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Afghanistan's 'Vast Riches Of Minerals' Highlighted By Pentagon

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"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 officials," the New York Times' James Risen reported on Monday.

The previously unknown deposits -- including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium -- are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

Yet Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine sounds some notes of skepticism about the Times report, coming as it does after an array of grim news reports about the status of the Afghan war.

Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there's less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry's website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there's more here). You can also take a look at the USGS's documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.

Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen says was generated by a Pentagon task force looking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at the chart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.

Indeed, opponents of the war have questioned whether Monday's Times story is the Pentagon's latest attempt to persuade an increasingly frustrated American public that Afghanistan is worth the costs in blood and treasure.

The Times story notes that an "internal Pentagon memo" asserted that Afghanistan could become "the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium,' a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and Blackberries," and also features an interview with Gen. David Petraeus in which he claims of Afghanistan, "There is stunning potential here."