- Under military cover, U.S. geologists have mapped Afghanistan’s deposits of critical minerals. Rich reserves of rare-earth elements exist in the south, where Taliban control is tightest.
- If mining of important minerals can take off in the north, that success could create enormous commercial and political momentum for opening the south. New estimates indicate that rare earths could be triple the initial predictions.
- Overcoming the country’s opium and Taliban strongholds with a mining bonanza could change U.S. foreign policy and world stability.
- Over the long term, Afghanistan’s geologists will have to take charge. The U.S. Geological Survey is nearly done training them.
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The scene at first resembles many that play out daily in the war-torn Red Zone of southern Afghanistan: a pair of Black Hawk helicopters descend on a hillside near the country’s southern border with Pakistan. As the choppers land, U.S. marines leap out, assault rifles ready. But then geologists sporting helmets and heavy ceramic vests jump out, too. The researchers are virtually indistinguishable from the soldiers except that they carry rock hammers instead of guns. A human chain of soldiers encircles the scientists as they step forward on the dusty ground.
“The minute you get off, you go into geologist mode,” says Jack H. Medlin, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s activities in Afghanistan. “You forget, basically, that these guys are around—unless you try to get out of the circle.”
This article was originally published with the title Afghanistan's Buried Riches.