Afghanistan’s Mineral Wealth Could Be a Bonanza—or Lead to Disaster

Scientists have discovered a treasure trove of coal, natural gas, oil, and other mineral wealth under Afghanistan’s dusty earth. It could be just what the battered nation needs as Western donors leave—but exploiting it could lead to economic and environmental disaster.

07.04.12 8:45 AM ET

Before Afghanistan exploded into the headlines in 2001, average Americans barely knew that such a country even existed. Its violent discovery was followed by an enormous wave of good will and lots of money, as the U.S., other Western governments, and countless private citizens strove to assist this long-suffering nation, building schools and clinics, encouraging the downtrodden women, erasing the dark traces of Taliban oppression, and working to lift Afghanistan into a brighter present.

But after more than 10 aggravating, exorbitantly expensive and violent years, the world has pretty much had it with Afghanistan. Now, the pressing desire is to cobble together some sort of status quo that will allow everyone to get out as expeditiously as possible. Afghan security forces are nearly ready to replace the departing foreign troops. The remaining challenge is financial. The Afghan government is almost totally funded by the subsidies of donor governments, a situation that clearly is unsustainable. The U.S. government believes it has found the solution.

Working from data generated by the Russians during their own unhappy tenure in this country, the U.S. Geological Survey was thrilled to announce that below the rocks and dust of Afghanistan lies an almost unbelievable trove of treasure, mineral wealth in the unimaginable billions. Coal. Natural gas. Oil. Copper. Not to mention rare elements such as lanthanum, cerium, and neodymium, essential to modern technology and commanding high prices. Mining was going to be the silver bullet, and it needed to commence immediately to start the flow of revenue into Kabul’s soon-to-be-empty coffers. Afghanistan, the new Saudi Arabia, the next Dubai, an Aladdin’s treasure spilling forth from its sparse terrain? There is an old saying that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Well, it is in fact true that the unique geology of Afghanistan has endowed the country with vast mineral deposits. It is also true that these hold great promise. But they don’t amount to a silver bullet—and if forced to serve as such, there is a serious risk that this bullet will go astray.

At a high-level expert meeting convened by ARCH (the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage) and the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at SAIS/Johns Hopkins, mining engineers and geologists warned that unless extreme care and caution are exercised in the implementation of its mining, Afghanistan could face an environmental disaster on a scale that would vastly overstrain the abilities of its government to contain. This on top of the other significant risk, namely that in light of its poverty, underdevelopment, continuing instability, and weak rule of law, its mineral wealth could easily turn into a mineral curse.

This has happened time and again to countries in comparable political circumstances, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But even were Afghanistan miraculously able to suddenly end its huge and endemic corruption, subdue its regional warlords, extend the ability of the central government to control events and collect revenue from far-flung provinces and defeat the Taliban—which at the moment still holds sway over many of the areas richest in the above-named minerals—the environmental risks still remain, and they are considerable.

Case in point, the ancient Buddhist ruins of Mes Aynak, which was the specific focus of the expert group’s deliberations. Located 20 kilometers outside Kabul, a city densely inhabited by 3.5 million people, this is the site of an incipient major copper-mining project. One of the world’s largest copper deposits is fatefully intertwined with this major heritage site, a sprawling urban complex encompassing several Buddhist monasteries, fortresses, and fortifications, and commercial and residential areas, with lower strata that may go back as far as the Bronze Age and before.

In 2009, in its rush to riches, the Afghan government gave a Chinese mining company (MCC) the contract, and for terms that are causing pained shudders to those in the know. The inexperienced Afghan ministry may have thought $800 million to be a spectacular lot of money—and the alleged $30 million bribe to the then minister of mines may have played a part—but at 50 or 60 years’ worth of multibillion-dollar annual exploitation of this enormous deposit, it puts the purchase of Manhattan for a fistful of shiny beads into the shade, as great—or bad—deals go. 

That, however, is not the worst of it. The worst of it is that a copper mine, absent scrupulous management and oversight, can become a liability of catastrophic proportions. Looking at Afghanistan’s past four decades, we may think that things can hardly get any worse. But yes, they can. Mes Aynak sits atop the two principal aquifers not only for Kabul, but for a vast region extending into neighboring Pakistan. Improper mining could kill the Kabul River and poison the aquifer for generations to come. It could create, instead of wealth, what experts term a “Superfund Site”—a failed site whose cleanup is so costly and so complicated that the mining company departs in disgrace while the national government (and the term assumes a functioning and funded Western national government, not an utterly bankrupt one) is left to deal with the toxic disaster.

Of course, this need not happen in Mes Aynak. Perhaps the Chinese mining company will proceed with scrupulous care. Perhaps the Afghan authorities will provide competent professional oversight. But our experts were worried, because a bare five months before the announced commencement of mining in 2013, no environmental impact plan had yet been developed by MCC, and there has been zero transparency regarding the feasibility studies, the mine-opening plan, the mine-closing plan, or indeed, even the basic guarantees that might or might not be contained in the contract, which in contravention of international standards and conventions to which Afghanistan is a signatory; neither the mining company nor the Ministry of Mines has thus far shared those with the public.

Cheryl Bernard

"One of the many Buddhist stupas or shrines, found at the major archaeological site of Mes Aynak.

The planned destruction of the historic site is a good example of the precipitous, reckless approach being chosen, because the expert group found that preserving the site and mining could readily go forward in conjunction.

Literally on top of it all, Mes Aynak also is home to a world-class archeological site, a massive buried city on a par with Pompeii that will give way to an open mining pit and be forever lost to historians, scientists, proud Afghans, and potential future tourists.

That silver bullet? Please, let’s not allow haste, dreams of mineral miracles, and fiscal panic to turn it into the killing shot that finishes off Afghanistan as we leave.