The Real Looting of Afghanistan: Pit Mining vs Heritage

How Corrupt Parliamentarians and the Taliban Stripped Afghanistan of Mineral Revenue

Mes Aynak Standing Figure Tepe Kafirat, US Embassy Photo.

Part 2, on a key source of the Taliban’s income, mining, and how that threatens Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Preserving our heritage is so important… The relics we find don’t just belong to the Afghans — they belong to the world.”   Abdul Khalid Khorshid, Afghan archaeologist, 2011.[1]

Spring, rocks colored with iron and arsenic, Kallu Valley between Bamyan and Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Didiervberghe, August 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

The greatest dangers to cultural heritage in Afghanistan are not opportunistic or even organized looting by the Taliban and other criminal entities. The most obvious is the possible theft or destruction of artworks and artifacts now held in the National Museum of Afghanistan that violate Taliban prohibitions on human, animal and religious imagery. A sickening taste of what the future may hold is the theft of fragmentary wall paintings from the storeroom of the Delegation Archeologique Francaise de Afghanistan (DAFA) in Bamiyan in early September. Hopefully, these fragile items were photographed and since they are documented, can be recognized. While the threat to Afghanistan’s museum collections is real, it is more likely to take place as part of a future propaganda war. Looting or destroying the museum’s collections today would run counter to the Taliban’s current ‘charm offensive’ and its attempts to resurrect humanitarian aid from the West.

A less well known danger facing major sites and monuments in Afghanistan is their destruction through mining of minerals. The Taliban’s best hope of obtaining funding for its government is by expanding its current illegal mining industry – already earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year -into a multi-billion dollar revenue stream. With the Taliban in charge, Afghanistan’s completely unregulated extractives industry is ripe to be contracted out to Chinese and other interests that will turn more than one major archaeological site along ancient routes of trade into a pit mine.

Map of mines in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan, Afghan Ministry of Mines, 1963

Afghanistan is famous as an ancient source of lapis lazuli but it has also been a rich source of other precious gemstones and metals, such as nephrite, emeralds, rubies, garnets, gold, and silver. More prosaically but more economically important, Afghanistan has rich reserves of coal, chromite, marble, granite, talc, and a vast amount of copper.

The Western media has often decried the ‘looting’ of Afghanistan’s archaeological treasures. Yet studies of Afghanistan’s economy show that the real looters in the last two decades have been warlords, politicians, and the Taliban. They were not stealing antiquities, which are largely unmarketable. The true looting that has taken place in Afghanistan in the last 25 years is the flagrant violation of its mining laws by powerful individuals or families who ‘stole’ its mineral riches and paid no extraction fees or royalties to the government[2] – and by the Taliban itself, the largest mineral extractor in the country long before it took Kabul.

Although Soviet analyses in the 1970s revealed very large mineral reserves in Afghanistan, neither they nor the warlords who took control of many of Afghanistan’s mining regions after the Soviet departure were able to organize efficient mining industries. When the Taliban came to power in the late 1990s, their close connections to Pakistan’s military and government enabled them to build extractive industries in areas they controlled in Afghanistan and move minerals to market in Pakistan. As they regrouped during the last five years, the Taliban were able to re-establish these connections even during the U.S.’s presence in Afghanistan. They were said to have been more feared and more effective mining administrators than Afghanistan’s elected government.

Tourmaline var. rubellite, quartz : Paprock Mine, Bar Kunar District, Konar Province, Nuristan, Afghanistan. Photo by Parent Géry, 5 January 2012. Wikimedia Commons.

A few examples should suffice for the endemic general corruption in mineral extraction. Chromite, the only commercially extractable source of chrome, is an industrial metal of great importance. A report from the United States Institute of Peace found that all the licenses for exploration and extraction of chromium went to Afghan Members of Parliament or their associates.[3] The same source found that five MPs collectively were operating 892 coal tunnels and extracting thousands of tons of coal daily. This paled compared to the take of the Afghan Investment Company which obtained licenses to extract up to one million tons of coal per year, ostensibly to power a local cement plant, but which was sold on the open market instead, allowing the investors eight times the ordinary return. Illegal mining of talc is very widespread, amounting to over one hundred thousand tons that were then exported by one Pakistani company in 2015. The United States Institute of Peace report indicated that a standard payment was made of $10 per ton to local officials and $12 per ton to the Taliban in talc mining operations in Sherzad district.[4]

Afghan border police seize 35,000 lbs of ammonium chloride, used to manufacture heroin, hidden under a load of melons. Weesh border crossing. US Army photo, Sgt. Scott Matheson.

Despite reorganization of the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum under the Karzai and Ghani administrations after 2001, there was no functional structure to monitor mineral extraction and no transparent inspection system to make an accounting of mining activities even possible. Caravans of trucks fully loaded with ore traveled the country’s main highways and were ticked off by Afghan Customs as they crossed into Pakistan. However, there was no cross-referencing between Customs and the Ministry of Mines. The Afghan government did not know what it was owed by extractors and it was easy for influential individuals to hide their profits and deny crucial resources and development funds to the government.

