Remember the shocking scenes of Bamiyan Buddhas being destroyed by Taliban fighters in 2001.
Come 2022, Taliban 2.0 are now standing guard by the rocky hillside pinning their hopes on Beijing to turn that rich vein into revenue to salvage the cash-starved country amid crippling international sanctions.
Hundreds of meters below lie what is believed to be the world’s largest deposit of copper. But now they are intent on preserving the relics of the Mes Aynak copper mine.
“Doing so is key to unlocking billions in Chinese investment. Protecting them is very important to us and the Chinese,” said Hakumullah Mubariz, the Taliban head of security at the site.
Taliban’s spectacular reversal illustrates the powerful allure of Afghanistan’s untapped mining sector. Successive authorities have seen the country’s mineral riches, estimated to be worth $1 trillion, as the key to a prosperous future, but none have been able to develop them amid the continual war and violence. Now, multiple countries, including Iran, Russia, and Turkey are looking to invest, filling the vacuum left in the wake of the chaotic US withdrawal.
But Beijing is the most assertive. At Mes Aynak, it could become the first major power to take on a large-scale project in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, potentially redrawing Asia’s geopolitical map.
In 2008, the previous administration of Hamid Karzai signed a 30-year contract with a Chinese joint venture called MCC to extract high-grade copper from Mes Aynak. Studies show the site holds up to 12 million tons of the mineral. But the project got tied up in logistical and contract problems, and it never got past some initial test shafts before it ground to a halt when Chinese staff left in 2014 because of continued violence.
Mere months after the Taliban seized the capital in August, consolidating their power over the country, the group’s newly installed acting Minister for Mining and Petroleum Shahbuddin Dilawar urged his staff to re-engage Chinese state-run companies.
Dilawar has had two virtual meetings with MCC in the last six months, according to company and ministry officials. He urged them to return to the mine, terms unchanged from the 2008 contract.
A technical committee from MCC is due in Kabul in the coming weeks to address the remaining obstacles. Relocating the artifacts is key. But MCC is also seeking to renegotiate terms, particularly to reduce taxes and slash the contract’s 19.5 percent royalty rate by nearly half, the percentage owed to the government per ton of copper sold.
“Chinese companies see the current situation as ideal for them. There is a lack of international competitors and a lot of support from the government side,” said Ziad Rashidi, the ministry head of foreign relations.
China’s ambassador to Afghanistan has said talks are ongoing, but nothing more.
Acquiring rare minerals is key for Beijing to maintain its standing as a global manufacturing powerhouse.
For Afghanistan, the contract at Mes Aynak could bring in $250-300 million per year to state revenues, a 17 percent increase, as well as $800 million in fees over the contract’s length, according to government and company officials. That’s a significant sum as the country grapples with widespread poverty.
At Mes Aynak, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist city sits uncomfortably alongside a potential economic engine. Afghanistan’s tumultuous modern history has gotten in the way of both exploring archaeology and developing the mines.
Discovered in the 1960s by French geologists, the site was believed to have been an important stop along the Silk Road from the early centuries AD.
After the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, Russians dug tunnels along the mountain to investigate the copper deposit” the cavernous boreholes are still visible. These were later used as an Al Qaida hideout, and at least one was bombed by the US in 2001.
To the shock of the non-Taliban technocrats in his ministry, Dilawar is committed to saving the site. He dismissed open-pit mining schemes that would raze the site entirely. The alternative option of underground mining was judged too pricey by MCC.
The Culture Ministry has been tasked with presenting a plan to relocate the relics, most likely to the Kabul Museum. “We have already transferred some (artifacts) to the capital, and we are working to transfer the rest, so the mining work can begin,” Dilawar told a news agency.
In the ministry’s labyrinthine halls, hopeful investors stand in line, documents ready to stake their claim of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral riches.
Knocking on Rashidi’s office door these days are Russians, Iranians, Turks, and of course, the Chinese.
All are “in a great hurry to invest,” he said. Chinese interest is “extraordinary,” he said.
Ministry revenues have increased exponentially, from 110 million afghanis ($1.2 million) in the year preceding the Taliban takeover, to $6 billion afghanis ($67 million) in the six months since the Taliban assumed power.