Science for lasting peace

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Science  15 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6198, pp. 715
DOI: 10.1126/science.1259611

Thomas Barnett, a U.S. military geostrategist, has argued that we have leviathan armies that quickly win wars, only to lose the peace. To change that outcome, stability must be established by rebuilding the infrastructure, institutions, and economy of a war-torn nation. An outstanding example of science applied to nation rebuilding is the hyperspectral survey of Afghanistan by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2007. This survey quantified 24 world-class mineral deposits (including iron, cobalt, gold, copper, and rare earth elements), positioning Afghanistan to become a major supplier of minerals (see the News story on p. 725), most of which are in demand for the manufacture of cell phones, computers, and renewable energy technologies.

Copper deposits in Afghanistan

“…the USGS and…AGS… [converted] the information to ‘treasure maps’ for what…might be a trillion-dollar payday for Afghanistan.”


Soviet-era geologic reports on Afghanistan hinted at a nation as rich in minerals as Saudi Arabia is in petroleum. However, in such rugged terrain with few roads, approximately 25 years of boots-on-the-ground fieldwork would be required to bring the maps up to the standards necessary for resource development. Furthermore, the safety of mapping parties was a concern. The USGS suggested instead to survey from the air using remote sensing. Spectacular results were achieved from a hyperspectral survey that uses the spectrum of reflected sunlight to identify economically important mineral assemblages. Over 70% of the country was mapped in just 2 months, avoiding only regions close to the border with neighbors.

Data collection was just the start. The Afghan Geological Survey (AGS) was an empty shell of a building. The USGS set about rebuilding the AGS, teaching staff and students modern techniques such as remote sensing, digital data processing, and geophysical techniques through distance-learning methods. With this mentoring, the first woman Afghan scientist joined the ranks of the AGS employees. Together, the USGS and the reconstituted AGS interpreted the hyperspectral data and verified the discoveries with ground truth, converting the information to “treasure maps” for what eventually might be a trillion-dollar payday for Afghanistan.

Other resource-rich countries, such as Botswana, Chile, and Norway, provide good models for Afghanistan to emulate in order to avoid the social unrest, graft, corruption, and environmental degradation that can often accompany natural resource development. Important factors contributing to peace, prosperity, and improved quality of life are equitable redistribution of revenues; strong public institutions; and investment in local capacity-building, environmental planning, and transparency.

As director of the USGS in the summer of 2012, I presented to Ambassador Eklil Hakimi at the Afghan Embassy the two newly created hyperspectral mineral maps for his nation. At that point, there were innumerable challenges ahead in transforming those maps into jobs and economic development: from the lack of a single functioning cement plant in the entire country to the need for modern mining law. The ambassador, however, believed that the promise of future mines would attract immediate foreign investment in transportation, telecommunications, manufacturing, education, scientific institutions, and human resources, propelling a largely agrarian nation into the 21st century. In actual fact, it is the investment in education, scientific institutions, and human resources that sustains a nation's economy long after nonrenewable natural resources are depleted. The leaders of Afghanistan will have many important decisions to make in the coming years and decades. Science has opened the door to a new, more prosperous future. May they use this opportunity wisely.

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