Karzai hints key donor Japan’s firms may get leg up on minerals

by Masami Ito

Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged corporate Japan on Friday to explore his country’s untapped mineral resources that, according to a recent U.S. geological survey, may be worth more than $1 trillion.

During a meeting in Tokyo organized by the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Karzai said his country will become “an industrial hub of mineral resources” and “Japan is welcome to participate in lithium exploration in Afghanistan.”

Karzai, in Japan until Sunday, said international and domestic rivalry over the mineral resources should be managed properly, but hinted he may favor certain countries.

Japan, the second-largest donor to Afghanistan following the U.S., has helped the country reintegrate former Taliban soldiers, and given humanitarian and reconstruction aid to improve infrastructure, education and health. Most recently, it pledged to give up to $5 billion for five years starting in 2009.

“Morally, Afghanistan should give access as a priority to those countries that have helped Afghanistan massively in the past few years,” he said, noting Japan has been his country’s No. 2 aid donor.

“What . . . we have to reciprocate with is this opportunity of mineral resources, that we must return at the goodwill of the Japanese people by giving Japan priority to come and explore and extract,” he said.

Karzai also revealed he would be meeting officials from Mitsubishi Corp. later Friday to discuss mining operations.

The mineral resources should be explored in an environmentally friendly manner and must be used in an accountable way “to prevent corruption in the country.” Time and patience to explore these minerals, however, is necessary, he added.

“Rather than doing it quickly, we should do it properly with adequate safeguards, adequate environmental guarantees in place, and (a) proper system of management and distribution,” Karzai said. “The sooner the better, keeping these three factors in mind.”

On Kosuke Tsuneoka, a Japanese journalist believed taken captive by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan in late March, Karzai said he was concerned and expressed hope he will be freed as soon as possible, without elaborating.

“You may have good news today or tomorrow,” Karzai said. “There will be good news, very very hopefully, and we have been following it closely. But we just don’t talk about it to the media because the bad people, if they hear it, will try to turn the issue around.”

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada refused to comment on Tsuneoka’s case during a news conference later Friday.