Afghanistan's unsung riches

Afghanistan is a land of spectacular scenery enveloping stark and dynamic geology. The frequent earthquakes and floods, dust storms and avalanches, are merely surface indicators of long eons of intense mineral-resource generation below. To see this land as a geologist is to know that beleaguered, backward Afghanistan does not have to remain war torn and economically devastated for long; instead, the rich resource base there would contribute to rapid rebuilding and economic growth given sincere Soviet concern for the welfare of Afghanistan and not just for Moscow's own access to resources.

Several Western observers have claimed that Afghanistan is poor in resources; this is obviously incorrect. The dearth of prior mining, however, was only partly the fault of poor transport and the inept Afghan government; instead the many Russian diplomatic and political maneuvers to control resource development prior to their invasion must also be recognized. Now the military occupation is partially subsidized with Afghan resources.

The realization that Afghanistan actually has good resources is an idea long in coming. It began in the early 19th century with Britain's resource exploration and invasion in its contest of territorial acquisition with the Russians. Upon the conclusion of the third Anglo-Afghan war (1919), the Afghans won back diplomatic independence, and the first Soviet mission arrived in Kabul. Eight years later, the first Russian publication on ''Mineral Riches of Afghanistan'' appeared in a geological literature previously dominated by the English. Because the Afghans were long the victims of this Anglo-Russian competition, and in spite of many diplomatic rebuffs from Washington, they chose American Inland Oil to develop their resources in the 1930s. Although important resources were quickly confirmed, the company abruptly terminated its exclusive 25-year concessions because of transport problems and the imminence of World War II. The ill will generated by this was offset by secret American aid during wartime, and by subsequent substantial development efforts.

In the late 1950s the Afghans asked France to support further petroleum development. The Soviets forced out this NATO member and a neutral Swedish group , and took over the nascent Afghan hydrocarbon industry for themselves by offering the first major foreign-aid package to another country by the communist bloc. Also, at this time American and Russian aerial photography made possible topographic mapping and further exploration by German and French geologists.

The Soviets, however, were actively penetrating the whole Afghan economy including the military and the Ministry of Mines and Industries. The leftist-oriented coup of 1973 resulted in progressive removal of Western experts from resource development projects and the assignment of deposits to East-bloc groups. Resource maps, and economic analyses also were suppressed, presumably because Soviets still lacked firm control.

By the late 1970s, extensive Soviet exploration resulted in additional first-rate geologic reports and maps and identification of over 1,400 mineral showings or occurrences as well as 70-odd commercial deposits. The Soviets then committed over $652 million in aid for further resource exploration and development, including a half-million-ton oil refinery, a 1.5 million ton/year copper smelter, and many other projects.

The French judged the Hajigak iron deposit to be the third largest in the world; the World Bank indicated the Ainak copper ores could capture 2 percent of the world market, and that vast coal deposits together with many other resources should spur major development. Natural gas production, 80 percent of which had long been piped to the USSR at well below world prices, was increased 65 percent after the Russian invasion. Afghan cement manufactured at world quality is now reportedly sent to the USSR for export to the world market and replaced in Afghanistan with low standard Soviet cement.

Other important deposits available for Soviet exploitation are chrome, lead, zinc, molybdenum, tin, rare earths, gold, barite, celestite, flourite, sulphur, asbestos, talc, magnesite, muscovite, and precious stones. An additional 200 Russian geologists were brought into Afghanistan in 1979. Their value to the Soviet takeover has not been overlooked by the Afghan freedom fighters who recently captured the senior Soviet geologist, E. R. Okhrimyuk.

The great dependence of the United States on imported minerals compared with a self-reliant USSR has focused attention on increasing potential for resource wars as the USSR interdicts or takes over supplies. It is certain that the USSR invaded Afghanistan primarily for strategic reasons and to save Kabul's failing Marxist regime, but it is equally clear that the resources of Afghanistan were also important considerations in the decision to invade.

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