Kabul – US and Afghan officials claim to have discovered more than $1 trillion in untapped copper, iron, and lithium deposits in Afghanistan, enough to significantly bolster the future development of the war ravaged country.
But there remains skepticism about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, as some critics argue that the extent of un-mined deposits is being inflated to garner support for the war.
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is not generally thought of as being rich in natural resources, at least in part because what mineral wealth it has is hard to get out and a long way from a port.
To be sure, Afghanistan has been known to have extensive iron, copper, and gold deposits since at least the late 1960s. The Aynak copper deposit, discovered by the Soviets in the mid 70s but left undeveloped due to war and weak domestic infrastructure, is now being developed by a Chinese company. The Afghan government expects to reap $1 billion a year in taxes and fees from Aynak when it eventually goes into production, though that still appears to be years away, as efforts to build the necessary roads and power plant have been slowed by the war.
Those kind of delays – caused by Taliban attacks, tough winter weather, and dilapidated existing infrastructure — also make developing mines here more expensive, and are one reason that investment has been held back.
For now, more than 80 percent of Afghans work in agriculture and poppy cultivation still accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.
Representatives from the US Geological Service, USAID, the Afghan government and the Pentagon released a summary of the country’s deposits in 2007 but only completed their assessment of untapped mineral value last December. On Monday, the New York Times reported the team’s findings.
A discovery of resources of this magnitude could help to gain more support for the viability of the war in Afghanistan.
“The mineral industry has the potential to be a significant enabler of self-sufficiency for Afghanistan,” says US Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). “It is on of the most important sectors in the country for the economic aspect of Afghanistan’s development.”
Now members of ISAF provincial reconstruction teams will work with local leaders at the provincial and district level to determine what projects are needed to aid in the harvesting of the minerals.
Jill McGivering of the BBC cast suspicion on the timing of the announcement, saying that “at a time of growing despair about Afghanistan and its government, the portrayal of the country as a potential goldmine could help to bolster international resolve and paint the country as a prize worth fighting for.
Accessing most deposits in Afghanistan may prove the biggest hurdle. Presently, there are no roads or railways to potential, meaning that investors will have to develop the necessary infrastructure before they can begin extracting minerals.
“This puts Afghanistan in a position where it can now work on its reconstruction and development with new resources … that if exploited appropriately could incorporate many Afghans into the workforce in their country,” says Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It helps [those trying to reconstruct the country] to have alternative economies.”
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