Afghan needs, global priorities, and the treasures of Mes Aynak

Afghanistan’s copper deposits can alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people and help the world’s green transition.

** ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, FEB. 14, 2011 AND THEREAFTER ** In this photograph made on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010, men work on the excavation of a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. The archaeological dig is located at the world's second-biggest unexploited copper mine. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. Afghanistan's vast mineral wealth is no secret. Mining companies, both Afghan and foreign, have already shown interest in some of the country's rich resources, notably copper, iron ore and oil. But with poor infrastructure and a security situation that is precarious at best _ and downright prohibitive in some parts of the country _ there has been a limit to how much the country can hope to make, in the medium term at least. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
Men work on the excavation of a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, Afghanistan on Octpber 12, 2010 [File: Dusan Vranic/AP]

Since it assumed power in Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban has faced the formidable task of undertaking the reconstruction and development of a country devastated by decades of war. The new government is attempting to turn a new page, but Western sanctions are suffocating its economy. An agreement to lift the sanctions has been elusive so far.

As the government tries to break its international isolation to receive financial support, it is also considering other sources of revenue, including developing its mineral deposits, some of which may be key for the world’s energy transition. According to a Brookings Institute report, Afghanistan sits on some 2.3 billion metric tonnes of iron ore and 1.4 million metric tonnes of rare earth minerals.

More significantly, the country is estimated to possess some 30 million metric tonnes of copper. In fact, one of the most important copper deposits in the world is located in an area called Mes Aynak in Logar Province.

This resource may not only bring significant funds to the country to help pursue its development goals, but can also help the rest of the world with its struggle against climate change and poverty. Copper is a critical component of advanced renewable energy technologies. There is a growing demand for it, as the world goes through its green energy transformation and tries to meet the seventh UN sustainable development goal – to provide access to affordable and clean energy to all.

Building an electric vehicle requires 2.5 times as much copper as an internal combustion vehicle. Solar farms use two times more copper per megawatt of installed capacity than gas or coal-powered electricity plants; for offshore wind installations, the amount is five times bigger.

At the same time, 733 million people globally are without access to electricity. This means that poor countries, which try to expand their energy production and electric grids, have to compete with rich ones for copper, as growing demand is pushing up the price. Mining Mes Aynak would have a significant global impact, helping meet demand for copper and perhaps lowering the price so poorer countries can better afford it.

In this context, developing the deposits at Mes Aynak is in the interest of the whole world, as well as in the interest of Afghanistan. And there is a way to develop these resources that is acceptable to the Taliban and to the foreign powers, which have imposed sanctions and financial restrictions on the group.

Our organisation, Sustainable Development Strategies Group took a look at the requirements for the development of Mes Aynak a few years ago at the behest of ARCH International, an organisation working to protect world cultural heritage.

The development of this site would be challenging and require the construction of new sources of electricity, transmission systems, transport systems and water supply routes. It would also necessitate setting up processing plants.

The revenues from the project could improve significantly the lives of Afghans. The country would benefit not only from newly built infrastructure, but also from employment opportunities and investment. Community development agreements could be drawn up to allocate funding for schools, hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure for the benefit of nearby communities.

Developing Mes Aynak would require capital investment, technology sector development and mining expertise, which the Taliban government does not have and cannot access because of Western sanctions and restrictions. That is why, achieving this would require an agreement between the Taliban and at least some of its foreign critics, namely the United States.

Equipment and machines installed by Chinese excavators are seen near a copper mine in Mes Aynak, Logar province February 14, 2015. China and Afghanistan remain deadlocked over a stalled $3 billion copper mine five months after Beijing demanded royalties be slashed by almost a half, underlining Kabul's struggles to support itself as foreign aid dries up. The copper, lying beneath the ancient Buddhist ruins of Mes Aynak, is one of the world's largest untapped deposits. But the project has been mired in delays since state-run China Metallurgical Group Corp (MCC) won the contract to develop it in 2007. Resurgent Taliban insurgents have tightened control over the area around Aynak, and after threats, rocket attacks and the risk of land mines, MCC withdrew its Chinese workers from the heavily guarded copper camp last year. And then there are the Buddhist ruins. Archeological work to preserve treasures from the crumbling monastries and stupas is dangerous and slow, and must be finished before mining can begin. Picture taken on February 14, 2015. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Equipment and machines installed by Chinese excavators are seen near a copper mine in Mes Aynak on February 14, 2015 [File: Reuters/Omar Sobhani]

