Geologists working with the Pentagon have found vast reserves of untapped minerals in Afghanistan that could be worth $1 trillion, the New York Times reports.
U.S. government officials told the Times the discovery could be enough to drastically alter the economy in the war-torn country and perhaps the actual war itself. The Times cites an internal Pentagon memo, which says the country could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium."
The discovery was heralded by military and government officials in the U.S. and Afghanistan alike.
“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, told the Times. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
The possibility of large amounts of mineral deposits in Afghanistan has been known for a while, but because of constant fighting in Taliban-controlled areas the full extent of the resources haven't been known.
A USGS report and several documents and aerial photos show that attempts to discern the number of deposits and value of minerals have been under way since at least 2006. The 2007 USGS report, which detailed preliminary assessments of the minerals, says previous data on resources were limited to what was produced between 1950 and 1985, but the reserves could not be fully examined because of " the intermittent conflict over the next two decades." (Read preliminary assessment - PDF and the report by the British Geological Survey on the study - PDF)
The Afghan Ministry of Mines says on its website that more research needs to be done to fully understand the economic value of the lithium, beryllium, precious metals and other valuable metals discovered. Other known precious metals in Afghanistan include copper, gold and cobalt. These beginning details, officials said, are what led to a more in-depth study by the U.S. government that resulted in the $1 trillion estimate.
“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines, told the Times regarding the discovery of $1 trillion in resources.
The Times report has been met with some criticism, based on the timing of the news - in the midst of a critical point in the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan.
"Wow! Talk about a game changer. The story goes on to outline Afghanistan's apparently vast underground resources, which include large copper and iron reserves as well as hitherto undiscovered reserves lithium and other rare minerals," writes Blake Hounshell on Foreign Policy's "Passport" blog. "Don't get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it's been through over the last three decades. But I'm (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It's also worth noting, as [New York Times writer James] Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment."
Wired magazine was blunt with its headline - "No the U.S. Didn't Just 'Discover' a $1T Afghan Motherlode" - for its article outlining similar skepticism. Wired references some of the similar reports from 2006 and 2007.
The Wall Street Journal advises caution when it comes to the Minerals agency in Afghanistan.
It “has long been considered one of the country’s most corrupt government departments,” the WSJ reports.