VQR Fall 2010: “Digging Out”

The Fall 2010 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review—a special issue on global mining—includes my essay about the potential of natural resource development and mining in Afghanistan, titled “Digging Out.” In June 2010, the New York Times published an article celebrating the discovery of vast mineral riches under Afghanistan’s soil—as much as $1 trillion worth of copper, iron ore, and precious gemstones. Only problem was that the so-called discovery was not a discovery at all—geologists had known of the deposits for more than half a century, and the Afghan Ministry of Mines had been working since the fall of the Taliban to develop a fair and corruption-proof international contracting mechanism to pursue the development of their resources with foreign companies.

Nonetheless, the Web were instantly awash with exclamations about how mining would save Afghanistan, or destroy it, within a couple of years. Afghanistan’s minerals could spur industrial development, create tens of thousands of jobs, and tap an revenue stream that would help the Afghan government wean itself off of foreign aid. The mining jobs and the economic development that would spur from developing mining sites would crush the Taliban’s recruiting schemes, which largely depend on the poverty, desperation, and angst of unemployed youth. Or, Afghanistan’s corrupt officials would ally with foreign robber barons to deplete the country of its riches and prevent the wealth from bringing any benefit to the desperately poor Afghan population. A lot of hype–to say the least—and none of it substantiated by the facts on the ground.

Afghanistan’s mineral resources are abundant and the country is actively pursuing the development of its mining industry, but the truth is that the country is incredibly undeveloped and the infrastructure necessary to extract copper and iron from the two most valuable known deposits—which together account for the bulk of the $1 trillion figure cited by the NYT and others—is years away. Learn more about Afghanistan’s mining potential, and go along on a great exploration of the country’s backroads, by reading “Digging Out.”

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