Posts Tagged ‘afghanistan 2010’
James Risen of the New York Times writes:
The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government official.
Others have noted that the timing of the article is rather suspect. It makes it seem like Washington just happened upon these minerals, when in fact geologists have known about the country’s mineral wealth for decades, the U.S. Geological Survey had already made this trillion dollar estimate in 2007, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai himself has cited the figure previously. So why all the brouhaha now? As Bonita Chamberlin, a geologist who spent 25 years working in Afghanistan who has co-written a book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan”, put it:
I am quite surprised that the military is announcing this as some ‘new’ and ’surprising” discovery…this is NOT new.
Some speculate this is because it has been a rough couple of weeks for the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy (see, for instance, here, here, and here). Military operations in southern Afghanistan are progressing slower than anticipated, Afghan security forces remain poorly trained, and president Hamid Karzai seems to have lost faith in the U.S. strategy. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), according to a recent report, continues to “provide sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency”.
That does seem quite ‘coincidental’, though the Pentagon has subsequently insisted that more detailed field work has been done since the 2007 data to warrant the release of this new information. Besides, even if the timing is somewhat suspect, is this not a significant development nonetheless?
But even if we forget the speculative, there are substantive reasons to doubt the potential of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to be the ‘game-changer’ the article suggests it might. Formidable security and logistical challenges exist in exploiting these minerals (see here and here). Most of the country’s resource-rich provinces are also its least secure, and there is the key question of how to move tons of minerals from the landlocked nation into major ocean ports.
Mining experts also say developing the mines itself will take ten or more years and billions of dollars, assuming that a country already has a stable government and basic infrastructure (a big assumption in Afghanistan, given the shape of the country now). Afghanistan’s ministry of mines is also corrupt and incompetent — the last minister was accused of accepting bribes from members of the Karzai family and a Chinese mining firm.
Stan Coats, former Principal Geologist at the British Geographical Society who carried out exploration work in Afghanistan for four years, says:
Considerably more work needs to be carried out before it can be properly called an economic deposit that can be extracted at a profit…Much more ground exploration, including drilling, needs to be carried out to prove that these are viable deposits which can be worked.
Of course, should these huge obstacles be overcome, rosier scenarios of Afghanistan’s development could well materialize. As Michael O’Hanlon writes:
First, it [the mineral wealth] could provide a long-term funding source that could gradually replace foreign aid. It could pay for Afghanistan’s army and police force, schools, health clinics and infrastructure, like the irrigation systems and roads needed by farmers. Lack of such prospective funding is partly why Afghanistan’s government has not been able to build adequate security forces or infrastructure. Second, with the money from natural wealth, Kabul could increase salaries of key ministers and other government employees. This would, in turn, deprive these officials of the excuse to take bribes to compensate for unacceptably low paychecks. Combined with improved means of ferreting out corrupt officials — which has already led to arrest or indictment of as many as 20 officials this year — the new funding source could help address corruption over the long term.
I hope Mr. O’Hanlon is right. But it is important to inject some perspective into this trillion-dollar statistic so we can all get a clear view of what is and is not possible in Afghanistan, regardless of one’s view about the U.S. presence there.