Now the Taliban are preserving the Buddhas, with an eye on Chinese investment

MES AYNAK, Afghanistan (AP) – Ancient Buddha statues sit in serene meditation in caves carved into the red cliffs of rural Afghanistan. Hundreds of meters below lies what is believed to be the largest copper deposit in the world.

Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders are pinning their hopes on Beijing to turn this rich vein into revenue to save the cash-strapped country amid crippling international sanctions.

The fighters who stood guard near the rocky hill may have once considered destroying the terracotta Buddhas. Two decades ago, when the hardline Islamic Taliban were first in power, they sparked global outrage by blowing up gigantic Buddha statues in another part of the country, calling them remnants of paganism that must be destroyed. purged.

But now they are determined to preserve the relics of the Mes Aynak copper mine. This is key to unlocking billions in Chinese investment, said Hakumullah Mubariz, the Taliban’s security chief at the site.

“Protecting them is very important to us and the Chinese people,” he said.

The dramatic overthrow of the Taliban illustrates the powerful pull of Afghanistan’s untapped mining sector. Successive authorities have seen the country’s mineral wealth, estimated at $1 trillion, as the key to a prosperous future, but none have been able to develop it amid ongoing war and violence. Now several countries, including Iran, Russia and Turkey, are looking to invest, filling the void left by the chaotic US withdrawal.

But Beijing is the most assertive. In Mes Aynak, it could become the first major power to undertake a large-scale project in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, potentially redrawing the geopolitical map of Asia.

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 that the site contains up to 12 million tonnes of ore. But the project got bogged down in logistical and contractual issues, and it never got past a few initial test wells before stalling when Chinese staff left in 2014 due to ongoing violence.

Just months after the Taliban took the capital in August, consolidating their power over the country, the new acting minister of mines and oil Shahbuddin Dilawar urged his staff to rehire Chinese state-owned companies.

Dilawar has had two virtual meetings with MCC in the past six months, according to company and ministry officials. He urged them to return to the mine, the terms unchanged from the 2008 contract.

An MCC technical committee is due to visit Kabul in the coming weeks to resolve the remaining obstacles. Relocation of artifacts is essential. But MCC is also looking to renegotiate terms, including to reduce taxes and nearly halve the contract’s 19.5% royalty rate, the percentage owed to the state per tonne 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,” said Ziad Rashidi, head of the Ministry of External Relations.

China’s ambassador to Afghanistan said talks were underway, but nothing more.

Acquiring rare minerals is essential for Beijing to maintain its position as a global manufacturing power.

For Afghanistan, the Mes Aynak contract could bring in $250 million to $300 million a year in state revenue, a 17% increase, as well as $800 million in fees over the life of the contract, according to reports. government and business officials. This is a significant sum as the country struggles with widespread poverty.

But there is a catch.

In Mes Aynak, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist town sits uncomfortably alongside a potential economic engine. Afghanistan’s tumultuous modern history has impeded both archaeological exploration and mining development.

Discovered in the 1960s by French geologists, the site would have been an important stop along the Silk Road from the first centuries of our era.

After the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, the Russians dug tunnels down the mountain to investigate the copper deposit; the cavernous boreholes are still visible. These were later used as an al-Qaeda hideout, and at least one was bombed by the United States in 2001.

Looters then looted many antiquities from the site. However, archaeologists who came in 2004 succeeded in a partial excavation and discovered the remains of a vast complex.

Much to the chagrin of non-Taliban technocrats in his own ministry, Dilawar pledged to save the site. He rejected plans for surface mining that would raze the site entirely. The alternative option of underground mining was deemed too costly by MCC. The Ministry of Culture has been instructed to come up with a plan to move 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 that the mining works can start,” Dilawar told The Associated Press.

While the ministry is optimistic that a deal can be struck, MCC officials are cautious.

They did not speak to the AP in the filing, citing sensitivities around the talks taking place while international sanctions still bar relations with the Taliban.

In the labyrinthine hallways of the ministry, hopeful investors line up, documents ready to lay claim to Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth.

These days, Russians, Iranians, Turks and of course Chinese are knocking on the door of Rashidi’s office.

All are “very eager to invest”, he said. The Chinese interest is “extraordinary”, he said.

The ministry’s revenue has grown exponentially, from 110 million Afghan dollars ($1.2 million) the year before the Taliban takeover to 6 billion Afghan dollars ($67 million) in six months since the Taliban took power, according to documents seen by the AP. Ironically, it was the Taliban who hampered work at Mes Aynak for more than a decade.

An MCC official recalled how the road leading to the mine was laden with IEDs targeting Afghan forces and NATO allies. When he was told by his Taliban hosts that they had restored security so that work could resume, he jokingly replied, “Weren’t you attacking us?

The men, machine guns around their necks, laughed too.

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