Is the "New" Discovery of Afghan Mineral Treasures Old News?

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The New York Times blazed into the day yesterday with a big headline -- "U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan." The story went on to describe "$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."

A man walks with his cow along a road during a dust storm in Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul, in this April 7, 2005 file photo. Afghanistan could be holding $1 trillion of untapped mineral deposits including critical industrial metals such as lithium, the New York Times reported June 14, 2010, quoting U.S. government officials. REUTERS/Stringer (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY ENERGY)

There are, reportedly, massive deposits of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and the extremely valuable lithium (used for batteries in electronic devices) in the country. Articles across the web use phrases like the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," "among the most important mining centers of the world," "huge discovery."

A trillion dollars. Who knew? Imagine that! This could provide a good life for every Afghani. It could restore all the damage that has been done, and provide jobs and work and hospitals and schools ...wait, does this start sounding like a Deus ex machina?

The article in the Times goes on to say that this is "... a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan. The American-led offensive ...has achieved only limited gains. Meanwhile, charges of corruption and favoritism continue to plague the Karzai government, and Mr. Karzai seems increasingly embittered toward the White House.So the Obama administration is hungry for some positive news to come out of Afghanistan."

Could it be that we just found this happy news out? What a coincidence that we already have mining advisers in place.

Passport, a blog of Foreign Policy Magazine, points out the following:

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.[Ed Note: Download the .pdf report here.] More information is available on the Afghan Mining Ministry's website, including a report by the British Geological Survey ... 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. [Ed. note: from 2006.)

And this report from The New American points to China having already secured interest in mining in Afghanistan:

Last year, in an Afghan version of "Chinagate," Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, Afghanistan's Minister of Mines, was accused by U.S. officials of accepting a $30 million bribe from Chinese officials to grant the Chinese state-owned firm MCC the rights to develop the copper mine. The Minister has been replaced.

There is also proof that the Russians, in their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, surveyed the geology and knew of the wealth of deposits, but that they kept it secret.

The bees having been buzzing around Afghanistan's honey for a long time. Any attempt to characterize the latest announcement to the rest of us drones about the mineral deposits as "news" is out of line. It certainly does display an economic incentive to "win" in Afghanistan. But what does "win" mean? With the hostility of the current corrupt leadership, anything goes.

So let's do a quick "prior to 2010" activity summary, just in case you are getting dizzy by now:

1. In the 1980s, Russia does geologic surveying while they are battling with Afghanistan. They see a vast treasure trove.
2. The British survey.
3. The Americans survey several times.
4. The Afghans help us after hiding all the results.
5. We send over mining advisers.
6. China buys a huge copper mine.
7. The Minister of Mines accepts a $30 million dollar Chinese bribe and is expelled.
8. We manage to predict the value of a trillion dollars with no data to support actual, real, volumes let alone cost of getting the minerals from the ground.
9. Afghanistan has no infrastructure to support this effort, no railway from mine areas to shipping areas and only four small concrete plants. They do not have enough concrete plants to make enough floors for their residents, let alone to build large scale mines.

The UK Times Online estimates that it would take $5 billion to build one large-scale mine -- one. And they add another $5 billion to build the infrastructure needed to support it. With further skepticism they add:

No company will risk that sort of money in a country where the Government does not control all the territory and contract law is far from solid. The only people to have shown an interest in Afghanistan’s mines so far are the Chinese because...they can tie agreements to foreign aid, loans and arms deals...It is possible that China’s grab for Afghan resources has prompted the Pentagon’s attempt to generate some interest from the rest of the world in the country’s resources.

There s a time to rejoice at news, and a time to be skeptical. I want there to be wealth in Afghanistan. I want that wealth to help end the war and to provide a profitable future for people whose lives have been decimated by war. I want there to be something good and decent and redemptive coming out of this horror story.

But in my heart of hearts, I do not think this is it. Even if all this is true, even if an infrastructure somehow magically appears: huge lithium deposits have not elevated the people of Bolivia from poverty, nor have diamond deposits in Namibia. This would take a cultural shift, a turning of values. I want that, too. But...

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BlogHer does not take a political position. I do.

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