Patrick Cockburn: Their mineral wealth is impressive, but it won't benefit Afghans any time soon

Share
Related Topics

A smudge of blue paint decorating a letter in the Book of Kells may have come originally from the lapis lazuli mines in the heart of the Afghan mountains. The country's mineral wealth has been known about for a long time – bright blue scarabs and funeral ornaments made of Afghan lapis have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs – but its full exploitation has been prevented by chronic insecurity.

Just before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 I visited an ancient lapis mine in the side of the gorge in the Hindu Kush mountains in north-east Afghanistan. The road to the entrance of the mine was a rutted track which could only just be negotiated by our Russian-made jeep. We were far from the front line but even here war was having its effect. The mine was closed because all the miners had been called into the army of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance which controlled the area. They had been ordered to swap their picks and shovels for Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers and join the group's assault on Kabul.

Deposits of lapis are small and easy to exploit and transport. In the Panjshir, the long arrow-shaped valley north of Kabul where there are deposits of the same semi-precious stone, local miners do not bother to dig but simply pack explosives into the hillside and detonate it. Some families make a living from this but bigger enterprises will have to battle with violence and corruption.

Geologists have long been fascinated by the potential for making Afghanistan an international mining centre. At the western end of the Himalayan mountain chain, the country's geological history is almost as dramatic as its historical past. As a result it has deposits of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium. Some of them have been known for over a thousand years, but it is only recently that they have been studied in detail.

Yet the initial enthusiasm of mining experts usually wilts as they try to cope with the difficulties of establishing an industry in a country where so much territory is a no-man's land. Distances are long, infrastructure crumbling and communications poor.

Development is not impossible but the challenges are gigantic and everybody wants a cut of the profits. Just across the border in the Bajaur district of Pakistan, until recently controlled by the Pakistan Taliban, the Pakistan army found a note from a Taliban commander granting permission for a marble mine to reopen.

The risks and the rewards of exploiting Afghanistan's minerals are obvious, but the risks come immediately while the rewards only come in time.

The largest single foreign investment in Afghanistan is that of a Chinese company which is starting to mine for copper at Aynak, 20 miles east of Kabul. Over the next quarter-century it plans to produce 11 million tonnes of copper, build a power station and construct a road to Kabul. Even so, locals complain that the Chinese are not providing enough jobs for them and allege that bribes were paid to win the contract.

Some Afghans see their potential mineral resources as a reason why the US and other powers have intervened in the country, the Afghan equivalent of Iraqi oil. But sadly for the Afghans it will be a long time before they or anybody else benefits from their contorted geological past. Winning any sort of contract in Afghanistan involves bribery and anybody making money becomes a target for corrupt government officials and warlords.

One day Afghans will be able to exploit the riches beneath their mountains but the time is probably not yet.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A blackbird gets to grips with a pyracantha bush  

Nature Studies: Summer didn’t end today, it’s been over for a fortnight

Michael McCarthy
Jeremy Corbyn is widely tipped to become the Labour Party's next leader  

Whatever happens in the Labour leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy is not a calamity

Steve Richards
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border