I have been sitting on this link for more than a week although the story caught my eye on the same day that it came out.
The current and future problems of the beleaguered nation of Afghanistan may go well beyond war, the Taliban, Al Qaida, US occupation, poverty and heroin trafficking. The land locked nation of rough and rugged terrain is apparently the repository of vast mineral wealth, including large quantities of lithium, an essential component of many electronic gadgets. But like an uninformed (and unstable) nouveau riche individual, a poor, backward, politically fractious, war torn country may find its sudden wealth to be a burdensome and even a lethal liability. Prosperity is as much about managing one's assets as it is about owning them. The savvy rich get richer when blessed with goodies and the poor often become bewildered, murderous and vulnerable when in possession of sudden new riches.
The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.
While 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.
“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.
“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.
Or will it? Can Afghanistan manage its resources to benefit its citizens? Or will "outside help" be needed to school its leaders in wealth management and investment in its future? Will those benefactors even be interested in Afghanistan's prosperity and progress? Or is it in the interest of hungry consumer nations that the wealth be controlled by a few pliable lackeys while the general population remains ignorant, uninformed, miserable and act as a source of cheap labor to mine the minerals for a low price? Will Afghanistan become like Africa and Asia under European colonial rule? The "partners" it finds may be more interested in its gleaming natural wares than its welfare. This time around the "crooked" partners may not be just the obvious ones from the west, with their colonial pasts, craftiness and imperialistic designs. Fast developing and rapacious neighbors in the east, like China and India (especially, China) will be salivating too.
The NYT article is not correct in stating that Afghanistan's buried treasures have been discovered for the first time by the US. It appears that prior "visitors" to the region were aware of them too and found it a daunting task to harvest the minerals efficiently and profitably.
The lawless culture of poverty and its attendant perils are not a geographic phenomenon. Affluent countries have their share of the beaten and the abused, and their underprivileged are just as pathetic. But there are advocates and safety nets in politically advanced cultures, however inadequate, to raise awareness. Murder, mayhem, fraud and theft are punished by the law when brought to the attention of society. A country like Afghanistan (or the Republic of Congo) won't know where to begin protecting its resources and its citizens from gross abuse and exploitation from outsiders as well as its own leaders.
Coming from India, the erstwhile "Jewel" in the British Raj's crown, it always sends shivers down my spine when vast natural resources of any kind are discovered in a poor, underdeveloped, politically fragmented nation. If the extent of the mineral wealth is indeed as rich and extensive as the NYT article suggests, get ready for "Blood Lithium" in your BlackBerry.