A brief history of geological studies in Afghanistan

The King's visit to the cartography unit, Ministry of mines building.

Since ancient times Afghanistan has been famous as a source of precious and semi-precious stones and above all its lapis lazuli, which has been prized throughout history both for jewellery and as a pigment.

Despite its location astride historic trade routes and its importance as a source of gemstones, little is known about the ancient mines of the region and few written records exist. It was not until the 1800s that systematic attempts were made to assess the physiography and resources of the region, initially by British military expeditions, followed from time to time by surveys conducted under the auspices of the Geological Survey of India. From the 19th Century through to the mid-1900s the region various geological expeditions investigated areas along the main caravan routes and later along the arterial motor roads. The pioneers in these studies were C.L. Griesbach, E.W.  Vredenburg and H.H.  Rayden. They were notably followed by R. Furon and E.  Trinkler (428); Mme Cizancourt and H. de Vautrin; K. Brueckl, J. Barthoux, F. Clapp, F. Rives, H. Kirh and A. Drat (292); D.West (440); Abdul-Khan and Hulyam-Ali Khan. These studies laid the foundations of the present day knowledge of Afghanistan's geology.

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 characterised 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 organisation.

A German geological mission and the German Geological Consultative Group conducted studies in Afghanistan from April 1959 until 1967 and concentrated their efforts on compiling geological maps. An Italian expedition in the early 1960s published a number of works on the geology of the Western Hindu Kush, Badakhshan and Wakhan. These provide data on igneous complexes, stratigraphy (with monographic description of the fauna and flora of the Mesozoic units), tectonics and the relationship between the structures of the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakorum and other areas. A French Geological Mission began work in 1958. This was led for many years by G.  Mennessier and concentrated its work in the western Hindu Kush, Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, the Kabul area and Nuristan.

Between 1968 and 1978, a Soviet mission assisted the Afghan Government with a systematic geological mapping programme of the country and recorded and investigated over 1 254 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.

Geological investigations were severely curtailed with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, when the country effectively became closed to western geologists. Prior to the invasion, the geology of Afghanistan was probably known in more detail than any other region of the Himalaya, but from that time onwards outside interests were suspended and the Afghan geological community became isolated.

Like other government institutions, the Afghanistan Geological Survey was severely weakened during more than two decades of military conflict, and suffered from a lack of investment and skills development, and an inability to perform an active work programme. During the fighting between Mujahideen factions following the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989, the AGS office stood in the front line of firing and was severely damaged. Throughout this period of conflict and during the later rule by the Taliban, the staff of the AGS salvaged and protected documents, maps and samples, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families. After the Taleban left Kabul in December 2001 these precious data were returned to the Survey. Afghanistan owes a debt of gratitude to these dedicated staff.

Following the fall of the Taliban regime, the Government of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, with the assistance of the World Bank, began to formulate a mining sector strategy and policy. Amongst many things, this recognised the need for the rehabilitation and restructuring of the Afghanistan Geological Survey in order for it to perform as a modern geological survey and implement a programme of geological mapping and resource assessment using modern concepts and methods.

In response to this need, the British Geological Survey and United States Geological Survey commenced collaborative projects with the Afghanistan Geological Survey and Ministry of Mines and Industries in 2004. These projects are funded respectively by the Governments of Britain and the United States of America and will implement a comprehensive programme of capacity-building, geological mapping, evaluation of mineral and hydrogeological resources, and the creation of geological and mineral databases and geographical information systems. A mining cadastre office will also be established. Throughout these programmes, comprehensive training of Afghan geologists will be provided.