THE US has discovered nearly $US1 trillion ($A1.17 trillion) in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war, say senior American government officials.
The deposits – including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and industrial metals such as lithium – are so big and include so many minerals essential to industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the world’s most important mining centres, the US officials believe.
The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was found by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were briefed recently, American officials said.
Although it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.
The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking, as well as aid from the US and other industrialised countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $US12 billion.
”This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.
American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan. The US-led offensive in Marjah in southern Afghanistan has achieved limited gains. Meanwhile, charges of corruption and favouritism plague the Karzai government, and Mr Karzai seems increasingly embittered towards the White House.
Instead of bringing peace, the newfound mineral wealth could lead the Taliban to battle even more fiercely to regain control of the country.
The corruption already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources.
Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts.
Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge. Another complication is that because Afghanistan has never had much heavy industry, it has little or no history of environmental protection either.
The mineral deposits are scattered throughout the country, including in the southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan that have had some of the most intense combat in the US-led war against the Taliban insurgency.
The Pentagon task force has already started trying to help the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development.
International accounting firms that have expertise in mining contracts have been hired to consult with the Afghan Ministry of Mines, and technical data are being prepared to be turned over to multinational mining companies and other potential foreign investors.
The Pentagon was helping Afghan officials arrange to start seeking bids on mineral rights by next autumn, officials said.