(Photo Credit: The U.S. Army’s Photostream)
Blake Hounshell has a must-read piece in Foreign Policy that raises some serious questions about the timing and accuracy of today’s article by James Risen in the New York Times, which claims that the United States has discovered $1 trillion worth of precious metals in Afghanistan.
From his piece:
Wow! Talk about a game changer. The story goes on to outline Afghanistan’s apparently vast underground resources, which include large copper and iron reserves as well as hitherto undiscovered reserves lithium and other rare minerals.
Read a little more carefully, though, and you realize that there’s less to this scoop than meets the eye. For one thing, the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. More information is available on the Afghan mining ministry’s website, including a report by the British Geological Survey (and there’s more here). You can also take a look at the USGS’s documentation of the airborne part of the survey here, including the full set of aerial photographs.
Nowhere have I found that $1 trillion figure mentioned, which Risen suggests was generated by a Pentagon task force seeking to help the Afghan government develop its resources (looking at the chart accompanying the article, though, it appears to be a straightforward tabulation of the total reserve figures for each mineral times current the current market price). According to Risen, that task force has begun prepping the mining ministry to start soliciting bids for mineral rights in the fall.
Don’t get me wrong. This could be a great thing for Afghanistan, which certainly deserves a lucky break after the hell it’s been through over the last three decades.
But I’m (a) skeptical of that $1 trillion figure; (b) skeptical of the timing of this story, given the bad news cycle, and (c) skeptical that Afghanistan can really figure out a way to develop these resources in a useful way. It’s also worth noting, as Risen does, that it will take years to get any of this stuff out of the ground, not to mention enormous capital investment.
In light of Hounshell’s analysis, this follow-up story published in the Times this afternoon suggests that the U.S. government estimate may have the unintended effect of dramatically raising expectations in Afghanistan.
– Ben Katcher