J.P. Morgan’s hunt for Afghan gold

On May 17, 2011 by stratagem

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.

Hannam thinks back over the past 12 months. This little mine, where operations have yet to commence, is puny by J.P. Morgan’s (JPM) standards, but he knows it might be the project for which he is remembered. A lot of powerful people, including the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, are counting on him to demonstrate that the country is safe for foreign investors.

If the brutal war and roads don’t give a businessperson pause, the country’s governance and corruption problems should. Massive fraud marred recent elections. Transparency International rates Afghanistan as the second most corrupt country on earth after Somalia. The last minister of mining was identified in a Washington Post report as the recipient of a massive bribe, an allegation he denied to Fortune. The current minister, who had been widely described as an honest reformer, has recently had his integrity questioned in State Department cables released by WikiLeaks. He, too, told Fortune he has done nothing improper.

But if the risks are absurd, the potential rewards are off the charts. Hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of iron, copper, rare earth metals, and, yes, gold are buried beneath Afghanistan’s deserts and mountains. This wealth has lain there mainly undisturbed for thousands of years as armies of Persians, Greeks, Mongols, Britons, Russians, and now Americans tramped above. Invaders have dreamed of exploiting it since the time of Alexander the Great, but no one has yet succeeded on a large scale.

>> Read entire story at Fortune

Phantom Report: Ex British military[JP Morgan] exploiting Afghanistan natural resources through NATO  Related: Afghans dream of bonanza in scarce rare-earth minerals

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