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What Can the U.S. Gain from Afghanistan's Mineral Wealth?

Lithium pellets
The New York Times quoted a Pentagon memo as saying Afghanistan could become the 'Saudi Arabia of lithium' (pictured).

The Soviets were the first to survey Afghanistan's mineral riches, and the second Bush administration recognized the potential gold mine as well. Now the Obama administration has come along with an estimate that Afghanistan is sitting on $1 trillion of mineral deposits -- everything from iron to lithium.

So the question is not whether Afghanistan has riches but whether the Obama administration can help one of the world's poorest countries develop its riches -- and maybe help its own cause in the war against the Taliban in the process, since economic development is a key to success in counter insurgency warfare. So far, all that has happened is that the Pentagon has assigned advisers to the Afghan Ministry of Mines to put them in contact with international companies interested in extracting the minerals. You can expect the Taliban to come along shortly with a propaganda campaign that the United States wants to rob Afghanistan of its wealth.

This is a decades long undertaking. Even without the war, Afghanistan has little or no infrastructure to support the heavy industrial requirements of mining. If it took nearly 30 years to get from the initial Soviet surveys to the present, it could easily take another 30 years to exploit Afghanistan's minerals.

David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent. You can read more of his posts in World Watch here.
  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.