June 15th, 2010
11:37 AM ET

Why all the talk about minerals now?

Geologists working with the Pentagon have found vast reserves of untapped minerals in Afghanistan that could be worth $1 trillion, according to reports.

But there are a lot of questions about just how hard it would be to actually get the minerals out of there and even some questions about the timing of the announcement. The military didn't just discover it. In fact, even though there was a lot of reporting about it on Monday, the report apparently was done years ago.

CNN talked with Joe Klein, a columnist at Time magazine and frequent reporter from Afghanistan, and Jack Medlin, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who also just returned from Afghanistan about two weeks ago. The following is an edited version of the transcript.

CNN: Jack, you were part of the group that went to Afghanistan, documenting these deposits and you issued a report back in 2007. We didn't have the trillion dollar figure on it yet and didn't really get much traction back then. So, why are we hearing about it with a rejuvenated interest right now?

MEDLIN: Our initial assessment in 2007, at that point, had taken the study basically about as far as we could take it. And what it needed was some further work on the verification of the results that we had obtained over a 2 1/2, 3-year period and there needed to be some business development part of the equation going forward.

CNN: And the group did put out the [press] release. He said they took it as far as they could take it. But this was in 2007. And some say not much has changed other than the dollar figure, the trillion dollar figure put on it by the Pentagon. What do you make of the timing of this report coming in at time obviously when some people say that progress may not be going as well in Afghanistan?

KLEIN: Well, there was a need for good news at the Pentagon, I think. It's true ..  there's an awful lot of mineral wealth there. The Chinese are already exploiting copper, I think, in Wardak Province. But the problem is that the military's game plan isn't going so well in the things that you can see. One part of the military's game plan that's going very well, and that's the counterterrorism where we're rolling up mid-level leaders of the Taliban on an almost-nightly basis - 121 in recent months according to Stan McChrystal.

But the relationship with Hamid Karzai isn't going very well. The idea that you can do counterinsurgency, which is to secure the population and offer them services, that's not going very well either. And so, there's a need for good news.

CNN: Technically, untapped minerals seem on the face that this is great news. But logistically, how would this work? How would you actually get these minerals out of the ground in terms of an infrastructure, avoiding corruption and figuring out how to best make this happen?

MEDLIN: Well, the challenges going forward are numerous, as you've just stated. There has to be a suitable mining law in place. There needs to be infrastructure in terms of roads, possibly railroads. And then there needs also to be an energy infrastructure in place, because you can't do large-scale mining without energy.

So, there are a lot of challenges ahead and I think in this particular case, the mineral resource assessment results offers an alternate pathway forward in terms of economic growth in Afghanistan.

CNN: How realistic do you see it? I mean, others have pointed to countries like Nigeria where, you know, they're now the fifth largest producer of oil and they make billions and billions a year. But most Nigerians live on less than $1 a day and have fallen to corruption as well as other major problems and haven't really lifted the population.

How could you potentially avoid that for Afghanistan if indeed this mining infrastructure can be put in place?

KLEIN: Well, it's going to be very hard to avoid that because Afghanistan really lives on a warlord system and you're going to have a lot richer warlords if this happens. But I think what Jack said is absolutely important. There is only one major road in Afghanistan, the ring road. You need all kinds of infrastructure.

Right now, to compare: this is $1 trillion in minerals we're talking about in a country whose GDP is $12 billion a year. So, they don't have the money to really build this infrastructure.

And then you have the second big problem - unlike Nigeria, Afghanistan doesn't have an ocean. To get the minerals out, they have to go through Pakistan and that's very rough travel or through Iran. And I don't know how pleased we'd be with that.

CNN: Yes, there seem to be a lot of logistical things in the way. So, it's fascinating that there was talk of these minerals all the way back in the '70s, possibly the '80s with the Soviets. And here we are in 2010, and they know it's there. But what can be done with it is still a huge question.

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