A report by Javed Noorani for Integrity Watch Afghanistan showed that not a single one of the five mines he studied had followed legal requirements at any stage of the exploration or mining processes. Nor had they obtained permits or paid royalties or taxes. Not only were environmental dangers completely ignored; there was zero revenue accruing to the government or the people of Afghanistan. In 2016, government royalties amounted to only 16 million dollars.[5] In each mine, the lease had been awarded to members of politically connected families.[6]

MJAM camp Mes Aynak, Afghan Ministry of Mines photo.

Noorani wrote in 2015 that, “The system of governance existing in Afghanistan survives on corruption and the perception about state building within the country is that it is hostage to appeasement of warlords and political elites… Today there are over 50 members of Parliament who own mines or are major partners in mining projects.”

Illegal mining, together with poppy, had been the chief money making activity of the Taliban for years. For all the heroic efforts of Afghan archaeologists at Mes Aynak, what most kept China from turning it into a giant pit mine was the deliberate lack of security caused by Taliban fighters. The Taliban didn’t just object to the Chinese presence; in 2018, a prominent Afghan archaeologist, Abdul Wahab Ferouzi, was killed and four other archaeological staffers were injured by the Taliban’s deliberate detonation of a roadside bomb en route to the site.[7]

Mes Aynak site with Chinese camp in the background. Photo Jerome Starkey, via Wikimedia Commons. 14 November 2011.

While the Afghan government failed to capitalize on Afghanistan’s mineral riches except as illegal profits for its elite, in the last five years the Taliban took over most of the mineral-rich regions in Afghanistan. According to a Foreign Policy report from September 2020, the Taliban already controlled most of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and were earning $400 million per year from mining, a figure confirmed by independent researchers.[8] The United Nations Development Program described the Taliban’s shadow Ministry of Mines as issuing mining licenses, supplying community labor, collecting taxes (sometimes at the same time as the government or ISIS-K) and controlling export to Pakistan through trucking systems running a hundred or more vehicles per day across the border.[9]

Taliban Will Give Mes Aynak to China

Credit www.Saving Mes

The Buddhist site of Mes Aynak  was first recognized as a rich reserve for commercial copper mining in the 1970s through testing by Soviet and Afghan geologists, who conducted extensive, systematic exploration involving hundreds of boreholes, trenches and geophysical surveys. The survey work was abandoned in 1989 after Soviet forces left, and work was not possible during the following civil war. A joint publication by the Afghanistan Geological Survey and British Geological Survey in 2005 interpreted the Soviet-era geological data on Mes Aynak that was archived in the Afghanistan Geological Survey, declaring it to be “one of the largest unworked copper deposits in the world.” The site holds an estimated 240 million tons of 2.3% grade copper ore, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The Taliban will now be able to provide security for the Mes Aynak site, instead of being the primary threat to it.

What Mes Aynak will look like as an open-pit mine. Credit www.Saving Mes Aynak.

Within a week of taking Kabul, Taliban leaders were meeting with Chinese ministers to capitalize on the opportunity to control mining throughout Afghanistan. It is certain that one item on the agenda was renewing China’s mining concession at the Buddhist archaeological site of Mes Aynak; the Global Times of China reported the possibility of the Mes Aynak project restarting.[10] Unfortunately for the study of Buddhist culture or the security of one of the most remarkable sites in Afghanistan, Mes Aynak is also Afghanistan’s single most concentrated economic asset, sitting directly on top of an estimated $80-100 billion dollars’ worth of copper and other minerals.

Mes Aynak contains an extraordinary Buddhist period archaeological complex extending over 1000 hectares in the Baba Wali Mountains not far from Kabul. There, Afghan and foreign archaeologists have worked together to discover multiple, elaborately constructed stupas. They unearthed buildings containing dozens of statues, many with intact layers of color and some covered in gold leaf. While thousands of objects have been taken from the site for conservation, many of the most spectacular objects are too fragile or too large to be moved, even with great care. These include sculptures and decorations constructed of mud brick and finished with layers of plaster and paint and dozens of beautiful wall paintings, whose fresh colors have lasted over a thousand years.

Mes Aynak. Figure of seated Buddha with head removed or destroyed. Credit Brent Huffman, www.Saving Mes

The years of excavations at the surface have only begun to expose Mes Aynak’s riches, which so far have included not only Buddhist artworks but also hundreds of ancient manuscripts. These may be crucial to understanding its historical role as a center of trade across Asia. Beneath the layers of Buddhist habitations dating to the 1st to 4th centuries, Afghan archeologists have also discovered evidence of copper workings as far back as the Bronze Age, several thousand years before Buddhism arrived in the region. Archaeologists and academics from around the world agree that Mes Aynak is a treasure house of antiquities and of the heritage and history of Afghanistan’s past. The wealth of the Mes Aynak site was based upon ancient trade in the minerals derived from local mining. In ancient times, traders, local miners, and Buddhist monasteries not only coexisted, they were inextricably economically linked.

