A recently unearthed 2007 United States Geological Service survey appears to have discovered nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself.
Lorimer Wilson, editor of http://www.FinancialArticleSummariesToday.com, provides below further reformatted and edited [..] excerpts from articles by James Risen* (www.nytimes.com) and Una Galani** (www.breakingviews.com) for the sake of clarity and brevity to ensure a fast and easy read. Smith goes on to say:
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world. An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
Obstacles to Development
1. Investment Risks
While it would take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war. U.S. officials have held meetings with large listed miners about extracting deposits but the [present] huge investment risks mean the established players are unlikely to be leaping on the opportunity [any time soon].
2. Security Risks
The security risks make an investment by one of the big listed miners highly implausible judging by their behaviour elsewhere. Many have only just begun to operate in Western African nations that emerged from civil war several years ago.
Smaller startup miners may have more appetite for the mix of risk and reward but the recent suspension of licences from Canadian miner First Quantum Minerals Ltd. in the Democratic Republic of Congo, threatening a US$1-billion investment, is a sign of how difficult projects can be.
3. Taliban Presence
American officials also recognize that the mineral discoveries will almost certainly have a double-edged impact in that, instead of bringing peace, the newfound mineral wealth could lead the Taliban to battle even more fiercely to regain control of the country.
4. Rampant Corruption
The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan’s minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.
5. Tribal Leaders
Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts. Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge.
6. Chinese Interest
American officials also fear that resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth which would upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.
7. Environmental Protection
Another complication is that because Afghanistan has never had much heavy industry before, it has little or no history of environmental protection either.
8. Lack of Infrastructure
With virtually no mining industry or infrastructure in place today, it will take decades for Afghanistan to exploit its mineral wealth fully.
The Pentagon task force has already started trying to help the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development. International accounting firms that have expertise in mining contracts have been hired to consult with the Afghan Ministry of Mines, and technical data is being prepared to turn over to multinational mining companies and other potential foreign investors. The Pentagon is helping Afghan officials arrange to start seeking bids on mineral rights by next fall, officials said.
Background to Discovery
In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
Armed with the old Russian charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 percent of the country.
The data from those flights was so promising that in 2007, the geologists returned for an even more sophisticated study, using an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface. It was the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.
The handful of American geologists who pored over the new data said the results were astonishing but the results gathered dust for two more years, ignored by officials in both the American and Afghan governments. In 2009, a Pentagon task force that had created business development programs in Iraq was transferred to Afghanistan, and came upon the geological data. Until then, no one besides the geologists had bothered to look at the information — and no one had sought to translate the technical data to measure the potential economic value of the mineral deposits.
Soon, the Pentagon business development task force brought in teams of American mining experts to validate the survey’s findings, and then briefed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Mr. Karzai.
Extent of Discoveries
So far, the biggest mineral deposits discovered are of iron and copper, and the quantities are large enough to make Afghanistan a major world producer of both, United States officials said. Other finds include large deposits of niobium, a soft metal used in producing superconducting steel, rare earth elements and large gold deposits in Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.
Just this month, American geologists working with the Pentagon team have been conducting ground surveys on dry salt lakes in western Afghanistan where they believe there are large deposits of lithium. Pentagon officials said that their initial analysis at one location in Ghazni Province showed the potential for lithium deposits as large of those of Bolivia, which now has the world’s largest known lithium reserves.
For the geologists who are now scouring some of the most remote stretches of Afghanistan to complete the technical studies necessary before the international bidding process is begun, there is a growing sense that they are in the midst of one of the great discoveries of their careers.
That being said, any way you look at the opportunity the concerns over unlocking Afghanistan’s treasures mean the country remains some time away from any magical resource-led transformation.