In a startling revelation the US Pentagon has let it be known that Afghanistan has nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits - enough to turn a country racked by decades of conflict into one of the most important mining centres in the world. An internal Pentagon assessment says the huge mineral reserves contain lithium, a key industrial metal, stocks of which are large enough to turn the country into the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium'.
According to American geologists, the deposits, which include large veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium are large enough to alter the shape of the Afghan economy. ''There is stunning potential here,'' General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, told The New York Times. ''There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.''
US officials said the Afghan government and president Hamid Karzai had been briefed.
Though mineral reserves are sufficiently large to attract commercial investment it would take decades to develop infrastructure which could adequately exploit them. These reserves are scattered throughout the country including along the porous border with Pakistan where most of the Taliban-led insurgency is concentrated.
It appears that in 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that pointed to the existence of major mineral deposits in the country. Apparently the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but abandoned as the Soviets disengaged in 1989.
Reports suggest that a Pentagon task force is in place trying to help the Afghan government set up modalities to deal with mineral development. Accounting firms with experience in handling contracts have been brought in to 'advise' the Afghan Ministry of Mines, while technical data is being readied to be handed over to multinational mining companies and other potential foreign investors.
The Pentagon, apparently, is helping the Afghan government in preparing to seek bids on mineral rights by the second half of next year. It remains to be seen if things follow the Iraq model where all major contracts were snapped up by Western companies. It would certainly provide a new twist to the ongoing Global War on Terror.
The Chinese are already ahead in a bid to secure Afghan mining reserves after securing the rights to develop the Aynak copper mines in the Logar province. (See: China to mine copper in Afghanistan)
Last year, the Americans accused Afghanistan's minister of mines of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.
But then with a helpless country perpetually in the grip of occupying forces - be they American, NATO, Russian, or Pakistani-sponsored Taliban - the old rule applies: winners take all.