More on Afghanistan’s mineral riches

More on Afghanistan’s mineral riches

The Pentagon held a press briefing today on that New York Times story I blogged about last night, and cleared up a few things that were garbled in the original reporting.

One important point is that there is new work being done beyond what the USGS did back in 2007. That earlier project was "survey work" intended to "help build a database of where to look," according to Paul Brinkley, the  director of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Since last summer, the TFBSO team has been conducting more detailed "field work" to assess which of 24 potential sites are economically viable.

As for the mysterious $1 trillion figure, its still somewhat mysterious, but we know now that it’s based on December 2009 market data, and it’s actually $908 billion. I’m still not totally clear on how notional the mineral figures are, but Brinkley said "a lot of people think that’s a conservative number," though he added "we don’t really dwell a lot on that number other than to note, boy, that’s a really big number."

(Some folks, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, are dwelling on it. In a comment nobody caught at the time, he told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace last month that the figure could be as high as $3 trillion. And now, Afghans are said to be over the moon about the findings.)

So, am I still skeptical? You bet I am. We are taking years, if not decades before Afghanistan will be able to take advantage of these resources. This is a country that can’t even pay its police … let alone build roads. The mining ministry is among the most corrupt government agencies in one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

"Considerably more work needs to be carried out before it can be properly called an economic deposit that can be extracted at a profit," Stan Coats, a top geologist formerly with the British Geographical Survey, told The Independent. "Much more ground exploration, including drilling, needs to be carried out to prove that these are viable deposits which can be worked."

Afghan officials seem to understand this. “Mining needs studies, infrastructure and security in order to attract the investments,” the mining ministry spokesman told reporters today.

One point I would make, though, is that we shouldn’t worry if Chinese companies are the ones that bid on Afghanistan’s mineral rights. Western firms aren’t likely to take on the huge risks involved, and in any case it’s probably a good thing if China has more of a stake in Afghanistan’s security. This isn’t a redux of the "great game" or some nonsense like that.