Afghanistan 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 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 the $1trn 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 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, 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 these are viable deposits.”
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.
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 saying that the West is after “hidden” natural treasures. The fact that 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 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.
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 more than what was previously found. This is a cause for rejoicing, nothing to worry about.”
A smudge of blue paint decorating a letter in the Book of Kells may have come originally from the lapis lazuli mines in the heart of the Afghan mountains. The country's mineral wealth has been known about for a long time — bright blue scarabs and funeral ornaments made of Afghan lapis have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs — but its full exploitation has been prevented by chronic insecurity.
Just before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 I visited an ancient lapis mine in the side of the gorge in the Hindu Kush mountains in north-east Afghanistan. The road to the entrance of the mine was a rutted track which could only just be negotiated by our Russian-made jeep.
We were far from the frontline but even here war was having its effect. The mine was closed because all the miners had been called into the army of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance which controlled the area.
Deposits of lapis are small and easy to exploit and transport. In the Panjshir, the long arrow-shaped valley north of Kabul where there are deposits of the same semi-precious stone, local miners do not bother to dig but simply pack explosives into the hillside and detonate it. Some families make a living from this but bigger enterprises will have to battle with violence and corruption.
Geologists have long been fascinated by the potential for making Afghanistan an international mining centre. At the western end of the Himalayan mountain chain, the country's geological history is almost as dramatic as its historical past.
As a result it has deposits of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium. Some of them have been known for over a thousand years, but it is only recently that they have been studied in detail.
Yet the initial enthusiasm of mining experts usually wilts as they try to cope with the difficulties of establishing an industry in a country with so much no-man's land.
Development is not impossible but the challenges are gigantic and everybody wants a cut of the profits. Over the border in the Bajaur district of Pakistan, until recently controlled by the Pakistan Taliban, the Pakistani army found a note from a Taliban commander allowing a marble mine to reopen.
The risks and the rewards of exploiting Afghanistan's minerals are obvious, but the risks come immediately while the rewards only come in time.
The largest single foreign investment in Afghanistan is that of a Chinese company which is starting to mine for copper at Aynak, 20 miles east of Kabul.
Over the next quarter-century it plans to produce 11 million tonnes of copper, build a power station and construct a road to Kabul. Even so, locals complain that the Chinese are not providing enough jobs for them and allege that bribes were paid to win the contract.
Some Afghans see their potential mineral resources as a reason why the US and other powers have intervened in the country, the Afghan equivalent of Iraqi oil.
But sadly for the Afghans it will be a long time before they or anybody else benefits from their contorted geological past. Winning any sort of contract in Afghanistan involves bribery and anybody making money becomes a target for corrupt government officials and warlords.
One day Afghans will be able to exploit the riches beneath their mountains but the time is probably not yet.