At Mes Aynak, Logar Province, about 35 kilometres south of Kabul, archaeologists excavate an ancient Buddhist Silk-Road-era city perched on top of the world’s largest unexploited copper deposit. With the impending withdrawal of US troops from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai’s government has been anticipating a dramatic cutback on international aid. The war-torn nation now looks to its mineral wealth and the international extractive industry as avenue towards development. However, sceptics point out that development driven by natural resources has proven to be problematic. In the face of pressing economic concerns, it remains to be seen whether the new Afghanistan can accommodate both its past and its future.
Decades of civil war and subsequent isolation under a fundamentalist Taliban regime have not done the Afghans any favours: the absence of infrastructure, capital and technical expertise complicate industrial development. Spurred on by the World Bank, the government of Afghanistan adopted a strategy of mining to generate sustainable growth.
It hopes to kill two birds with one stone by auctioning off leases to its rich mineral deposits in order to attract foreign direct investment. These leases are coupled to contractual obligations to invest in transport- and energy infrastructure, in the form of power plants and a railway network. The investments are meant to generate a net-effect beyond mere royalties, which should then kick-start Afghan industrialisation.
The Curse of Plenty
At first glance the figures look promising: The US Geological Survey estimates Afghanistan’s mineral and petroleum wealth at 1 trillion US dollars. Moreover, the government believes it can bring in up to 500 million US dollars of annual tax revenues by 2020 and create employment for up to 90.000 people. It is also suggested that it might help the country break off its narco-economy.
Sceptics argue that the jubilation is premature in a country where corruption is rife. Afghans will not see many of the promised benefits until the government makes a genuine commitment to combat transparancy issues.
In its report on Afghanistan’s natural resource exploitation, advocacy group Global Witness argued that the government does not make any real effort to create infrastructure and employment.
Confirming Global Witness’ report, documents published by Wikileaks indicate that certain companies have no intention whatsoever to build the promised infrastructure and the Chinese government conglomerate MCC (China Metallurgical Group Corp.) acquired a 30-year lease on Mes Aynak for 3 billion US Dollars, only after a substantial bribe was paid. Furthermore, the Chinese companies’ preference to employ Chinese workers impedes Afghan employment prospects.
In addition to these issues, the copper deposit lies on top of one of the main water basins providing Kabul with potable water. Critics argue that the MCC’s ‘open pit mining’ will cause contamination of the water. An ecological disaster and a serious health hazard to 3 million Kabulis threatens the region.
Afghanistan and its pre-Islamic Heritage
As not to invite comparison with the destruction of the famous Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001, the government has allowed DAFA – the French archaeological institute in Afghanistan – to undertake rescue excavations. As the site is currently still scheduled for destruction, the excavators are hastily scrambling to salvage as much as they can.
Thus far the archaeologists have found a citadel, 2 forts, 4 fortified Buddhist monasteries featuring a number of impressive stupas as well as a Zoroastrian fire temple.
Since the original inhabitants of the settlement were drawn to the site for the same reason as the modern mining companies, the team hopes to find materials that will elucidate early copper mining and metallurgy.
With a team of about 70 archaeologists and more than 500 local labourers, the dig is considered the largest rescue excavation in the world. Despite great efforts, the massive scale and time constraint preclude a thorough understanding of the site.
In an attempt to come up with a compromise, the SAIS (School of Advanced International Studies) of the John Hopkins University organised an interdisciplinary conference. Bringing together experts in the field of geology, mining sciences, history, archaeology and development. The conference report pointed out that between now and the time within which the mine could be operational a compromise could be worked. The compromise would allow mining to take place without damaging the heritage. As such, the report suggested, Mes Aynak could serve as a template for future responsible mining standards.
While the report might sound encouraging, the latest news from Mes Aynak is not. Since the site is located in Taliban-friendly territory, the presence of the government as well as foreign investors has been met with hostilities from the local community. The eviction of several villages in the area has caused a rise of tension.
Archaeologists and MCC staff have faced roadside bombs and even had an RPG fired at them. All foreign archaeologists have now left the site due to safety issues, leaving their Afghan colleagues to continue without funding.
This development is particularly discouraging for proponents of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage as a way to overcome sectarian and ethnic divides. Based on the excavations, the site seems to have been a poly-religious community including Buddhists, Hindu’s as well as Zoroastrians which continued to thrive even after the Muslim conquest.
It was only from the 11th century onwards that the religious fervour of the Ghurid dynasty resulted in the active suppression of other religions. At Mes Aynak the archaeologists believe they have found evidence of Islamic iconoclasm.
Nowadays, Afghan expat communities as well as Buddhist interest groups around the world have organised several small scale protests, denouncing the impending destruction of their heritage. The activists see the site as a location that celebrates ethnic diversity and imparts a message of religious tolerance.
The latest news from the government’s side is equally disappointing as president Karzai purportedly attempted to reconcile with the MCC by releasing it from any obligations to invest in transport and energy infrastructure.
Developments at the site can be seen in the upcoming documentary: ‘The Buddhas of Aynak’ by Brent E. Huffman. Mr. Huffman also leads an online campaign to save the historic site.