Afghan mineral reserves could take years to turn into profit

By Anne Flaherty and Deb Riechmann
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; A08

KABUL -- It could take years and even a peace settlement for Afghanistan to reap profits from nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources that U.S. geologists say lie beneath its rugged terrain -- some in areas currently controlled by Taliban insurgents or warlords.

Geologists have known for decades that Afghanistan has vast mineral wealth. A U.S. Defense Department briefing Monday put a $908 billion price tag on the country's reserves of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals such as lithium -- a key ingredient in products ranging from medications to cellphone batteries.

If impoverished Afghanistan is seen as having a bright economic future, foreign countries will have another recourse to persuade their war-fatigued populations that securing Afghanistan is worth the fight and the loss of troops.

Still, without increased security and a massive investment not only to mine but to transport the minerals, it could take years for Afghanistan to cash in the rewards. The mineral trove could also bring unwanted consequences, including corruption and civil war.

"Obama's war just became more important and more complicated at the same time," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who helped advise the administration last year when it was rethinking its Afghanistan strategy.

Riedel said that if the United States can provide the security and logistics to build up mining capacity, Afghanistan's international stock will suddenly become more valuable. But there are a host of complications -- competing industries and countries, corruption and war.

Stephanie Sanok, who dealt with similar issues while working at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, likened the situation to a carnival game that promises a prize if you can guide a tiny, hand-controlled crane to the perfect spot: It almost never works and requires a steady stream of money.

"Everyone has known about this," Sanok said of the minerals. "But there's no way to get at it."

Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday that the $1 trillion figure didn't surface until recently because a military task force working on the issue had been focused on Iraq. The task force, led by Paul Brinkley, is helping Iraq and Afghanistan develop their economies. Until recently, discussions with Kabul have focused on encouraging the export of carpets, agriculture and other modest resources.

It wasn't until late last year that the task force got around to looking at a 2007 study by the U.S. Geological Survey. That's when the group estimated the minerals' value, Lapan said.

The New York Times first reported the $1 trillion figure on Sunday night.

-- Associated Press

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