Afghan gold fever heats up

The troubled country's untapped mineral resources could transform its future, if security can be improved. By Mark Leftly

Neal Rigby was munching on some fine sardines in a restaurant in Lisbon when his phone rang. It was a US State Department official, who had got hold of Rigby's mobile number through a mutual friend.

The official asked the Warrington-born geologist to fly over and meet him to discuss a sensitive project; he wanted Dr Rigby to help build an Afghanistan economy on the foundations of trillions of dollars-worth of copper and gold buried beneath its war-torn surface.

Early last year, SRK Consulting, which Dr Rigby chairs, got to work on designing a tender process that would attract American, Indian, Chinese and even British prospectors to the country. There's more than just gold and copper in Afghanistan – the country is also rich in lithium, zinc and even uranium – but those are the two metals that will kickstart the nation's mining industry.

Explorers are bidding to work in four licence areas, from the west of the country to the Tajikistan border in the north-east. SRK, which has advised on mining mergers in Mongolia and platinum projects in Zimbabwe, is working alongside the investment bank Canaccord Genuity and the law firm Mayer Brown, with the target that the first of these licences will be awarded by the end of the year.

Dr Rigby says: "The prospectivity of Afghanistan was never in doubt. But the thoughts about Afghanistan were negative after decades of conflict, decades of uncertainty. They needed advice on the conversion [from just having gold and copper in the ground] to exploration and exploitation. I describe it as 'virginal'."

Miners have long known that there is treasure in Afghanistan, as it lies on the Tethyan Eurasian mineral belt, which starts in Turkey and runs through Iran to Asia as far as Indonesia. There are other mineral belts in Afghanistan, formed through the violent collisions of tectonic plates tens of millions of years ago, which also created the 25,000ft mountains in the north-east of the country.

Then there is a geological survey of Afghanistan, outdated but still relevant, which was started in the 1950s as the country sought closer ties with the Soviet Union and abandoned in the late 1970s as friendship with the Communist bloc turned to invasion.

That survey is what the trillions of dollars of wealth estimates are based upon, but what is extraordinary is that prospectors feel that the survey could underestimate Afghanistan's mineral wealth.

Richard Williams, a Wellington College-educated former SAS commander who is now chief executive at Afghan Gold, says: "That was not a long time to collect information, and a lot of the work concentrated in 'easy win' areas, where they already knew there were plenty of metals. Those easy wins are the exploration areas that have been identified and put out to tender. That's both the good news, as it means there's a shed-load more minerals out there, and the bad news, as they're waiting to be found, and could be many years before they are brought to production."

Even in the four licence areas, some of which Afghan Gold has been shortlisted for, it could be three years until production is in full swing.

Afghan Gold is a fascinating company. While the world's biggest miners would never get involved in such an untested market, the names behind Mr Williams' venture are among the titans of the industry. At the forefront is Ian Hannam, the JP Morgan rainmaker who is currently fighting a market abuse fine imposed on him by the Financial Services Authority. Mr Hannam, who has made a fortune loading up the FTSE 100 with mining behemoths from as far afield as Kazakhstan and India, is said to see dragging Afghanistan out of abject poverty through its minerals – those four licences alone could bring in $1bn (£600m) a year in tax – as his "legacy".

Chip Goodyear, the former BHP Billiton boss who has been amusingly, not to say mistakenly, identified as a former CIA operative on conspiracy websites, and the gold-mining magnate Peter Hambro have also provided financial backing.

That these successful figures believe that they can make money out of Afghanistan shows that the opportunities are real. However, the security situation is still delicate, with at least 100 security guards needed at any one mine, 50 on watch while the remainder rest.

The government has promised to set up a mines protection force, but with personnel prioritised for the army and police this is still six to nine months away from being a fully fledged operation.

"Companies going into Afghanistan have to consider their own safety arrangements – mainly this is small banditry and cross-border smuggling, which is not actually that dissimilar to working in other countries in the region," explains a source based in Kabul.

However, conflict remains a genuine threat, the Chinese having effectively stopped work on the $3bn Aynak mine, one of the biggest copper deposits in the world, following insurgent rocket attacks.

Another problem is a mining law that has led miners to question whether they can even profit from their finds. Unlike virtually any other country in the world, a company that explores an area is not automatically granted an operational licence on making a find. Parliament is currently debating a proposal to overhaul the law, and a vote is expected in November, which few are expected to oppose

The State Department was probably also thinking that by 2011 the US had spent $443bn on the war – the UK is at £20bn and counting – so there will have to be some payback at some point. And that payback is waiting to be discovered beneath Afghanistan's scarred earth.

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