A prize-winning documentary by filmmaker and Northwestern University professor Brent Huffman, Saving Mes Aynak, which was shot on site in Mes Aynak from 2009 to 2013. American archaeologist Mark Kenoyer told the filmmaker:

“Mes Aynak is the most important discovery of the century. Destroying Mes Aynak would be like destroying Atlantis.”

Mes Aynak, Stupa, US Embassy photo.

The film describes the challenging relationships between international economic forces, Afghanistan’s government, foreign embassies, the people of the surrounding villages, and the multiple Afghan and foreign archaeological organizations at work on the site.[11] Unfortunately, not only Mes Aynak, but other archaeological sites also sit along trade routes where rich copper reserves have been found. These mineral reserves brought riches (and art) to ancient temples and monasteries, but may cause their destruction now.

China’s past failure to deliver on promises made to the U.S.-backed government raises additional concerns about its ability to deliver meaningful economic development for the country even if granted all it seeks in mining concessions from the Taliban.

Afghan archaeologists meeting with local villagers, photo Brent Huffman, “Saving Mes Aynak.”

In 2007, a Chinese government-owned mining conglomerate cut a $30-billion-dollar deal with the Afghan government to build a giant open-pit copper mine at Mes Aynak. Over the years since, salvage archaeology continued at the site but Chinese workers abandoned it after threats from the Taliban. China sought several times to rewrite this agreement with the Afghan government, refusing to move forward its promises to build railroads, a coal power plant, or take steps to ameliorate the destructive impact of toxic effluent and environmental damage to the surrounding communities. The Chinese company MJAM (formed by China Metallurgical Group Corporation, or MCC, and Jianxi Copper, Ltd) did not even start on promised relocations, new housing, or decent jobs for local Afghans.[12]

MJAM was eager to extract the supposedly super-high grade copper ore from the site, estimated to be over twice the concentration of the world average.[13] China expected to use this exceptional resource to effectively corner the world’s copper market. Electric vehicles and other current technologies require significant amounts of copper. Long before the Taliban took Kabul, the Chinese government saw the exploitation of Afghanistan’s copper reserves as part of China’s key international development plans and its Belt and Road policy.

China is now in a much more powerful negotiating position as the only international power eager to work with the Taliban. The Taliban have no love for Buddhist relics and have already shown their disdain for world opinion when it comes to cultural heritage. The cultural riches derived from ancient sources of mineral wealth – and the traditional lives of the people in the whole region – are now most threatened by China and its hunger for copper.

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series.

Part One  Afghanistan’s Heritage: A Former Government, the Taliban, and a Questionable Blockade

Part Two  The Real Looting of Afghanistan: Pit Mining vs a Resplendent Heritage: How Corrupt Parliamentarians and the Taliban Stripped Afghanistan of Mineral Revenue

Part Three The Evolution of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage Law: How Communists Turned a Workable Law Against Archaeologists and Sentenced a British
Museum Curator to Death

Part Four  Afghanistan’s 4000 Years of Cross-Border Empires and Trade

[1] Alex Rodriguez, “Copper mining will crush ancient Afghan site,” quoting Abdul Khalid Khorshid, Afghan archaeologist, Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2011.

[2] William A. Byrd and Javed Noorani, Industrial Scale Looting of Afghanistan’s Mineral Resources, Special Report 404, June 2017, United States Institute of Peace,

[3] Id. at 5-6.

[4] Id. At 7-8.

[5] Id.

[6] Javeed Noorani, “The Plunderers of Hope? Political Economy of Five Major Mines in Afghanistan” Integrity Watch Afghanistan, 2015, p. 64.

[7] Kate Fitz Gibbon, “Mes Aynak – Corruption, Copper, and a Nation’s Heritage,” Cultural Property News, August 23, 2018,

[8] Lynne O’Donnell, “The Taliban, at Least, Are Striking Gold in Afghanistan,” Foreign Policy, September 22, 2020,

[9] UNDP, National Human Development Report 2020, Pitfalls and Promise – Minerals Extraction in Afghanistan, August 25, 2020,

[10] Archie Hunter, Julian Luk, and Yasemin Esmen, “Afghanistan’s mighty copper reserves remain out of reach, even for China,” Metal Bulletin, August 24, 2021,

[11] The film Saving Mes Aynak follows Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he races against time to save a 5,000-year-old archaeological site in Afghanistan from imminent demolition.

[12] An unexpected development in the Mes Aynak saga occurred in April 2017, when Shen Heting, the former general manager of MCC, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party for corruption, a career-ending move in China.

[13] John Paul Hampstead, “China’s epic fail in Afghanistan,” FreightWaves, January 5, 2018,

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