J.P. Morgan to mine for Afghan gold

To Hannam, chairman of J.P. Morgan Capital Markets, Afghanistan represents a gigantic, untapped opportunity — one of the last great natural-resource frontiers. Landlocked and pinioned by imperial invaders, Afghanistan has been cursed by its geography for thousands of years. Now, for the first time, Hannam believes, that geography could be an asset. The two most resource-starved nations on the planet, China and India, sit next door to Afghanistan, where, according to Pentagon estimates, minerals worth nearly $1 trillion lie buried. True, there is a war under way. And it’s unclear how the death of Osama bin Laden will impact the country’s political and economic environment. But Hannam is not your usual investment banker: A former soldier, he has done business in plenty of strife-torn countries. So have all the members of his team, two of them former special forces soldiers who have fought here.

exploration.

After the toppling of the Taliban by the U.S.-led coalition, the Afghan government, with financial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, commissioned new, high-tech aerial surveys of Afghanistan. The results were stunning: The U.S. Geological Survey identified huge veins of copper, iron, lithium, gold, and silver. The Afghan government solicited bids for one of the biggest of the copper deposits, a site south of Kabul that had been identified by both Drummond and the Soviets. China, offering a rich price, won the bid in 2007, beating out four other mining companies. But the Chinese mining company has yet to extract any copper from the site because of delays clearing land mines from the area, and the discovery of archeological relics.

Then, in 2009, mining in Afghanistan got the push it needed — from the U.S. military. Petraeus had been appointed commander of U.S. Central Command, which had ultimate authority over Afghanistan. He realized that a U.S. exit from Afghanistan depended on getting the country’s economy running. Up to 60% of Afghanistan’s $15 billion GDP comes from foreign aid, according to Pentagon estimates, and another 20% comes from the illicit drug trade — poppies. What Afghanistan needed was the real hope that it might achieve economic sovereignty. “I’m an old economist,” the general says in an interview at his headquarters in Kabul. “And at the end of the day this is about progress for the [Afghan] people and giving them the prospect for a much brighter future for them and their families. That’s what persuades the citizenry to support the government rather than support the Taliban.”

Realizing that conventional foreign-aid organizations weren’t getting the job done, Petraeus moved a crack economic stabilization team from Iraq into Afghanistan. That team quickly realized that mining would be key.

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