Many have drilled down on the fact -- mentioned by the Times -- that the original USGS report on the mineral deposits was released way back in 2007. The Times reported that the USGS report "gathered dust for two more years, ignored by officials in both the American and Afghan governments." According to the Times, until a Pentagon business development team noticed the USGS study in 2009, "no one had sought to translate the technical data to measure the potential economic value of the mineral deposits."
But there's evidence that the geologists knew full well what they were dealing with. The USGS press release on the Afghanistan survey, dated November 2007, notes in the second sentence that, "Mineral resources present a great source for a country's industrial growth and wealth."
USGS scientist Stephen Peters, who worked on the Afghan project, said in a podcast at the time that "the impact of ... an emerging minerals industry in Afghanistan, will benefit not only Afghanistan, but the whole region. One by providing wealth and stabilization within the country, and also exporting to these neighboring countries throughout the world precious resources which are needed in today's industrial society."
Peters also said: "This assessment of Afghanistan's mineral resources can be used to attract interest and investment in the country's mineral industry. Exploration for and development of mineral deposits can lead industry and commerce, and provide alternative lifestyles to the Afghan people." (Listen below at around the 2:10 and 5:30 marks.)
The USGS survey itself (.pdf) notes that its subject, mineral resources, are defined as "materials that are in such form that economic extraction of a commodity is currently or potentially feasible."
The survey was so obviously seen as economically significant that it was unveiled at a Washington business conference organized by the DC-based Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce. That was the November 2007 U.S.-Afghan Business Matchmaking Conference. That group is nothing if not well-connected. It's run by a group of Afghan-American businessmen and its president is a former Republican member of Congress, Don Ritter.
Now, it's still possible that no one inside the Pentagon realized the economic potential of Afghanistan's mineral reserves -- but it's clear that others within the U.S. government did know. It's also worth noting that a Defense Department team has, according to the Times, done recent survey work looking more closely at Afghanistan's lithium reserves -- which were noted but not emphasized in the '07 USGS report.