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.However, if you read the whole thing carefully, a number of important facts show up later.
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 hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.In other words, these are not "previously unknown deposits," but they were not widely known. To the extent this is "news," the news is that these deposits have been more carefully characterized and quantified during the nearly nine years (!) of US occupation of that country.
I don't know much about the geology of Afghanistan beyond the broad structural setting, but in terms of economic minerals, I've have always seen it described as "poor," and that has always been a little surprising to me. It has a complex history, it is arid, which means exposure is excellent, and it's high relief, which means a great deal of the geologic record should be cut open. In short, even with a largely ignorant first glance, it's the kind of place that I would expect to have some substantial mineral resources.
The reason I'm pulling this out of the memory hole an entire week after the fact is that I often like to mull over things for a while before I discuss them, then some article will click for me, and I find a good way to lay out my thoughts. Today's article from Der Speigel, "Are Claims of Afghan Mineral Wealth a PR Trick?" pushes me to point out the main issue that has been on my mind with respect to this news: infrastructure.
Minerals in the ground have no value if you can't get at them, concentrate them, and process them into useful forms. What does it take to accomplish those tasks?
- Transportation infrastructure: roads & railroads;
- Energy infrastructure: first and foremost, electrical generation and delivery systems, but also natural gas and petroleum storage and delivery systems;
- Financial infrastructure: safe and dependable means to save and transfer money, from enormous industrial transactions, to payroll, to the individual worker's ability to buy groceries;
- Communication infrastructure: telephones and web;
- Manufacturing and refining infrastructure- smelters and other facilities to concentrate and process raw minerals into industrially useful materials, and industries that demand those materials, as well as the industrial base to supply basic materials like concrete and steel;
- All five systems above require enormous capital investments, which requires a cultural respect for, and governmental enforcement of, property rights. You can think of this as cultural infrastructure; it's not a physical entity, but it is very real. People are not going to invest money in a project if they're worried it might be bombed, nationalized, or be run in such a corrupt manner that profits simply disappear. The Spiegel article mentions the difficulties surrounding simple personal safety. Incidents of murder and violence associated with mining are certainly not unknown in the US, but they're news... in Afghanistan, brutality is ho-hum, mundane. It's not an environment conducive to investment.
- Last but not least, skilled workers- geologists, miners, managers, chemical engineers, factory laborers, on and on. It's not just a matter of pouring money into a hole and getting more money back out; a wide variety of knowledge bases, practical skills and experience is required in terms of human resources to transform worthless rock into a valuable resource.
Getting at this mineral wealth will require an enormous physical development of Afghanistan's infrastructure, and what may well be an even larger development in terms of its cultural attitudes and norms along with its education and expectations for its future. If your expectation and hope as a farmer is that your children will be able to grow poppies on the land where you're growing poppies, there is little incentive to make sure those kids get a decent high school-equivalent education, little incentive to pay taxes to support such an educational infrastructure, and little incentive to aim high and save for their college education.
A number of articles have been "cautiously" saying that developing these deposits make take "as long as" a decade. From my perspective, that's absurdly optimistic; realistically, I think we're talking at least a generation, say 25 years. Maybe two generations or more. To suppose that that sad country, beset by essentially 30 years of war, external and civil, can transform itself into a modern minerals mecca in a period of ten years is simply unrealistic.
Followup, Tues. June 22: When I started this I meant to include water management, storage and delivery as yet another aspect of infrastructure that is required to develop a modern minerals extraction effort. I also want to point to two very interesting comments from Mule Breath and Silver Fox. To see those, click on the "# people drinking coffee" button below.