A deal can see international recognition of the government and the lifting of sanctions and financial restrictions on the basis of the UN framework for human security in exchange for the Taliban’s flexibility on education and recognition of women’s rights.

Both sides stand to benefit from such an agreement. For the cash-strapped Taliban government, developing the copper deposits can provide much-needed funds to tackle the deepening humanitarian crisis in the country, where 92 percent of the population faces food insecurity.

For the US, greater copper supply on the global market can lower the cost of its own green transition and stimulate its economy. Taliban concessions on key human rights issues would also be a policy win for Washington.

In the absence of any agreement, there are at least two major dangers in trying to develop this project. One would be an attempt to generate quick money by skimming the highest-grade ore and trucking it away for processing abroad, perhaps to China. While this might generate some quick cash, it would come nowhere near fulfilling the potential of this site.

It would be settling for short-term benefits, for pennies, when the value of a properly developed project would be enormous and its benefit – long-term. The employment and infrastructure benefits of a fully developed project would be lost.

Furthermore, exploiting the site for a quick profit would most likely hurt the environment. Water aquifers near the mine that supply water to Kabul and beyond would be at risk of severe contamination from mining activity. This would also affect farming in the region, killing the livelihoods of local communities.

The other major danger brings an unhappy parallel with the past. Twenty years ago, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan, which caused international outrage and further motivated foreign powers to isolate the group.

Today, the important Buddhist heritage site at Mes Aynak is in peril if its resources are improperly exploited. The Buddhist monastery complexes are located on, over and in the copper deposits. It seems that the earlier inhabitants of this area worked as miners, producing copper. These buildings, tunnels and relics are all part of world historical heritage, and mining at this site should not damage or destroy them.

Our earlier review of this site for ARCH International seems to indicate that with care, the deposit of copper can be exploited with only limited damage to part of this priceless archaeological complex, which has yet to be fully explored, studied and understood.

This photograph made on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010 shows ancient Buddha statues inside a temple in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. This archaeological site is located at the world's second-largest unexploited copper mine in Logar province. The Chinese government-backed mining company, China Metallurgical Group Corp., which won the contract to exploit the site, has given archaeologists three years to finish the excavations. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
Ancient Buddha statues were discovered inside a temple in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, Afghanistan [File: Dusan Vranic/AP]

The Taliban government has indicated that it is committed to protecting and preserving this cultural heritage. This could best be achieved if the development of the site occurs in close consultation with international archaeological organisations and the cultural authorities of the United Nations. It can even be developed as a cultural heritage tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world.

Illegal mining in Afghanistan has already been a problem for years. It has not only deprived the state budget of much-needed revenue, but it has also enriched warlords and undermined security and stability in the country.

If the Taliban and the US strike a deal to lift the sanctions, there is a much higher chance that Mes Aynak would be developed in a way that guarantees transparency, environmental protections and local development. This is because the UN and international financial institutions would be involved and would require accountability for investments and observance of environmental and developmental standards.

We hope the Afghan government would also show commitment to transparency in how the revenues from any exploitation of Mes Aynak would be spent. They should be dedicated to improving health, education and infrastructure.

If these conditions are met, Mes Aynak could set an example for other mineral resources to be developed and managed to the benefit of the Afghan people. However, if that does not happen, Afghanistan risks joining a long list of countries where the exploitation of mineral resources has resulted in environmental devastation, impoverishment, and wealth plunder.

We suggest that the potential for seeking an agreement that allows the development of Mes Aynak, and the investment flows necessary for that end should be explored with vigour.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.