Afghanistan has enormous mineral wealth but faces great challenges in utilizing it


The official end of the US-led war in Afghanistan leaves a number of long-term questions, including how the country can build working economy. Now that American aid has evaporated, international aid has begun largely closedWhat are the options for Afghanistan?

One possibility lies in natural resources. Afghanistan owns a A wealth of non-fuel minerals worth rated more than 1 trillion US dollars. NS Millennium The country was famous for its precious stones – sapphire, emerald, tourmaline and lapis lazuli. these metals It continues to be mined locally, both legally and illegally, mostly small artisanal mines. But the greatest value lies in the country’s wealth of iron, copper, lithium, rare earth elements, cobalt, bauxite, mercury, uranium and chromium.

While the overall abundance of minerals is certainly enormous, the scientific understanding of these resources is still in the exploration stage. Even with a better understanding of how beneficial it is to extract them, the existence of these resources will not provide a quick start to a new economy. as A geologist studied the extent of their resourcesI estimate that at least seven to 10 years will be required for large-scale mining to become a major new source of revenue.

USGS Tracking the Soviets

British and German geologists conducted the earliest modern surveys of Afghanistan’s minerals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the Soviets in the 60’s and 70’s are the best performers systematic exploratory work across the country, producing a wealth of detailed information that has served as the backbone of recent studies.

From 2004 to 2011, the USGS conducted a Detailed review of the available data, adding new information from its aerial survey, limited field examination and from the Afghan Geological Survey. this work Better mineral positioning, its richness and abundance.

No one who examines this work, as I did, can ignore the large-scale exploratory effort on the part of Soviet scientists. Detailed field maps and massive sampling, including tens of thousands of meters of well drilling, and laboratory analyses were performed. Given the time and money invested, it appears that high-profile plans were in the works to develop Afghanistan’s minerals once the country was under Soviet influence.

Based largely on this information, the The USGS has identified 24 regions in the country The abundance of minerals was estimated. Data packets in all 24 areas have been prepared for companies to use as a basis for bidding to exploit any resources.

Chinese And Indian Firms showed strong interest, and actual franchises were granted. However, controversy over contract terms and security concerns have halted the activity since late 2010.

abundance of minerals

What abundance of minerals is actually in Afghanistan? I will try to answer this with a brief summary of the USGS estimates for Metals of Special Importance: copper, iron, lithium and rare earth metals. Geologists who were part of the USGS effort has noticed That their numbers are “conservative” but also “primary”.

Regardless, it’s safe to say the resources overall are huge. The total copper resource for all known deposits is about 57.7 million metric tons. in a current pricesThe resource value is $516 billion. These are “undiscovered” resources – identified but not fully explored and evaluated. If further study were to be conducted to judge it as recoverable with a profit, it would classify Afghanistan Among the top five countries of copper reserves in the world.

Map of mineral resources in Afghanistan made by the US Geological Survey
A map of mineral resources published by the USGS in 2007.
United States geologic survey

The largest copper deposit, which also contains significant amounts of cobalt, is the Aynak ore body, which is located about 18 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Kabul. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the The Soviets began developing the mine but It was suspended in 1989 After the Soviet withdrawal from the country. The high grade proportion of AINEC’s total deposits is estimated at 11.3 million metric tons of copper, valued at $102 billion at current market prices.

Afghanistan also has world-class iron ore resources, which are concentrated in the Haji Jak deposits in Bamiyan Province. Haji Jack contains an estimated 2,100 million metric tons of high-quality ore at 61%-69% iron by weight. in a current price levels, This represents a value of 336.8 billion dollars, which puts Afghanistan among Top 10 countries around the world in extractable iron.

Lithium sources in Nuristan province, which occur in the form of veins, Soviet geologists were impressed by the amount of hard rock ore (lithium is also extracted from brine). Based on USGS estimates, it is an important but modest source in today’s terms, as exploration for such deposits has increased around the world in the past decade.

finally, rare earth elements It is located in the southern province of Helmand. These deposits mainly contain cerium, in smaller quantities of the more valuable lanthanum, praseodymium, and neodymium, totaling perhaps 1.4 million metric tons. Two of those, praseodymium and neodymium, have high price levels—more than $45,000 per metric ton—and make exceptional magnets used in hybrid and electric car engines, but the abundance of these elements isn’t great relative to the amount in other countries. .

Over-the-ground factors and geopolitics

Mining wisdom holds that what is on the ground is less important than what is above the ground. Market realities, security, contract terms, infrastructure, and environmental concerns matter more than absolute exuberance in terms of resource development potential.

Among these factors, perhaps the most important at present is the strong global demand for metals, especially copper, lithium and rare earth elements, which are Essential for the growing markets of renewable energy and electric vehicles.

A mining camp set up by a Chinese company in Miss Aynak, Afghanistan.
A Chinese company built this mining camp in Miss Aynak in Afghanistan about 10 years ago to house workers in a planned copper mine that never started production. The people at the front were participating in an archaeological excavation.
Jerome Starkey/FlickrAnd CC BY-SA

Whether or not Afghanistan will start excavating for these items will depend on what the new Taliban government does. Under the former Ministry of Mines, a $2.9 billion contract was awarded for a portion of the Aynak copper deposit For two Chinese state-owned companies. The 30-year contract signed in 2007 had high royalties by global standards and required that the metals be smelted and processed locally. Other conditions included the construction of a 400-megawatt coal-fired power plant and a railway to the Pakistan border. It was also stipulated that 85%-100% of employees, from skilled workers to administrative staff, would be Afghans within eight years from the date of commencement of employment. Although originally approved, these terms were Later announced that it is burdened by companiesstop development.

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Although there are roads to many areas of ore deposits, Afghanistan lacks good roads, railways, and electricity. Mining companies are no stranger to such challenges, however the situation is heightened in this case due to the rugged terrain and the landlocked nature of the country. Railroads, in particular, will be essential for transporting ore, crude or refined, to foreign markets.

There are also environmental and cultural concerns. Mining can have significant impacts on land and air quality, as well as watersheds – a particular concern in water-poor Afghanistan – if it is not regulated according to best practices. No less, the application of such standards is required and has been A problem in many low-income countries.

Near the Aynak copper deposit there is a large site in it Buddhist monumentsStatues, temples and towers. There are also Bronze Age mining sites that are important archaeological resources. Here, too, there is no clarity yet about how the Taliban leaders, who ordered the destruction of Large Buddhist statues in Bamiyan in 2001, may view these sites.

For Afghanistan, its resources can mean a source of foreign investment in the long term, building skills and expanding infrastructure, All are essential to a sustainable economy. But the main question is which companies will be involved. Afghanistan is also at the center of geopolitical conflicts, involving both India and Pakistan, as well as China, Iran and the United States.

Author’s note: In 2015, I was a task force class teacher at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington produce a report On the natural resources of Afghanistan and their potential as a basis for economic development. This article is dedicated to the excellent work done by the students on this staff.

This article has been updated to correct details about the development of mining operations by the Soviets.

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