The New York Times story starts the timeline in the 1980s:
“They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.”
But, that is clearly wrong. Russian/Soviet involvement in Afghanistan actually occurred on and off at least since the early part of the 20th Century, and certainly accelerated in the 1970s. More to the point, it is pretty easy to find maps (e.g., the one above, click here for PDF) of significant lithium and rare earth deposits that date from at least 1977 that are in the hands of the “Afghanistan Geological Survey,” an agency, according to information on its website (hosted by the British Geological Survey), that emerged out of a massive systematic geological survey launched in the mid-1950s:
“A new epoch in the study of Afghanistan’s geology and mineral resources began when the Government of Afghanistan inaugurated the National Geological Survey in July 1955. This marked the initiation of systematic surveys of the geology and mineral resources of the country, which continued over the next 25 years. This period was characterized by extensive mapping operations and, subsequently, by geological surveys and prospecting of mineral occurrences and more detailed evaluation of selected prospects. The Afghanistan Geological Survey under the Ministry of Mines and Industries conducted this work in cooperation with German, Italian, French and Soviet geologists. During the first years of the existence of the Geological Survey some assistance was also received from the United Nations organization.”
Then, there is this part of the history that seems even more on point:
“Between 1968 and 1978, a Soviet mission assisted the Afghan Government with a systematic geological mapping program of the country and recorded and investigated over 1254 mineral occurrences. This was undertaken at the Department of Geology and Mines until 1974 and later at the Department of Geological and Mineral Survey. This period constituted the most important phase of mineral exploration to date and resulted in the production of a large number of reports on mineral occurrences and prospects.”
The deposits making the headlines appear to be concentrated in the northeast corner of the country, in a region that contains the Khyber pass, about midway between Kabul and Islamabad.
A lot of other news outlets are also questioning whether this is really “news.”