Afghanistan — Mineral Resources Could Give Afghans New Hope

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2010 — An esti­mat­ed $1 tril­lion of untapped min­er­al deposits in Afghanistan could lead to eco­nom­ic sov­er­eign­ty, eas­ing the country’s finan­cial depen­den­cy on the Unit­ed States and inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, a top defense offi­cial said yes­ter­day.

In a tele­con­fer­ence from Dubai, Paul A. Brink­ley, deputy under­sec­re­tary of defense and direc­tor of Task Force Busi­ness and Sta­bil­i­ty Oper­a­tions, briefed Pen­ta­gon reporters on his group’s recent find­ings and respon­si­bil­i­ties.

Afghanistan has sig­nif­i­cant deposits of cop­per, iron ore, nio­bi­um, cobalt, gold, molyb­de­num, sil­ver and alu­minum, as well as sources of fluorspar, beryl­li­um, lithi­um and oth­er resources, accord­ing to research com­piled by Brinkley’s task force. Lithi­um and fos­sil fuels are not includ­ed in the $1 tril­lion esti­mate, Brink­ley not­ed. Brinkley’s team is charged with eval­u­at­ing the state of Afghanistan’s econ­o­my, and until the min­er­al assess­ment began just more than a year ago, Pen­ta­gon offi­cials had deter­mined Afghanistan would be unable to pay for its own secu­ri­ty, he said.

“The focus of that assess­ment was to assess the abil­i­ty, or the long-term via­bil­i­ty, of the Afghan econ­o­my,” Brink­ley said. “[There are] well-pub­li­cized chal­lenges there in terms of the Afghans being able to finance their own secu­ri­ty, their own devel­op­ment.

“When I first vis­it­ed Afghanistan I did not antic­i­pate there being wealth oppor­tu­ni­ty there that would enable this kind of devel­op­ment to take place in any term,” he added. Although the new dis­cov­ery brings much-need­ed hope to a war-torn Afghanistan, much work remains in har­vest­ing the resources, Brink­ley said. Brink­ley explained that it will take time before the min­er­als will actu­al­ly affect Afghanistan’s econ­o­my. Infra­struc­ture, gov­ern­ment process­es and envi­ron­men­tal prac­tices must be in place and trans­par­ent before any sort of progress can be made, he said.

“I think it’s very impor­tant for every­body to rec­og­nize that between here and an eco­nom­i­cal­ly sov­er­eign, sus­tain­able Afghan econ­o­my … is not a quick win,” he said. “I mean, this will take time.”

The Afghan gov­ern­ment is just begin­ning to under­stand the type of wealth it pos­sess­es and the demand the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has for its new­found resources, he said. Also, Brink­ley added, the gov­ern­ment is just now real­iz­ing how the min­er­als enable Afghanistan to begin the march toward its own eco­nom­i­cal­ly sov­er­eign capa­bil­i­ty to finance its pop­u­la­tion and secu­ri­ty needs.

“That is the path that I think is begin­ning now,” he said. “I would describe where we are today is the rapid devel­op­ment of an under­stand­ing.”

Jack Medlin, a geo­log­i­cal spe­cial­ist on the region with the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey Inter­na­tion­al Pro­gram, has been work­ing with Afghan mine min­istry offi­cials to help them grasp the con­cept of their new resources.

Afghanistan has about 60 deposits spread across the coun­try, he said, not­ing that around 20 have great poten­tial to boost the country’s econ­o­my. Also, at least 70 per­cent of the country’s min­er­al resources are yet to be iden­ti­fied, Medlin explained, point­ing out that his orga­ni­za­tion only pro­vides the sci­en­tif­ic data, not devel­op­ment of the mines.

“The min­er­al resources of Afghanistan are basi­cal­ly scat­tered all over the coun­try,” Medlin said. “Once we work with them to iden­ti­fy the places and we gath­er the sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal data nec­es­sary for devel­op­ment, then that work is hand­ed off to the Afghan gov­ern­ment and the Afghan peo­ple basi­cal­ly to devel­op those resources in an envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound way.”

Medlin said the Afghan geol­o­gists and engi­neers over the past five years have proven com­pe­tent and pro­duce “qual­i­ty work.” How­ev­er, he added, the cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal state of min­ing in Afghan is wheel­bar­rows and shov­els.

Afghanistan faces a need to devel­op a more mod­ern, larg­er-scale min­ing cul­ture, he said, and help­ing the Afghans devel­op their min­ing infra­struc­ture as rapid­ly as pos­si­ble will be the next step.

“Arti­sanal min­ing in that coun­try has gone back cen­turies, most­ly focused on things like gold in var­i­ous places,” he said. “But the coun­try — what it faces going for­ward — is devel­op­ing a min­ing cul­ture basi­cal­ly at a very large mine scale. And I guess I ful­ly believe that the Afghans are ful­ly capa­ble of han­dling that, giv­en some time to devel­op the exper­tise.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)