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Some Takeaways From the Pentagon’s Afghanistan Minerals Briefing

I wasn’t able to join yesterday’s briefing with two U.S. officials who commented on James Risen’s big story about geologists’ estimate that Afghanistan possesses about a trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth. But here’s the condensed version of what Paul Brinkley of the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan and Jack Medlin of the U.S. Geological Survey told reporters.

  • $1 trillion is a guesstimate. It doesn’t include potential oil and natural gas estimates. And both Brinkley and Medlin said it was premature to make any estimates about how much lithium Afghanistan possesses. ” The surveys of the potential lithium sites in the country are under way and are highly positive, very indicative of potential industrial-scale lithium deposits,” Brinkley said. “But they’re not ready to measure in terms of cost value yet.”
  • Extraction is going to be a huge undertaking. Afghanistan’s mining infrastructure is artisanal — “mining involving wheelbarrows, shovels; low-scale, non-industrial mining,” Brinkley said.
  • Beyond getting the stuff out of the ground, there needs to be a legal framework “to facilitate transparent, anti-corrupt transactions for some of these mineral deposits” to get foreign investment in, Brinkley said. The U.S. is going to help the Afghans develop it. So that looks like a clear thumb on the scale. (Though who knows: Iraq ultimately ended up rewarding oil companies from nations that didn’t participate in the invasion and occupation.)
  • Speaking of. “We hope that as early as late this year, there will begin to be tenders offered for public bid, at which time American companies, international companies, anyone interested will be able to bid on these processes,” Brinkley said. “And what’s important then is, we want those companies to know that there will be internationally acceptable, transparent accounting practices used within the ministry to ensure that anyone bidding can have confidence that the bid process is sound and auditable and transparent.”
  • Brinkley and Medlin’s work grew out of a tasking by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry to assess what it would take to bring the Afghan economy out of dependence on foreign aid. That led them last summer to begin trying to update prior estimates of Afghan mineral wealth. A whole lot of technical work later — “identification based on economic criteria of the top 24 potentially valuable sites in the country, the field surveys to gather samples, core samples from this information to take and do laboratory work and analyze and verify the value,” Brinkley said — and here we are.

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