The Pentagon wants the world to know: When the American military stops spending billions per week in Afghanistan and eventually goes home, the Afghan economy is gonna be totally fine. After all, they’re sitting on trillions in mineral deposits, just waiting to be mined.
Too bad many of the mines are in regions too dangerous or geographically treacherous for companies to set up camp. And it’ll take at least a decade before the mines yield tangible goods, and the profits that accompany them.
A year ago, the New York Timesgushingly pronounced that Afghanistan, with at least $1 trillion in untapped minerals, was poised to become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Now, the Pentagon has announced plans to train Afghans in “airborne geophysical exploration.” The project will harness the latest in geophysical mapping technology, which uses aerial sensors to detect the specific quantity of minerals in precise locations, and how readily accessible they are.
Of course, it’s hardly breaking news that Afghanistan is rich in minerals. The Soviets concluded in the 1980s that the country was rife with resources like lithium, iron and gemstones. Even the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2007, remarked that “Afghanistan has significant amounts of undiscovered nonfuel mineral resources.”
So why is the U.S. re-mapping the mines?
For one, “this is a significant push toward modernizing and updating our knowledge of the resources,” says Kari Lipschutz, a doctoral candidate specializing in natural resource management and conflict at the University of London. “Some of the estimates they’re relying on date as far back as the 1960s — there’s a good chance of a major discrepancy between what we think is there, and what actually is.”
The program also sends a strong signal that Afghans are ready to welcome foreign investment. “The goal of this training is to enable to Afghan government to give the best information possible to international investors,” Emily Scott, director of natural resource development for the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, said in a press release.
Those investors are already popping up, with India yesterday garnering a contract to mine part of Afghanistan’s iron-ore deposits, and China already working with a $3 billion contract to mine copper (though according to documents revealed by WikiLeaks, Afghan bureaucracy is giving Chinese officials some second thoughts).
Right now, international contributions make up a whopping 97% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. A mine or two might alleviate a bit of the financial letdown, if the U.S. goes ahead with its scheduled drawdown of American troops in 2014. Already, the Afghan government has asked for “continuity and enduring engagement” from foreign powers, even though the U.S. has “zero” interest in handouts that persist beyond a decade, according to Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Alas, Afghanistan’s minerals might not pay off in time to make up for that lack of American largesse. So while U.S. officials can help Afghanistan “move closer to fully managing its own natural mineral resources,” the country will hardly be able to remedy what the World Bank dubbed “an unmanageable financial gap” following American withdrawal.
“The U.S. is helping build capacity, and that’s certainly a positive thing,” Lipschutz says. “But there’s an important question of what should come first: mineral sector development, or stability and security?”
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey