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Wealth lies deep beneath Afghans’ feet

Tue., June 15, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan – It could take years and possibly even a peace settlement for Afghanistan to reap profits from nearly $1 trillion in mineral resources that U.S. geologists say lie beneath its rugged terrain – some in areas currently controlled by Taliban insurgents or warlords.

Geologists have known for decades that Afghanistan has vast mineral wealth, but a U.S. Department of Defense briefing this week put a startling price tag on the country’s reserves of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and other prized minerals: at least $908 billion.

If impoverished Afghanistan is seen as having a bright economic future, that could help foreign governments persuade their war-fatigued publics that securing the country is worth the fight and loss of troops. It also could give Afghans hope, U.S. officials say.

“The Afghan people (are) developing an understanding that they have a source of indigenous wealth that if properly developed will enable them to be sovereign,” said Paul Brinkley, a senior defense official who led the study.

Still, without increased security and massive investment to mine and transport the minerals, it could take years for Afghanistan to bank the rewards. And there’s always the potential that such a discovery could bring unintended consequences, including corruption and civil war.

If the Afghan government has taken notice of the billions in potential revenue, so will the Taliban.

“Obama’s war just became more important and more complicated at the same time,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who helped advise the administration last year when it was rethinking its Afghanistan strategy.

Mining industry officials and others cast a skeptical eye on the idea that massive amounts of wealth could be easily extracted from the country’s rugged mountains and remote passages.

“Sudan will host the Winter Olympics before these guys get a trillion dollars out of the ground,” said Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association, which represents U.S. mining companies.

Stephanie Sanok, who dealt with similar issues while working at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, likened the situation to a carnival game that promises a prize if you can guide a tiny, hand-controlled crane to the perfect spot: It almost never works and requires a steady stream of money.

“Everyone has known about this,” Sanok said of the minerals. “But there’s no way to get at it.”

For one thing, Afghanistan lacks even the most basic resources for mining, such as railroads and electricity. Afghanistan is expected to complete its first railroad this year, linking Mazar-e-Sharif in the north to Asian rail lines.

The Afghan government is plagued by corruption, particularly involving officials who have dealt with mineral concessions. And much of the minerals are located in or around Taliban strongholds, which could encourage fighting to gain control of the deposits, said Sanok, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mike Davis, who works on issues of natural resources and armed conflict with activist group Global Witness, said that the windfall should be welcomed, but also has the potential to exacerbate Afghanistan’s problems.

“The particularly corrosive effect that the theft of these resources can have is to make politicians who were powerful and possibly corrupt even less accountable to the people,” said Davis, who is based in London. “It increases their capacity to do everything from rig elections to building up militias.”

“It’s really like pouring petrol on a fire that’s already out of control,” he said.


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