Afghanistan has up to $1trillion (£690bn) worth of untapped mineral resources which could revolutionise the country’s economy and perhaps even the war, American officials have said.
The country has long been known to harbour huge deposits of copper and iron, but the scale of resources is now believed to be far larger than previously thought.
Afghan officials believe the mining sector will eventually become the backbone of the now tiny Afghan economy and provide hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The economy is currently dominated by aid money and drug smuggling, raising fears the coalition’s investments in building the Afghan army and state are ultimately unsustainable.
A thriving mining economy offers the chance of much-needed funding to the Afghan state, but would also need years to build up the infrastructure needed.
“There is stunning potential here,” Gen David Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, told the New York Times. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was mapped by the Soviets during the 1980s, but was never exploited.
After discovering the Soviet data, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys in 2006, using gravity and magnetic measuring instruments mounted in an old Navy aircraft.
The data was so promising, the geologists returned the following year using an old British bomber equipped with instruments to build a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface.
Geologists are now finishing field studies in the hope they can start tender processes to attract bids from international mining firms.
Jack Medlin, a geologist in the United States Geological Survey’s international affairs programme, told the newspaper: “On the ground, it’s very, very, promising. Actually, it’s pretty amazing.”
First analysis of a location in Ghazni province showed it had potentially the world’s largest deposits of lithium, which is used in laptop batteries.
Early attempts to harness Afghanistan’s mineral wealth have been hampered by corruption and poor security.
In 2008, the Chinese state-owned firm MCC signed the contract for one of the world’s richest unexploited copper deposits at Aynak, 30 miles south of Kabul after paying a premium of £484 million.
World Bank estimates suggest the Aynak mine alone could yield 100,000 tons a year, bring the Afghan government £240 million a year in taxes and create another 20,000 jobs.
Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, minister for mines at the time, was later accused of taking a £20 bribe to award the contract. He denied the accusation, but lost his job.
Early progress at the mine has been hampered by poor security and the ground breaking ceremony last July was conducted as helicopter gunships swooped overhead.
A tender last year for the 1.8 billion ton Hajigak iron ore deposit west of Kabul, which is estimated to be 62 per cent pure, and “world class” attracted five Indian firms, but stalled last year and has yet to restart.