Afghanistan is sitting on mineral resources worth $1 trillion and could become one of the worlds most important mining centers, the Pentagon announced yesterday, as it tried to drum up foreign investment and wean the country off the opium trade.
A Pentagon memo predicted that the country could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium" - a metal that is a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and mobile phones.
The largest deposits have been uncovered in salt lakes in Ghazni province, eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban retain a dominant presence. Many of the other mineral deposits are also in Taliban strongholds, presenting the coalition forces and any incoming global mining companies with security headaches.
US and Afghan officials acknowledge that it will take many years to develop a mining industry and in the present security climate international companies are likely to weigh up the risks before launching into an investment program in a country still politically unstable and suffering from insurgency and corruption.
The Pentagon estimate was questioned by geologists and mining experts, who said that it was based on old and incomplete data and did not take into account security and infrastructure problems.
Two senior geologists working in Afghanistan also said that they were unaware of any proven deposits of lithium.
The announcement nonetheless throws a spotlight on probably the only legal industry with the potential to prop up the Afghan economy - worth only $12 billion last year - after Western troops and subsidies are withdrawn. The narcotics export trade in the country is estimated to be worth an annual $4 billion.
"I think its very, very big news for the people of Afghanistan," Waheed Omar, a spokesman for President Karzai, told a news conference. "This is an economic interest that will benefit all Afghans and will benefit Afghanistan in the long run."
The Pentagon memo appeared to be an effort to attract international interest in the mining sector before the auction of the Hajigak iron deposit, which could be worth $5 billion to $6 billion (£3.4 billion-£4 billion) in the next few weeks.
It coincided with a visit to India by Wahidullah Shahrani, the new Afghan Minister of Mines, to solicit bids for Hajigak after the cancellation of a planned tender last year because of a lack of international interest. Mr Shahrani was appointed with US backing in January after his predecessor was sacked for allegedly taking bribes from a Chinese mining company - a charge he denies. Mr Shahrani is due to visit Britain next week.
Afghan and Western officials are anxious for more companies to bid for Hajigak and other deposits to prevent China from gaining control over Afghanistans natural resources through bids subsidised heavily by Beijing.
A Pentagon spokesman admitted that the estimate was based principally on old data, which was gathered mainly by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989.
The British Geological Survey collated that data between 2003 and 2008, and the US Geological Survey carried out an aerial survey of Afghanistan in 2006 before publishing a report on its mineral resources in 2008.
"All the public information has been in the public domain for several years now," the Pentagon spokesman told The Times. "We took a look at what we knew to be there, and asked what would it be worth now in terms of todays dollars. The trillion dollar figure seemed to be newsworthy." He said that the estimate was arrived at by a team of US officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and USAID working with experts from the US Geological Survey (USGS) over the past two to three years.
The team was overseen by Paul Brinkley, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence for Business, who worked previously in Iraq trying to promote local business and attract foreign investment.
The Pentagon spokesman said he was certain that the estimate was based on proven reserves of minerals including gold, copper, iron, cobalt and lithium.
However, he could not confirm a report that the team had discovered lithium deposits in the province of Ghazni that could be as large as Bolivias.
Stephen Peters, the head of the USGSs Afghanistan Minerals Project, said that he was unaware of USGS involvement in any new surveying for minerals in Afghanistan in the past two years. "We are not aware of any discoveries of lithium," he said.
Another experienced geologist working in Afghanistan said that it would take at least three to five years to establish a proven deposit of lithium.
"They couldnt have done a proper assessment. They might have taken a few samples and found some lithium, but that doesnt mean anything," he said.
He also dismissed a report that the US team had found proven deposits of niobium - another rare metal that is used in wind turbines.