Tapping Afghanistan's estimated $1 trillion mineral resources is a top priority for President Ashraf Ghani.
We all saw in 2001 the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan destroy the huge Buddhist statues carved from a cliff. We all saw ISIS destroy the ancient temple of Palmyra in Syria in the name of Allah and their interpretation of Islam. But where is the condemnation of those who worship the God Mammon when it comes to the Buddhist ruins at Mes Aynak which are now under threat from a copper mine.
Comparable to Pompeii and Machu Picchu, these sprawling ruins feature hundreds of life-size or larger Buddha statues, dozens of temples, hidden caverns and thousands of priceless artifacts like birch-bark manuscripts, gold and copper coins, jewelry and intricate hand painted murals. But buried below the ancient ruins is a lode of copper ore that extends two and a half miles across and runs a mile or more into the Baba Wali mountain, which dominates the site. It ranks as one of the world’s largest untapped deposits, containing an estimated 12.5 million tons of copper, worth an estimated $100 billion .
Over the past seven years a team of Afghan and international archaeologists, supported by up to 650 laborers, has uncovered thousands of Buddhist statues, manuscripts, coins, and holy monuments. Entire monasteries and fortifications have come to light, dating back as far as the third century A.D. Mes Aynak’s archaeological potential has been known for decades. Only 10 percent of Mes Aynak has been excavated, though, and some believe future discoveries at the site have the potential to redefine the history of Afghanistan and the history of Buddhism itself. Puzzling out the full meaning of Mes Aynak will require even more decades—and a new generation of archaeologists such as Masoud Muradi. He’s proud that he and his colleagues represent different ethnicities and work easily together—no small matter in a country riven in the 1990s by a horrific civil war among mujahideen groups divided along ethnic lines. “We have 5,000 years of history, and for Afghanistan’s new generation, it’s very important to know about it,” he says, “Otherwise we are just famous for terrorism and [opium] poppy production.”
Who knows what still lays hidden, buried under a mountain of sand and earth? At the heart of the Silk Road, Mes Aynak was a melting pot of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures where travellers and Buddhists on pilgrimages could trade their wares, exchange cultural perspectives and even worship together at the same location.
In 2007 the Beijing-based China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), leading a state-backed consortium, won rights to extract the copper here on a 30-year lease. (China is ravenous for copper: It now consumes half the world’s supply.) The company made a bid worth more than three billion dollars and promised to provide infrastructure for this isolated, underdeveloped district, including roads, a railway, and a 400-megawatt electricity plant. Afghan officials estimated that the mine would provide a $1.2 billion infusion into the country’s fragile economy, dependent since 2002 on foreign assistance and now facing a seven-billion-dollar annual deficit. When the Chinese deal became public, Afghan cultural heritage advocates demanded that the place’s ancient treasures be excavated and recorded properly before they were lost to an open-pit mine.
Of course, there are other concerns to worry about. “When copper production starts, it will require seven million liters [1.85 million gallons] in one eight-hour shift,” says Javed Noorani, who authored the Integrity Watch report. “The area is already water deficient.”
For the time being the development of the copper mine is stalled. 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 along with many other ores, copper prices have fallen (40 percent since 2011). Plus the Afghan government are trying to extract a much better deal. During a visit to, Beijing asked Ghani to slash the top royalty rate on the mine to about 10 percent from 19.5 percent. China's demands, details of which have not been previously reported, could amount to $114 million in lost revenue for the Afghan government per year at today's prices once the mine is producing at its initial capacity of 197,000 tonnes annually. MCC forecasts the mine could eventually produce up to 343,000 tonnes of copper a year, indirectly creating tens of thousands of jobs. With few alternatives and keen to draw in more Chinese investment, Ghani is unlikely to scrap the deal.