August 2012

Rocky road to recovery

The USGS’s Jack Medlin on the revitalization of geological science in Afghanistan

By Correy Baldwin

In 2004, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) team went to Afghanistan to assess the country’s natural resources, including its mineral resource potential, and its scientific capacity. Their task was difficult: they faced crumbling infrastructure, harsh environments and major security risks in a nation embroiled in an unpredictable war. Jack Medlin was, and is, the head of that team. Over the last eight years, the seasoned geologist has overseen comprehensive data collection and analysis, scientific and technical training, and the rebuilding of a natural resources scientific community. Last September, USGS released its latest assessment of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which supported significant riches that could be the key to rebuilding the country.

CIM: When you first went to Afghanistan, the USGS had not been there in over 25 years. What was the state of their geological community?

Medlin: The Soviets had done a huge amount of geologic and mineral exploration work, and the Afghans were working right alongside them. But after the Soviets left in 1989, civil war broke out, the Taliban came in, and a lot of destruction took place. This was the period when the skill sets of Afghan geologists and engineers began to diminish.

When we first visited Kabul, the AGS (Afghan Geological Survey) building was basically just a shell. There were very few doors and windows, and the plumbing and electrical fixtures had been stripped out. But some of the engineers and the geologists were still showing up to work, so that was an encouraging sign.

We asked to see what reports they had on geology, minerals, water, oil and gas, and we were taken into a room that was in complete disarray. When the civil war began, the Afghan geologists and engineers took home most of the old Soviet reports to safeguard them. By 2004, they started to bring them back. Most of them have been returned, and we’re still working our way through them. These reports are a national resource.

CIM: What has been involved in rebuilding Afghanistan’s scientific capacity?


Medlin: Our primary focus in returning to Afghanistan was to help rebuild the AGS into a 21st century organization. The whole information and computer technology era had passed them by, as have the huge developments in remote sensing technology, which is essential in a country as large as Afghanistan with so little transportation infrastructure. We started out assessing facilities, the skill sets of the Afghan geologists and engineers, and the quality and quantity of data and information that were available. Our main focus was retraining – we largely do on-the-job training. We wanted to get them to the point where they can do it themselves.

We proposed a five-year, two-phase program to rebuild the AGS. First, we worked with the Afghans to begin to organize, compile and digitize all of the old existing data, most of which was 50 or 75 years old, to produce a preliminary assessment of the mineral resources of the country. Next we proposed to gather new data and information to verify the old data and fill in gaps and then produce a final assessment. That final assessment has never been completed.

CIM: You have worked with the Department of Defense (DOD). What does this involve?

Medlin: The preliminary assessment we released in 2007 highlighted 24 high-priority mineral deposits. The DOD’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations came to us in 2009 and asked us what needed to be done to make these deposits more attractive to investors. We said we needed to be on the ground to verify the old data and information, and to collect new data.

So we partnered with the Task Force, which provided helicopters and security. When we went to one of the 24 mineral sites, we landed in DOD helicopters, and we landed with a large number of military people who provided security for us to carry out geologic verification and collect samples.

It’s not often that a geologist gets out of a Chinook or Blackhawk helicopter after 20 or 30 marines have landed and formed a circle of security, which then moves with you as you’re looking at the rocks and collecting samples. It’s been a great experience. They’ve been a great partner. Without the Task Force, we would never have been able to get to these sites and verify our preliminary findings.

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