A new hope for Afghanistan?

A NEW HOPE FOR AFGHANISTAN?…. Reading the front-page story in the New York Times today, one can almost hear the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the background. Instead of a poor mountaineer named Jed, we have a poor mountainous country named Afghanistan. Instead of bubbling crude in the ground that could bring vast wealth and change the fortunes of a struggling family, we’re apparently finding untapped mineral deposits that could bring vast wealth and change the fortunes of a struggling country.

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Under the circumstances, the timing of a story like this can and should raise suspicions. The military conflict is progressing slowly, if at all, and U.S. and Afghan officials are losing confidence in one another. As a growing number of observers, here and around the world, raise questions anew about whether Afghanistan’s future offers any hope at all, along comes a carefully leaked story about nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, which could fundamentally improve the country’s economy, stability, and long-term prospects.

In fairness, these discoveries aren’t exactly new. James Risen tells a rather remarkable tale about Soviet mining experts in the 1980s; Afghan geologists protecting geological data in their homes during a protracted civil war; promising United States Geological Survey data that went ignored in 2006 and 2007; and finally taken seriously last year by a Pentagon task force on business development.

Regardless, the news offers at least a glimmer of hope, doesn’t it? I’d like to think so, but given the larger landscape in Afghanistan, even good news may create a new set of problems.

For example, given the economic opportunities associated with these mineral deposits — the expected wealth dwarfs the entirety of Afghanistan’s existing economy — the Taliban will likely have renewed reasons to be even more aggressive in trying to seize control of the country. For that matter, even if the deposits generate wealth, we’ve seen far too many times what happens when a corrupt government leads a country tapped for its lucrative natural resources — the larger populace rarely reaps the rewards.

Moreover, even under the best conditions, Afghanistan doesn’t have a mining industry or infrastructure, so it will be years before this potential opportunity starts generating actual wealth.

I don’t mean to sound too negative here. The truth is, Afghanistan has been hopeless for a very long time, and these mineral deposits at least could help turn the country around. I’m sure everyone hopes it does.

But revelations like these should come with a “caveat emptor” warning.