Vast Mineral Resources Should Give Afghans Hope

A team of American geologists and Defense Department officials have found that Afghanistan may be sitting on as much as $1 trillion in mineral deposits. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley talks to Steve Inskeep about what effect this finding may have on Afghanistan's future and U.S. involvement there.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Pentagon officials are suggesting that Afghanistan could be rich. Geologists and Defense Department officials say they have found evidence that one of the world's poorest nations is home to massive amounts of cooper, gold, iron and lithium, which is used in cell phones. We're going to talk about this with Paul Brinkley. He's a deputy undersecretary of defense, and he's on the line from Dubai.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. PAUL BRINKLEY (Deputy Undersecretary of Defense): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: We've heard the figure $1 trillion thrown around. Where'd you get the number $1 trillion for the estimated value of what's under the ground?

Mr. BRINKLEY: First off, that's not a particular number that came from any work we've done. We've provided a categorization of the different known mineral deposits that have been identified to a reasonable level of certainty by the U.S. Geological Survey, and then using commodity prices, projected the value of those minerals as of last December.

And the number for that rolls up to - in the $900 billion range. But that also does not include major deposits of other minerals you mentioned at the beginning - potential lithium deposits. It also does not include known reserves of oil and gas. So the trillion dollars is an easy number that's used to kind of characterize the rough scale. But there's a lot more specificity behind that number in terms of particular deposits and the value of those deposits if appropriately developed.

INSKEEP: If appropriately developed. How could this change the war?

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, I don't know about changing the war. I think what has happened - and we've already seen a change in the tenor of the discussions with the Afghans. You know, Afghanistan suffered through 30 years of tremendous hardship and is really, in many ways, a shattered society, and has had no sense of its own opportunity to develop what we refer to as economic sovereignty.

In other words, how are they going to be able to finance their own defense? How are they going to be able to finance their own development? And that's what the whole international community is hoping for, so that we can all begin stepping away and leave behind an Afghanistan that's capable of ensuring its own stability.

And as they become aware of the wealth that they have and what it means to their future, that starts to change the nature of their own behavior, their own dynamic, and that's what we're hoping to see.

INSKEEP: So you've been working to spread this news among Afghan politicians.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Well, I mean, it's hasn't been hard. It's spread on its own. But, I mean, our involvement has been to facilitate the awareness of this wealth to ensure that we are providing access to advisors, accountants, economic advisors who have understanding of the mineral industry, so that the Afghan government -which has never had to deal with or grapple with something of this scale - has access to and follows internationally respected practices as this resource hopefully gets developed in coming years.

INSKEEP: Now, I hear you expressing the hope that the discovering of wealth might lead to peace, might give people motivation or some sense of their future. But I also think of resource-rich countries elsewhere in the world -the Congo comes to mind - where it seems that the vast mineral deposits that a country has only intensifies its conflicts.

Mr. BRINKLEY: This is a great source of concern for everyone involved. And, you know, we're being very clear that the hope we have is to see an Afghanistan develop in an environmentally and in a socially responsible way, so that it isn't a Congo-like example, but rather a Chile or other examples where mineral wealth augments and creates economic opportunity, indigenous wealth and is done in a way that does not cause environmental degradation and social unrest.

This is a challenge. And I think the international community are stepping forward to assist the Afghans in addressing this challenge is underway and is critical to avoiding that negative outcome from this opportunity.

INSKEEP: Paul Brinkley is deputy undersecretary of defense. He's in Dubai, talking about the discovery of mineral resources in Afghanistan.

Thanks very much.

Mr. BRINKLEY: Thank you very much. You have a great day.

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