Riches lie beneath Afghanistan's roiling surface

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Some geologists are heroes. That was the thought that came to my mind when I read of what Afghan geologists had done during the long and difficult time the Taliban had run their country.

Even without real hope they might ever do geology again, but with fears about what might happen at any time to the reports of previous geological mapping work, the Afghan geologists took the records home to preserve them. When the dust of the American invasion had settled and the Afghan government had been restored, the local geologists brought back the reports.

The records were the starting point for the effort in recent years to explore Afghanistan for mineral resources using fully modern methods. The results have astonished geologists because the riches of the war-torn country are so great.

As the New York Times reported this summer, many geologists now working in Afghanistan feel they are "in the midst of one of the great discoveries of their careers."

From estimates of what's under the ground, both at depth and near the surface, Afghanistan may contain nearly $1 trillion worth of minerals. Along the Pashtun area in the south there is gold; in western Afghanistan there is apparently abundant lithium; and elsewhere there are major deposits of copper, iron, cobalt and rare metals like niobium.

As a student, I studied mineral resources intensively. The richest of those here in the U.S. were mined out in the 1800s and early 1900s. There is a cycle in such matters, and the richest deposits are -- at least generally -- the first discovered and mined. But Afghanistan stands today where the U.S. did long ago, so it's no surprise that Afghan mineral wealth is likely quite high.

But a $1 trillion bonanza is greater than this geologist would have guessed.

In short, it looks like there is enough mineral wealth in Afghanistan it could alter both the war and the way of life in the impoverished nation where the gross domestic product is only about $12 billion. If investment materializes to exploit the mineral wealth, jobs in mining could employ many men currently involved in the war, U.S. officials speculate.

"There is stunning potential here," Gen. David H. Petraeus said to the New York Times. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think the potential is hugely significant."

The ore was discovered because the U.S. Geological Survey and some others went to work in 2006 using modern methods of exploration throughout the country. In the old days, geologists used to travel by Jeep (or even on foot and horseback) to outcrops. The accepted technique was to knock off pieces of rock with a hammer and inspect what you had in your hand. The approach still works, but it's obviously labor intensive and slow.

If you want to rapidly explore a whole country these days, the way to do it is by air. So the Americans flew over Afghanistan with sophisticated gravity measurement devices. The results were highly encouraging. In 2007, the geologists again flew over the country, this time with devices that offer three-dimensional information about mineral concentrations.

The results were "astonishing" to the geologists who saw the data. The story even recently merited a piece in the prestigious journal Science, so impressive is the tale of mineral exploration and discovery.

There seems little doubt that Afghanistan is sitting on wealth that could dwarf the opium trade and what money reaches the war torn country from outside aid. But it remains to be seen how the wealth from the Earth is exploited and used.

Afghanistan is not a developed country with infrastructure or environmental controls. Mining can ruin countryside and destroy water resources if it's unregulated. And, to complicate matters, the government in the country has had trouble with corruption. Indeed, last year the minister of mines stood accused of accepting a $30 million bribe in connection with giving rights to China to develop a copper mine. (The good news is that the official is no longer in office.)

But still, the challenges of wealth rather than chronic poverty could be a fine change of pace of a nation in need of some good news.

E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at epeters@wsu.edu.

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