New Surveys On Afghan Minerals Raise Hopes In
June 14, 2010
By Ron Synovitz
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
New aerial surveys of Afghanistan have revealed a
far greater amount of mineral riches than previously
U.S. officials say the nearly $1 trillion of
untapped minerals include deposits of iron, copper,
gold, semi-precious gems, and valuable industrial
metals like lithium.
Afghan and U.S. officials say that if the sector
can be developed, the country's economy can be
fundamentally changed -- potentially ending the role
of the illegal opium trade as the main pillar of the
Omar Jawad, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry
of Mines and Industries, told RFE/RL's Radio Free
Afghanistan today that there are great hopes about
"New technical studies show that Afghanistan has
more mineral resources than was previously estimated,"
Jawad said. "Undoubtedly, the exploitation of these
mineral fields will have a significant effect on the
economy of Afghanistan and its people."
Senior U.S. officials say they now think the value
of Afghanistan's undeveloped mineral deposits is
nearly $1 trillion. That's almost 300 times the value,
estimated by the United Nations, of illegal opium
exported from Afghanistan in a year.
'Saudia Arabia Of Lithium'
Wahidullah Shahrani, the Afghan minister of mines
and industry, is expected to provide more details
about the new geological research during a press
conference he has scheduled in Kabul on June 17.
With the right foreign investment, he hopes
Afghanistan can eventually be transformed into one of
the most important mining centers in the world.
"The New York Times" says it obtained an internal
Pentagon memo stating that Afghanistan could become
the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" -- a key raw material in
the manufacture of batteries for laptop computers.
General David, the head of the U.S. military's
Central Command, told the paper that the latest
research reveals "stunning potential" for the
development of Afghanistan's mineral industry.
Petraeus was careful to say "there are a lot of
ifs" but that he thinks the findings are "hugely
Even if Afghanistan wasn't facing the security
concerns of an ongoing insurgency, it would take years
for the industrial infrastructure to be developed that
would allow Afghanistan to fully exploit its mineral
Road and railway connections need to be built --
not only to provide access to mineral fields for
vehicles and heavy machinery but also to carry mined
resources to international markets.
Mining operations also require enormous amounts of
energy. That means electricity plants need to be built
close enough to the newly surveyed mineral fields that
would be developed.
The failure of international forces during the last
eight years to provide the security needed in Helmand
Province to restore power generators at the Kajaki dam
bodes ill for plans to develop mining in other parts
of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the
insurgency continues to rage.
But Jawad told RFE/RL that the potential is so
great that heavy investment could be attracted even
before mines are profitable -- providing more jobs for
"We have started working on the [ implementation]
of new procedures. We hope to be able to put up those
mines for tender in six months' time on which the
studies have already been finished," Jawad said. "We
would like to take action regarding the implementation
of these mines soon and by doing so we hope to ensure
the economic growth in the country."
It was preliminary research by the U.S. Geological
Survey, conducted in 2007, which first hinted that
Afghanistan's mineral resources were greater than
previously thought. That survey concluded that copper
and iron ore resources had "the most potential for
extraction in Afghanistan." The research also found
known and potential undiscovered resources of cobalt,
chromium, silver, barite, sulfur, talc, magnesium,
salt, mica, marble, ruby, emerald and lapis lazuli. It
said known deposits of asbestos, mercury, lead, zinc,
fluorspar, bauxite, beryllium, and lithium are also
Within a half year of that initial survey, two
Chinese mining firms -- Jiangxi Copper Company and
China Metallurgical Group -- won a contract through a
tender to develop Afghanistan's vast Aynak copper
field in Logar Province.
That bid included commitments to build a railroad
through Afghanistan to link Central Asia with
Pakistan's port city of Karachi. The Chinese bid also
included promises to build a power plant in Logar
Province that would be big enough to run the mining
operations in Logar and also provide electricity to
Afghan officials hope fresh bids to develop other
mineral fields in the country will include similar
commitments to build infrastructure.
But there also are concerns that Afghanistan's
newly discovered mineral riches could lead to further
instability as Taliban militants and warlords fight
even harder for control of territory with the
There also are concerns that such wealth could
amplify corruption -- especially if well-connected
oligarchs try to control the resources.
Afghanistan's last minister of mines was replaced
after being accused last year of accepting a $30
million bribe to award China the rights to develop the
Aynak copper field.
Activists from nongovernmental organizations say
care must be taken to ensure that the extraction of
mineral resources in Afghanistan doesn't cause
irreparable damage to the environment or create grave
social problems from the exploitation of cheap labor
or the forced movement of villages that were built on
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent
Mustafa Sarwar contributed to this report