The researchers' work has helped develop what are essentially treasure maps that let mining companies know what minerals are there, how much is there, and where they are, all to attract bids on the rights to the deposits. The Afghan government has already signed a 30-year, $3 billion contract with the China Metallurgical Group, a state-owned mining enterprise based in Beijing, to exploit the Mes Aynak copper deposit, and awarded mining rights for the country's biggest iron deposit to a group of Indian state-run and private companies. [Is China Mining a Rare Earth Monopoly? Op-Ed]
"These resources provide the potential for Afghanistan to develop its economy, to create jobs and build infrastructure, as it goes into the future," Medlin said.
The mineral riches could lift Afghanistan out of poverty and fight crime and terrorism, said Said Mirzad, co-coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey's Afghanistan program.
"Terrorists in Afghanistan exploited the misery of the local population," Mirzad said. "If you give the population jobs, if they could bring bread to the table, if they had something to defend, then the terrorists, who are very few in number, won't have sway."
However, developing a mining industry in Afghanistan faces major challenges. "One of the biggest challenges is security," Medlin said. "Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure. We're talking about access to energy, which is required to develop mines. We're talking access to roads, railroads and so forth. We're also talking about access to water, which is needed in most mining operations. It's all a big challenge, but it's doable. It won't happen overnight, but it's doable."
The USGS is currently helping to rebuild the scientific expertise of the Afghanistan Geological Survey, teaching the researchers modern techniques such as remote sensing. "We want to bring the Afghanistan Geological Survey into the 21st century," Medlin said. "The aim is to help the Afghans develop their mineral resources in a sustainable way."
Mining and other forms of natural resources development can lead to graft, corruption, social unrest and environmental degradation. Other nations rich in resources such as Botswana, Chile and Norway could provide Afghanistan good models to emulate in order to avoid these problems, said Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the journal Science and director of the USGS in the summer of 2012.
For example, important factors contributing to peace and prosperity in those nations are strong public institutions, equitable redistribution of revenues, environmental planning and investment in education, scientific institutions and human resources, McNutt noted.
"The leaders of Afghanistan will have many important decisions to make in the coming years and decades," McNutt wrote in an editorial in the Aug. 15 issue of the journal Science. "Science has opened the door to a new, more prosperous future. May they use this opportunity wisely."
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