LONDON (TCA) — Recent reports from various sides concerning the increasing lack of cash flow for Daesh (IS) in the Near East due to difficulties in its Turkish oil smuggling chain add a new dimension to the already existing threat of extremist forces’ concentration in Afghanistan bordering the southern republics of Central Asia. Ever increasing assessments of the area’s world-class gold mining reserves must have drawn the attention of gang leaders of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Daesh looking for alternative baits and a motive behind their “spring offensive” in Afghanistan and beyond.
The danger zone includes two “gold powers” in the area, both of which share a border with Afghanistan and are under direct threats of incursions from either individual or combined terror groups: Tajikistan and (most of all) Uzbekistan. This in turn once more reveals the true face of the Taliban, Daesh and their likes. Their bait in Central Asia: gold – easy to melt and then to smuggle to the market where its origin cannot possibly be traced back.
Tajikistan gold output
Tajikistan, which shares a long and ill-guarded border with the northeastern Afghan provinces, has assessed reserves in the order of 500 tonne of refined gold, according to a fresh report by Asia-Plus posted on January 6 this year – even though ongoing exploration points at amounts closer to 1,000 tonne. Almost immediately after its independence in 1991 civil war broke out, which intensified with the Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan in 1996.
Mining had continued throughout the war and was boosted from 1.1 tonne to 2.7 tonne of end product between 1997 and 2000.
Tajikistan’s annual gold production is believed to come close to 3 tonne these days, while explorations in “virgin” areas add an annual 100 tonne to prospective geological reserves. The 28 gold fields under exploitation in Tajikistan are operated, respectively, by the state company Tilloi Tojik (Tajik Gold) and two joint ventures – namely the Tajik-Chinese JV Zeravshan Gold Company (ZGC); and Tajik-Canadian JV Aprelevka. Should as expected gold sales prices reach $1,500 per troy ounce in the course of this year, Tajikistan could be sitting on gold worth roughly 50 billion in US dollar. But the richest mining area is located in the province of Sughd, right on the border with Afghanistan where all the danger lurks.
Uzbekistan: the largest gold mine in the world
But the biggest bounty for the black-clad pirate armies lies in, or rather under, Uzbekistan where untapped gold reserves are believed to come close to 10,000 tonne of refined product – more than the USA has stacked away in Fort Knox and about one-seventh of the estimated amount of corporate-owned gold stored in the dungeons under Manhattan. Around 3,500 tonne of the Uzbek reserves is located in the desert of Kyzyl-Kum in the central part of the country, while a similar amount has been assessed in the area between Samarkand and Tashkent to its east.
This year, the Uzbeks hope to cross the threshold of 100 tonne in pure gold output, further to be increased to 120-130 tonne per annum before the upcoming decade. And there is room for more, since only a dozen out of 27 identified major-size gold deposits are now operational.
Most of the mines in operation are open-pit ones, with deposits located at depths of no more than a hundred metre. The biggest one and also the largest of its kind in the entire world is Muruntau in the Kyzyl-Kum desert with primary, secondary and surrounding deeper underground deposits accounting for a dazzling 5,200 tonne (170 million troy ounce) on top of the 1,600 tonne (50 million ounce) it has produced since its discovery back in 1958.
Promising gold provinces
Not far from Muruntau, a new mine named Bessopan is about to be opened which is due to add another 2.5 million ounce per annum to the complex’s output.
Apart from Kyzylkum, two more promising “gold provinces” in Uzbekistan are under expansion: Samarkand and Tashkent/Fergana. The former includes the prize winner Sharmitan, to the north of the city of Samarkand, and Kyzylalma and Kochbulak, located east of the capital on the entry to the Fergana Valley. Closer to Tashkent gold deposits were recently discovered along the river Angren. Together, the four projects account for 3.5 tonne of primary gold and another 2 tonne of inferred gold.
Two western mining companies engaged in the Uzbek gold industry have bitten the dust: Newmont of the USA and Oxus from the UK. Only Chinese firms have managed to maintain assets in the country, whereas the rest has remained under firm control of the state companies Navoi Mining and Metallurgical Co. (NMMC) and Almalyk Mining and Metallurgical Co. (AMMC), which together produce 86% of the Uzbek gold.
But both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as Kyrgyzstan, are home to thousands of clandestine “private” groups and individuals exploiting shallow gold veins in the ground and nuggets from the rivers and mountain streams. Each country produces at least a tonne of refined gold per year, and thereby represent a vast black market where gold is bought in small amounts for as little as $300 per troy ounce – thereby bringing in astronomic profits for traffickers, who smuggle the gold out of the country where it brings in threefold the original purchasing price.
Given the extremely low living standards in the three countries, the authorities tend to condone the parallel mining business. But this also opens the door to criminal syndicates, including those with links to “Islamic” organisations such as the local “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” with links to Afghanistan- and Pakistan-based formations, to take control over production and trade – as has happened in Afghanistan with the Taliban now openly running mines and processing facilities. How to deal with that is a challenge to authorities none of which has so far found a proper response to and which requires a fresh approach with no obvious ready-made solution imaginable. One thing is sure, though: gold represents an integral part of the struggle against terror in the region.