"There is stunning potential here," Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the paper. "There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant."
The Times noted that aerial surveys had revealed huge untapped seams of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and increasingly vital metals like lithium, which is used in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops and electric cars. An internal Pentagon memo was quoted as saying that Afghanistan could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium."
Although it would take decades to develop a fully functioning mining industry in this war-torn nation, which still lacks a decent road system and basic infrastructure, Afghan and American officials believe that the discoveries could soon provide much-needed jobs as international investments pour into the country. That could help encourage Taliban fighters to put down their weapons, finally ending three decades of internal conflict.
"This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy," Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines, told the Times.
The Times report said the U.S. Geological Survey began an aerial analysis of Afghanistan's mineral resources in 2006, using data collected by Russian experts during the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. After positive initial results, a more sophisticated study was carried out in 2007. Then last year, a Pentagon task force that had set up business development programs in Iraq analyzed the geologists' findings. American mining experts were brought in to approve the survey's conclusions, and top U.S. and Afghan officials were briefed.
The biggest mineral deposits discovered so far are of iron and copper. But the finds include large deposits of more unusual minerals, including niobium -- a soft metal used in the production of superconducting steel -- rare earth elements and large gold deposits in the Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.
But some commentators have been less than impressed with the apparently outdated announcement, suggesting that it could be timed to distract attention from the worsening military situation. Writing in Foreign Policy, Blake Hounshell said that, "the findings on which the story was based are online and have been since 2007, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey."
While the discoveries could re-energize the tiny aid-dependent Afghan economy -- the country's gross domestic product is only about $12 billion -- and help drive the peace process, there is a strong risk that they could fuel further conflict. The Times noted that the promise of such wealth might lead the Taliban to up their bloody campaign to regain control of the country. Other experts point out that the discovery of massive mineral wealth rarely helps impoverished countries. Congo and Angola, for example, have been torn apart by factions fighting for control of mining sites.
Such a sudden injection of wealth could also worsen government corruption. Just last year, for example, Afghanistan's minister of mines was accused by U.S. officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop a copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.
American officials worry that resource-hungry China could try to gain further control over the development of Afghanistan's mineral wealth. That would frustrate the United States, which has pumped huge amounts of money into the country.
"The big question is, can this be developed in a responsible way, in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible?" Paul Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of defense for business and leader of the Pentagon team that discovered the deposits, told the Times. "No one knows how this will work."