Afghanistan Frontlines: Inside China and Russia’s Geopolitical Mine Frenzy

Afghanistan mine.

NURISTAN, Afghanistan – Deep inside the voluptuous valleys of Afghanistan’s isolated and least populated province, Nuristan, young locals – their eyelashes caked in debris – blast dynamite through a cave wall in a desperate bid to unearth treasures.

The young men – just sixteen and twenty-three – have placed thin mattresses inside their dark cave. Further down the winding, lush mountain range, they live with a bevy of other miners in a one-room stone hut. Life, day and night, revolves around scouring the untapped field for enough gems – from tourmaline, kunzite, aquamarine, spodumene and beryl – to sell at the local markets to make ends meet.

It remains a deeply dangerous vocation – with the men sharing stories about friends “dying and becoming disabled” due to blasting and entire mines collapsing. Only now, their dominance in the mining sector across the vast valley is in jeopardy. The miners claim they have spotted foreigners, possibly Russians, surveying the mineral-rich area.

“But if they come in, maybe we can get a proper salary and it will be safer,” one of the young miners tells Paradox, stressing they are welcome to the idea of outsiders entering.

Afghanistan Mines
Inside the mines of the Nuristan region of Afghanistan. Photo captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

The United States Department of Defense has estimated that Afghanistan rests atop more than $1 trillion in natural resources – from precious and semi-precious stones, gold, copper, iron, and lithium, to ore and hydrocarbons – all ripe for large-scale mining.

With the United States departed from the region and the Taliban in charge, countries hostile to American interests have the ability to make it rich. In September, the Taliban top echelons announced their government would chiefly depend on China for financial assistance, prompting the U.S. and other global monetary bodies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to freeze aid.

The outside interest in Afghanistan mines comes as the Taliban undergoes a dire financial crisis, while also controlling for the first time in history the picturesque Panjshir province – the only parcel of Afghanistan they could not domineer during their last reign from 1996 to 2001.

“Half the wealth of Afghanistan is in Panjshir,” Haji Asad, a Taliban Commander stationed in the heart of Nuristan’s neighboring valley, boasts to Paradox. “And now we have it.”

The statement underscores the Taliban’s intentions to glean what it can – via massive contracts or otherwise– through reviving their country’s spluttered mining sector. Panjshir hosts the country’s pre-eminent emerald supply, with a single carat commanding up to $1,500 on the international market following excavation from Afghanistan mines.

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Afghanistan mines in Nuristan region. Captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

“They [the Taliban] have their share in our mines, and when we find something, they take their share from us,” one of the Nuristani miners tells Paradox.

A June 2021 United Nations report highlighted “mineral exploitation” as one of the driving forces of the then-insurgency’s financial flow. According to UN data, the group earned some $464 million from the mining domain to prop up its bloody battles, having seized control of almost one-third of Afghanistan’s mining districts before the historic August 15 takeover.

Perhaps the biggest prize is that of Mes Aynak, tucked deep into the once almost unreachable Logar province and already firmly in Beijing’s grasp. In 2008, the state-owned Chinese mining company, the Metallurgical Group (MCC), beat out tenders from the U.S and Canada to secure a $2.83 billion 30-year-lease of the copper-swathed mine.

A Taliban solider guarding the Mes Aynak mine. Captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

Back then, and even in 2001, when Washington first entered the fighting fray, there were no smartphones and electric cars reliant on high-capacity batteries and high-tech chips derived from copper into lithium deposits. Cut to 2021, when much of the globe is reliant upon such commodities to function, the Chinese investment – which entered an exploration phase but never got off the ground given the precarious security situation and continuous attacks around the region – now stands to be at the center of the world’s economy.

And with the Taliban at the helm, MCC has been quick to declare its readiness to resume as the global copper demand surges.

Naweed Adil, the director of large-scale mining at the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in the former Ghani-led government, said the sector’s future remains somewhat “dubious” under the Taliban control, indicating it is a risk for outside investors.

“China has already invested around $400 million [in Mes Aynak], constructing buildings and exploration, but they have not started copper extraction,” he tells Paradox.

Adil notes that both the Afghan and Chinese sides of the equation committed to a deal in which the former receives some eighty percent of royalties – prompting a new round of negotiations by the latter side.

The drilling could come at the cost of harming Afghanistan’s most prized tokens of history. Mez Ayank is home to a sprawling maze of more than twenty ruins, dating back to 5th century Buddhism and temples belonging to Bronze Age Zoroastrians.

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Taliban soldiers at Mes Aynak. Photo captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox

Despite the flurry of press releases and the millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars poured into the Aynak project – a bid to balance the mining sector with archeological excavation – the former government’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum (MoMP) also made Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) its second-largest priority for development, opening the first CNH station in Sheberghan, Jawzjan province in 2012.

The Pentagon shelled out almost $43 million to construct the site between 2011 and 2014, which should have cost less than half a million as per the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR). Nevertheless, the station was deemed too costly for most Afghans and without the necessary infrastructure to transport and apportion natural gas.

One source in the region notes that they are using liquified petroleum gas (LPG) for power purposes, but the station for CNG is largely not operational. Like much of the mining sector, it aggregated to a steaming swath of fraud and waste over the past twenty years.

And while the Taliban has been quick to point out that Afghans have not benefitted from the foreign footprint in the mining arena over the past two decades – a notion that is largely true but also the fault of the Taliban-induced security situation – it is clear they will rely on outside players like Russia, China and Iran to do heavy lifting.

Mushwanni emphasizes that the Taliban is open to “all countries” when investing in mining projects, but hesitates when I ask about the American footprint.

“Our leaders did not yet decide about that,” he asserts.

A Nuristan mine. Captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

Yet the newly-installed Ministry of Mining and Petroleum is in disarray – refusing to interview or clarify plans, and those in charge have next to no experience in the sector.

Afghanistan mines and the country’s mining sector will likely sit at the center of the Taliban’s financial plans in various capacities, and a global conflict of possession may only be beginning.

Sources tell me a majority of the Afghanistan government’s employees in mining have gone back to their jobs. However, it is mostly in an administrative capacity, rather than on the engineering front.

“It is going to be very difficult to convince investors to spend money in Afghanistan,” Adil adds. “You have to have very stable laws, security, and good regulations.”

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