry mentions estimated natural gas reserves of 2,000 Billion cubic meters (roughly 70 trillion cubic feet). That’s a lot.
    The US Govt. has known about this from the beginning, but kept it hidden. Several articles, including this one, say that this has been known for decades. To some people, yes, but not to the general public. I don’t remember the Seattle P-I reference to the Minerals Yearbook, but I do remember a 2003 P-I article in which the reporter mentioned twice that “Afghanistan has no oil or natural resources”. I called the reporter and asked where he got that information (since the Minerals Yearbook already showed us that wasn’t true). He said he got it from the State Dept. and the CIA. This was the commonly disseminated wisdom right up until the NY Times “discovered” these new mineral deposits. Stephen Kinzer, in his book “Overthrow” (2007?) repeats the “no minerals” mantra. Apparently he was lied to by the same people.
    What’s important is: our govt. lied and said that there was nothing of value in Afghanistan, therefore the war must have been about justice and human rights. After the first lie, a second lie about “newly discovered” minerals was required to cover up the first lie. Well, they haven’t done anything for justice or Afghan women, but they have certainly pursued the minerals. What does that tell us about their true intentions? It’s not their words, it’s their actions that expose this war of aggression and theft.

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