The geologist's view: It could be a gold mine, but not for a long time

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The Independent Online

Afghanistan has some of the most complex and varied geology in the world. Mining companies have always known about its potential because geologically it lies in a very interesting region. And it has an undeveloped mining industry in comparison with its neighbours. It has incredibly old rocks, some of which are Archean in age (more than 2,500 million years old), and then those are overlain by rocks that are from eras right up to the present day.

Its tectonic history is remarkable because of its position at the western end of the Himalayas, which were formed when the Indian and Asian plates collided. Afghanistan itself is formed of different blocks that were accreted in much the same way. It's a jigsaw of pieces of crust, and each piece has its own history, and its own mineral productivity. That could make it a very rich region. 1,400 different mineral occurrences have been recorded to date, and that's in a country where comparatively little geological research has been carried out. It's a blank canvas. There's undoubted potential for other minerals to be found.

Of course, the security situation has made it very difficult for any mining company to get involved, and so there's not really any mining industry at present – and little infrastructure, either. The only exception to that is at the Aynak copper deposit south of Kabul, an undeveloped deposit almost untouched since the Russians left. A Chinese company won the contract to develop it in 2008, and that was the biggest prospect that's been pushed by the Afghan government so far. But there's still investigation to be done on the feasibility of extracting the copper ore, and exactly how much of it there is in the ground.

The wider picture is that the mineral potential of the country is still comparatively unknown. A mining law was recently published, which is progress, but with no history of large-scale operations it may take the Afghan government and any mining companies some time to establish how to work together.

In theory, if the security situation did stabilise, there would be a lot of opportunities for mining companies to get involved in looking for these new resources. But this isn't going to be an overnight, quick-win situation. It's going to take a long time for Afghanistan's mineral deposits to be developed to their full potential.

Antony Benham is an economic geologist at the British Geological Survey. He worked on the Afghanistan Geological Survey from 2006-08