Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Afghanistan’s treasure trove: a reality check

June 15, 2010
(An oil installation near Herat, western Afghanistan)

(An oil installation near Herat, western Afghanistan)

A team of U.S. geologists and Pentagon officials have concluded that Afghanistan is sitting on untapped mineral deposits worth more than $1 trillion, officials said. The deposits of iron, copper, cobalt and critical industrial elements such as lithium are enough to  fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the war itself, the officials said.

Lithium is a key raw material for the manufacture of batteries for laptops and mobile phones, and the potential reserves of the metal are so huge that the country may well become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”, a Pentagon memo said.

So is Afghanistan going to mine its way out of its current troubles ? For all the hope the finding has stirred in a landscape of death and destruction, unlocking Afghanistan’s mineral riches may be decades away, experts say.   The country has almost no mining infrastructure, is in the midst of a wrenching war and has a reputation for government corruption.  The risks are far too big for most companies to get involved, however enticing the deposits look.

The curious thing is this is not the first time Afghanistan’s mineral riches have been discovered. Back in  January 1984, the chief engineer of the Afghan Geological Survey Department published a report saying the country had reserves of a wide variety of mineral resources, including iron, chrome, copper, silver, gold, barite sulfur, talc, magnesium, mica marble and lapis lazuli.  The Afghan Chamber of Commerce has details of the report here. The Afghan government in the mid 1980s  was preparing to develop a number of the mineral resources on a large scale with Soviet technical assistance, the chamber said. But the Russians left in 1989 and Afghanistan descended into a war which has, more or less, continued  since then.The report also mentions abundant reserves of natural gas, so don’t be surprised if that too resurfaces as another silver lining in Afghanistan’s cloudy sky.

Even the U.S. military itself has known about Afghanistan’s mineral riches for years, the military-focused Danger Room blog pointed out.  Here’s  a 2007 report by the  U.S. Geological Survey  (USGS) and the navy which says   “Afghanistan has significant amounts of undiscovered non fuel mineral resources,” including ”large quantities of accessible iron and copper [and] abundant deposits of colored stones and gemstones, including emerald, ruby [and] sapphire.”

Politico is quoting a retired U.S. official as saying the latest announcement sounded  a bit silly to old timers. “When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970’s the [U.S. government], the Russians, the World Bank, the UN 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,” the offiicial said.

So why is so much being made out of this particular find ? Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy says the timing of the “discovery” is interesting. It comes when the Obama administration is struggling to combat the perception that the Afghan campaign has made little progress despite the deployment of thousands of additional troops. The  drive to oust the Taliban from their spiritual home of Kandahar in the south is stalling and  two top Afghan security officials, widely respected for their integrity, have quit with one of them saying President Hamid Karzai had lost faith in the ability of western forces  to defeat the Taliban. Then comes a report that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is deeply involved with the Afghan Taliban despite heated denials to the contrary.

In short things are not looking good for the United States which makes the timing of the  Pentagon report about Afghanistan’s hidden wealth suspicious, he says.


Obama maneuvered Mullen and McCrystal into saying they would not object to leaving afghanistan on Obama’s timetable. They were irritated at being flanked. McCrystal and Mullen had to come up with some other reason for staying in afghanistan. Ta-da, mineral riches in the land.

They should both be looking for jobs. Disloyalty cost MacArthur his position. It would not be a new answer to the problem of arrogant fools in uniform.

Posted by Sam D | Report as abusive

It’s been known for years if not decades that Afghanistan had those minerals in its borders, so there’s no reason to hyperventilate about some recent news story to that effect. Besides, the country has absolutely no infrastructure necessary to extract and/or refine its ores into something more market ready for shipment to consumers.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

what can be more important for the american citizens than the poppies the afghans grow for them? The US military and the NATO troops are guarding well the plantation. In fact the UNO should declare the crop as a world heritage. The metals in the afghan terrain is known to any student of geology. Their value on the open market is less than that from poppies!!

Posted by rex Minor | Report as abusive

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