Truman National Security Project

Mes Aynak: The Need for Responsible Development

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The Wall Street Journal ran an article recently about the Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, Afghanistan entitled, “Delays Imperil Mining Riches Afghans Need After Pullout.” Aynak is one of the richest copper mines in the world, which is why the WSJ article focused on Aynak’s importance to Afghanistan’s future economic development.  Yet the lengthy article misses a critical part of the story by dedicating only two sentences — or 33 of its nearly 1800 words — to the danger posed to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and its economy by the development of the Aynak copper mine.

Immediately on top of the copper mine sits Mes Aynak, a sprawling complex of ruins, the majority of which have not yet been excavated. Mes Aynak not only includes Buddhist shrines, monasteries, statutes, and frescoes from the 5th-6th AD, but also a hill-top fortress, and very likely Bronze Age commercial and residential buildings. Several archeologists have described Mes Aynak as a potential Pompeii, if properly excavated and preserved. Sadly, Mes Aynak is scheduled for destruction in six months’ time, as soon as mining operations commence in January 2013. A brief video about Mes Aynak is available here.

Natural resources do hold promise for Afghanistan’s future, but they are not the panacea the WSJ article appears to suggest. Extracting Afghanistan’s copper, iron, oil, gas, and other resources and converting them into much-needed Government revenue will take years if not decades. Afghanistan lacks even the most basic infrastructure needed to do so. Electricity roads, rail, pipelines, etc. cannot be conjured out of thin air. Likewise, capacity within the Afghan Ministry of Mines to manage a multibillion dollar mining project will not built overnight.

The WSJ completely ignores the economic importance of Mes Aynak.  The site – along with Afghanistan’s other impressive vestiges of the past – constitute a potentially large source of revenue for the state and employment for the local population. Afghanistan used to be a popular tourism destination in the 1960s and 70s, in large part because of its archaeological and artistic riches. The Bamiyan Buddhas drew tourists from around the world until their destruction by the Taliban. There are numerous examples of formerly war-torn countries, such as Cambodia, using tourism (e.g. Angkor Watt) to drive economic growth once hostilities abate.  There is no reason why Afghanistan cannot do the same.

The question the WSJ article should have asked is how to maximize Afghanistan’s potential economic growth? Is there a way to extract copper without destroying Mes Aynak? Like the WSJ, the Government of Afghanistan (GOA), the World Bank (which is helping to oversee the mining project), and the international community all failed to ask this question, too. They assumed wrongly that mining and protecting heritage sites are mutually exclusive.

According to an expert’s conference hosted by Dr. Fred Starr and the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (on whose Board of Directors I sit) and attended by leading mining engineers and archaeologists, Afghanistan can indeed reconcile the protection of his history and extraction of copper. The conference report asserts that there are a host of measures that can be taken to protect the cultural treasures of Mes Aynak before and after mining commences. This is positive news.

However, to implement these measures, all key stakeholders, including government, the private sector, and civil society alike, must be open and transparent with each other. To date, information about the details of mining plan for Aynak have been scare; even basic documents like the contract between the GOA and the Chinese mining consortium are not publicly available. Without accurate information about mining timelines, it is impossible to make a sound archaeological excavation and protection plan.

Development of Afghanistan’s extractive industries is important for the country’s economic development, but so too is protection of its cultural heritage. Mes Aynak may hold the key to a resurgent Afghan tourism industry – that like mining – could resuscitate Afghanistan’s economy.  It would be a pity if key stakeholders continue to adhere to the misguided view expressed in last week’s WSJ article and the country sacrifices its cultural treasures in an unrealistic rush to develop its copper resources.

Eli Sugarman is a Truman Security Fellow.