May 13, 2011

J.P. Morgan Seeks Gold in Afghanistan, as China Has Head Start

Groundbreaking deal could pave way to untapped mineral riches

Afghanistan, home to conflict and danger, is also the site of close to $1 trillion in minerals, according to the Pentagon. Geography and ideology have kept the mountainous nation isolated and its resources unplumbed. However, that may be about to change, if Ian Hannam and J.P. Morgan Capital Markets have anything to do with it.

On Wednesday, Fortune and CNN Money reported on Hannam’s efforts to broker a deal to bring gold out of the mountains of Afghanistan. Fraught with instability and subject to sudden perils, whether from its untamed environment or its unstable political situation, Afghanistan offers the promise of a wealth, literally, of resources ranging from gold to copper to rare earths—all much in demand not just in the U.S., but also in China, India, and other nations around the world. And the U.S. is not the only large country displaying its interest through the intercession of Hannam and his dealmaking skills.

China, with cash to burn and a 2009 plea from President Barack Obama to assist in the stabilization of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as reported by Reuters, has ready markets for Afghanistan’s resources. And, according to an April article in Foreign Policy, China “has a record of actually building what it says it's going to build, and not waiting for bankers to see a dime to be earned on the interest, or necessarily for a civil war to wind down.”

Still, Hannam’s efforts on behalf of J.P. Morgan Capital Markets have the backing of no less than the Pentagon and General David Petraeus. "I'm an old economist," the general was quoted in the report. "And at the end of the day this is about progress for the [Afghan] people and giving them the prospect for a much brighter future for them and their families. That's what persuades the citizenry to support the government rather than support the Taliban."

Petraeus, as head of U.S. Central Command, believed that the key to extricating the U.S. from Afghanistan was boosting the country’s economy. To that end, he moved in an economic stabilization team that identified mining in the country as vital to that goal. And that’s where Hannam entered the picture.

A former special forces soldier himself, Hannam is no stranger to the trouble spots of the world, and has made it his business to seek out opportunities that others might pass by. His work with Sadat Naderi, the owner of the gold license for the mine currently being developed, has weathered a number of obstacles, including a question of profit margin, and is under development with some $40 million in financing from investors in the U.S., Europe and Asia. While gold is the primary target, once that operation is strongly underway, additional rights will be bid for, including copper and rare earths.

Where J.P. Morgan treads, others are following. Morgan Stanley bankers and Chevron executives are now investigating natural resources in the country. And in the next year, the Afghan government is scheduled to auction off six major minerals sites.

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