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Afghanistan sitting on trillion dollars of mineral wealth - but who will develop it?

The New York Times and CNN have reported a trillion dollars worth of useful minerals is sitting under Afghanistan, waiting to be tapped.

But there are a lot of questions about how hard it would be to get it out of there and even some questions about the timing of the announcement.

The military didn't recently discover it, the report was apparently done years ago.

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.

The vast scale of Afghanistan's mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.

While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.

"There is stunning potential here," Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant."

But veteran Afghan hands say the "discovery" of Afghanistan's mineral wealth is hardly new. And some detect an echo of Petraeus' effort to "put a little more time on the Washington clock" for the Afghanistan surge as he once described his public relations strategy to buy time in the U.S. for the Iraq surge. The Times report itself notes the Pentagon agreed to discuss the minerals discovery as a rare good news story amid many more disturbing reports coming from Afghanistan.

One cynic said, "What do you wanna bet that in 10 years' time, the Times will be reporting that somehow, poor Afghanistan hasn't yet seen its mineral riches translate into vast wealth"?


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