By Kim Sengupta
Afghanistan, often dismissed in the West as an impoverished and failed state, is sitting on $1 trillion of untapped minerals, according to new calculations from surveys conducted jointly by the Pentagon and the US Geological Survey.
The sheer size of the deposits – including copper, gold, iron and cobalt as well as vast amounts of lithium, a key component in batteries of Western lifestyle staples such as laptops and BlackBerrys – holds out the possibility that Afghanistan, ravaged by decades of conflict, might become one of the most important and lucrative centres of mining in the world.
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said last night: "I think it's very, very big news for the people of Afghanistan and we hope it will bring the Afghan people together for a cause that will benefit everyone."
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan, told reporters that the economic value of the deposits may be even higher. "There's ... an indication that even the £1 trn figure underestimates what the true potential might be," he said.
According to a Pentagon memo, seen by The New York Times, Afghanistan could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium", with one location in Ghazni province showing the potential to compete with Bolivia, which, until now, held half the known world reserves.
Developing a mining industry would, of course, be a long-haul process. It would, though, be a massive boost to a country with a gross domestic product of only about $12bn and where the fledgling legitimate commercial sector has been fatally undermined by billions of dollars generated by the world's biggest opium crop.
"There is stunning potential here," General David Petraeus, the US commander in overall charge of the Afghan war, told the US newspaper. "There are lots of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant."
Stan Coats, former Principal Geologist at the British Geographical Survey, who carried out exploration work in Afghanistan for four years, also injected a note of caution. "Considerably more work needs to be carried out before it can be properly called an economic deposit that can be extracted at a profit," he told The Independent. "Much more ground exploration, including drilling, needs to be carried out to prove that these are viable deposits which can be worked."
But, he added, despite the worsening security situation, some regions were safe enough "so there is a lot of scope for further work".
The discovery of the minerals is likely to trigger a commercial form of the "Great Game" for access to energy resources. The Chinese have already won the right to develop the Aynak copper mine in Logar province in the north, and American and European companies have complained about allegedly underhand methods used by Beijing to get contracts.
The existence of the minerals will also raise questions about the real purpose of foreign involvement in the Afghan conflict. Just as many people in Iraq held that the US and British-led invasion of their country was in order to control the oil wealth, Afghans can often be heard griping that the West is after its "hidden" natural treasures. The fact US military officials were on the exploration teams, and the Pentagon was writing mineral memos might feed that cynicism and also motivate the Taliban into fighting more ferociously to keep control of potentially lucrative areas.
Western diplomats were also warning last night that the flow of money from the minerals is likely to fuel endemic corruption in a country where public figures, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's brother, have been accused of making fortunes from the narcotics trade. The Ministry of Mines and Industry, which will control the production of lithium and other natural resources, has been repeatedly associated with malpractice.
Last year US officials accused the minister in charge at the time when the Aynak copper mine rights were given to the Chinese, Mohammed Ibrahim Adel, of taking a $30m bribe. He denied the charge but was sacked by President Karzai.
But last night Jawad Omar, a senior official at the ministry, insisted: "The natural resources of Afghanistan will play a magnificent role in Afghanistan's economic growth. The past five decades have shown that every time new research takes place, it shows our natural reserves are far more than what was previously found. This is a cause for rejoicing, nothing to worry about."
According to The New York Times, the US Geological Survey flew sorties to map Afghanistan's mineral resources in 2007, using an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a 3-D profile of deposits below the surface. It was when a Pentagon task force – charged with formulating business development programmes and helping the Afghan government develop relationships with international firms – came upon the geological data in 2009, that the process of calculating the economic values began.
"This really is part and parcel of General [Stanley] McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy," Colonel Lapan said yesterday. "This is that whole economic arm that we talk about but gets very little attention."