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Minerals in Afghanistan worth $1 trillion, U.S. says

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Afghanistan's mineral wealth
  • Deposits of iron, copper, gold, lithium scattered across wartorn country
  • It may take years to turn minerals to money, officials say
  • U.S. geologists began studying Afghan resources in 2004

(CNN) -- U.S. military officials and geologists have determined that the mineral deposits in Afghanistan are worth nearly $1 trillion, the Pentagon said Monday.

Vast supplies of minerals such as iron, copper and gold, all with worldwide technological applications, are scattered over the country, according to the Defense Department.

But officials caution that they won't be easy to extricate and that it will take years to turn this newfound mineral wealth into actual revenue.

"It's not a quick win," the U.S. Geological Survey's Jack Medlin said at a Pentagon briefing Monday.

Pentagon and State Department officials acknowledged that extraction efforts are challenged by remote locations, a weak infrastructure, a dearth of heavy vehicles and equipment, and a strong insurgent presence.

"Turning the potential of Afghanistan's mineral wealth into actual revenue will take years," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday. "Mineral extraction, you know, faces numerous but not insurmountable challenges."

Geologists from the Geological Survey started studying the potential of Afghan mineral resources in 2004, after being presented with maps generated by the Soviet Union in the 1980s and earlier data that showed hundreds of mineral sites, according to Medlin.

Crowley downplayed questions about the potential for other countries to try to exploit Afghanistan's possible wealth and acknowledged that internal corruption could pose a problem.

"We're very mindful of the fact that around the world, you have a number of countries that are blessed with natural resources that may become a source of conflict and corruption," Crowley said.

"We want to be sure that we have helped Afghanistan develop effective institutions of government so that it's able to develop its mining sector, that it's generating revenue that can be turned into greater prosperity and shared opportunity for the Afghan people," he said.

The financial implications of this announcement are enormous, according to economic experts. Once the minerals are mined and processed, Afghanistan could well be on its way to economic prosperity, becoming a modern economy rather than one that is narcotics-based. It would then be better capable of paying for its own defense, among other things.

"It could very well be that this country is not going to be dependent on the United States and the United States aid or foreign aid forever," said Mohsin Khan, senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"It's got resources, and eventually, when it starts to exploit them, it will do fine," Khan said.

On Monday, the New York Times quoted an internal Pentagon memo that said Afghanistan has become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," used in batteries for laptop computers. The exact amount of lithium in Afghan soil is still being determined.

Medlin said the U.S. is making every effort to quickly help the Afghans with the necessary tools they need to facilitate commercial development of the mines.

"This wealth has the potential to enable them to have a future they were not aware of," Medlin said.