As everyone who follows Afghanistan should know by now, during the past week the country was estimated to have up to $3 trillion in untapped mineral resources. There is hope that this could transform the country and the war effort: as James Risen wrote following the discovery, senior US officials believed it could be “enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself.” This hope is intuitive, as the economic potential might “attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.”
Other commentators have made reasonable arguments calling this development into question. Among other things, the timing of this news is suspicious since we are in the midst of a bad news cycle about Afghanistan, and the findings on which these estimates are based are not new (they have been online since 2007).
In addition, a bit of perspective from recent history provides reason for additional skepticism. In March 2006, the U.S. Geological Survey and Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industry revealed new estimates holding that Afghanistan’s energy resources were far greater than previously believed. The parallel to current discoveries is obvious, and these energy discoveries were expected to represent a turning point in their own right. As Stephen Blank wrote:
According to their findings [of the U.S. Geological Survey and Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industry], undiscovered petroleum resources in northern Afghanistan range from 3.6 to 36.5 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas, with a mean of 15.7 TCF. Estimates of oil range from 0.4 to 3.6 billion barrels (BBO), with a mean of 1.6 BBO. Estimates for natural gas liquids range from 126 to 1,325 million barrels (MMB) with a mean of 562 MMB. These estimates represent an 18-fold increase in the country’s potential oil resources, and more than triple the natural gas resources. If accurate, the news could mark the turning point in Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts. Energy exports could generate the revenue that Afghan officials need to modernize the country’s infrastructure and expand economic opportunities for the beleaguered and fractious population.
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