U.S. geologists have concluded that Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries after 30 years of violence and war, lies atop a bonanza of mineral riches that could transform it into a wealthy nation.
The world class deposits of copper, iron ore and some other fairly exotic minerals have been estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey, which has been working to identify resources in Afghanistan, at more than $1 trillion.
"Turning the potential of Afghanistan's mineral wealth into actual revenue will take years," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said today. "And mineral extraction faces numerous, but not insurmountable challenges."
American officials have long said that Afghanistan must develop long term sustainable economic sources of income that would provide a larger revenue stream so it can provide government services and security for itself after NATO forces leave.
Under Secretary for Defense Policy Michele Flournoy told a Congressional panel a few weeks ago, "We are working with the Afghan ministries on long-term economic development ... they're very rich in strategic minerals and resources, very rich in agriculture, helping them to develop sustainable long-term sources of income for the nation."
Geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey have been working in Afghanistan for the past couple of years surveying locations across the country and have concluded that it contains vast mineral deposits. A Pentagon task force that has helped to develop Iraq's long term economic viability has been working with Afghan ministries to begin the process of helping them with the expertise some believe could turn Afghanistan into one of the world's most important mining centers.
U. S. Central Command's Gen. David Petraeus described Afghanistan's mineral resources in a radio interview last December with ABC News.
"It has some of the world's remaining unexploited world class deposits of copper, iron ore and some other fairly exotic minerals. And it has some limited natural gas. The estimates of the worth of these deposits are quite substantial," he said.
Petraeus told a Congressional committee three months ago that what makes these deposits valuable is that they are "a couple of the only world-class fields left."
Besides $420 billion worth of iron and $274 billion worth of copper, Afghanistan possesses concentrations of gold with an estimated value of $25 billion, according to USGS.
In addition, there are $81 billion worth of niobium deposits, a mineral used in superconducting materials, and $50 billion worth of cobalt.
Other items that can be mined in sizeable quantities include molybdenum, which is used in high strength steel alloys, asbestos, silver, aluminum, graphite, lapis lazuli and other industrial minerals.
A Chinese firm recently signed a contract with the Afghan government to develop a copper mine, but given the lack of an infrastructure in Afghanistan and the current security situation, other potential investors are few and far between.
Petraeus describes potential investors as "adventure venture capitalists" because they need "an adventurous spirit to go to venture capitalism in Afghanistan." He added, "These guys have done it in other tough places, and they can see the extraordinary potential that exists. But they also see the extraordinary challenges to getting those minerals or whatever out of the ground and then out to a market because of a lack of infrastructure."
According to Petraeus, "Infrastructure, even as important for us to reestablish security, will then become very important to the Afghan security forces to continue that and, indeed, for the overall country of Afghanistan in the longer term."
The infrastructure challenges are enormous. The Afghan economy does not have the capacity to even begin the mining process and the lack of roads throughout much of the country raises challenges for how to export the mineral wealth that lies under Afghanistan. Beyond the lack of physical infrastructure is an Afghan government that does not have the experience in its ministries to even begin the process of accepting contract offers from potential investors.
The vast potential riches associated with Afghanistan's hidden mineral wealth can be difficult to comprehend, even for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Last month, during an event at at Washington's U.S. Institute of Peace with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Karzai described the value of Afghanistan's mineral resources as being between "$1 to $3 billion."
Aides off-stage corrected him, saying the value was in trillions, not billions. "Yeah, 3 billion," said Karzai, "No, no, 3 trillion," corrected an aide. Laughing, Karzai replied, "Trillion! Yeah, $3 trillion. Trillion, sorry. That's what I meant. Trillion, trillion, yeah. $1 to $3 trillion."