US Geologists Discover Soviet Documents, Lithium Exploitation Ensues.

The New York Times gives the barest outline to a truly momentous piece of archival work, albeit one done by historians of another sort than usually reads here at Americanscience. This document digging will certainly raise the stakes for the US military, the Afghan government, and perhaps the Taliban as well. Cell phone battery manufacturers may be holding their breath too:

In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
US geologists used "an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface" to confirm the earlier mineral findings. The Times calls it "the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted."

Still, this data languished for two years until the Pentagon's business development task force translated those geological maps into dollar signs. The geologists and task force now think that Afghanistan may become a major producer of iron and copper, niobium, and perhaps lithium.

Now that's my kind of story: intrigue in the archives; field scientists flying retrofitted planes; international exchanges; lost opportunities; geopolitical significance.


Dan, I agree. This story is fascinating on so many levels. Hopefully there will be a fuller follow up article, including some more detail about the geologists who found the charts.

Although it's also quite alarming to imagine some of the possible outcomes for the environmental health of the nation now.

I think you're right on the money, Emily. Thanks for commenting.

The Times story pitches this---as the Pentagon probably pitched it---as a kind of potential solution to the Afghan crisis. Yet great mineral wealth in an unstable region hardly seems like a panacea. Quite the contrary: between environmental disaster and exacerbated civil strife, such a discovery could have all manner of bad turnings.

I heard this on NPR. Also pitched as a 'solution.' I thought, "yes, let's see, resource extraction overseen by a military occupying power...nope, can't imagine any problems with that!"

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