US discovers stunning mineral wealth in Afghanistan


A US survey has uncovered at least one trillion dollars in mineral deposits in Afghanistan, officials said Monday, but there are doubts as to how the war-torn and graft-prone country can manage the windfall.

The study by US geologists found that Afghanistan had reserves of valuable minerals on a much larger scale than previously believed, a Pentagon spokesman said.

The value of the minerals -- including lithium, iron, gold, niobium and cobalt -- was estimated at nearly one trillion dollars, according to the study. But that was a conservative estimate, Colonel Dave Lapan told reporters.

"There's also an indication that even the trillion dollar figure underestimates what the true potential might be," he said.

President Hamid Karzai said in January that the deposits could help the impoverished nation become one of the richest in the world, based on preliminary findings of the United States Geological Survey.

In the past few months, US officials have briefed Afghan leaders on the final results of the study, which followed an initial assessment by geologists in 2007, the Pentagon said.

The studies were part of a US government effort designed to assist Afghanistan build up viable industries, and advisers were working with the Kabul government to attract "world-class" mining companies, Lapan said.

American officials were "helping the Afghans to learn how to...understand what they have," he added.

The Afghan ministry of mines said the mineral wealth offered great promise.

"The natural resources of Afghanistan will play a magnificent role in Afghanistan's economic growth," Jawad Omar, spokesman for the country's ministry of mines and industries, told AFP.

The study found Afghanistan's potential lithium deposits are as large of those of Bolivia, which currently has the world's largest known reserves of the lightweight metal, used to make batteries for mobile phones and laptops.

Afghanistan has so much of the coveted metal that it could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium", according to a Pentagon document, quoted by the New York Times, which first reported the findings.

The country's iron and copper deposits are also large enough to make Afghanistan one of the world's top producers, US officials said.

"There is stunning potential here," General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command which oversees Afghanistan, told the Times. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant."

Little of the minerals have been exploited because the country has been mired in conflict for three decades, and is today embroiled in an insurgency by Islamist militants led by the Taliban.

The country would have to find a way of bringing the minerals to markets but its infrastructure is rudimentary, with only one national highway connecting north to south and its ramshackle roads often targeted by Taliban bombs.

Analysts worried the country, hobbled by rampant corruption and a weak central state, was not ready to manage its potential mineral wealth.

"I highly doubt it will be able to either properly manage these resources or use the riches to build a more peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan for all Afghans," Janan Mosazai, a political analyst, told AFP.

"We have living examples of other countries where natural riches have actually turned into a curse for peace and prosperity for people," he said, citing Nigeria's endemic poverty and conflict despite vast oil exports.

The Afghan government has already reported large deposits of chromite, natural gas, oil and precious and semi-precious stones.

"The only significant new bit of information (this year) is the dollar figure, as Afghan and Soviet geologists already had evidence of the riches," Mosazai said.

China and India have bid for contracts to develop Afghan mines, with the Chinese winning a huge copper contract. An iron-ore contract is due to be awarded later this year.

A new minerals rush could pit US and Chinese interests against each other. Some critics in Washington grumble that China is reaping rewards from the copper mine while US troops are fighting and dying in the war against the Taliban.



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