Afghanistan, as a crossroads of empire and a key stage in the Silk Road, is dotted with important archaeological sites that go back 5000 years and can provide insights into the evolution of civilizations across Asia and, in fact, civilization itself.
Most of these sites are beyond the reach of the Afghan government’s woefully underfunded archaeology department, and within the grasp of the Taliban and other banditti, who either destroy or loot and sell the precious pre-Islamic artifacts depending on their iconoclastic or economic priorities.
Fortunately, an important Afghan archaeological site, Mes Aynak, resides within a compound defended by 1500 Afghan troops and administered by a prosperous and capable international entity.
Unfortunately, Mes Aynak also sits on one of the world’s largest copper deposits, one that the Afghan government has leased for 30 years in a contract with two major Chinese transnational companies, the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper.
Development of the open-pit mine means that sooner or later the archaeological site at Mes Aynak will disappear into the maw of MCC’s bulldozers and buckets.
A film by a Northwestern University professor and documentarian, Brent Huffman, “Saving Mes Aynak” has gone a long way into alerting international opinion as to the urgency and importance of preserving the site. It’s available for streaming at Netflix. The link is here.
Unfortunately, saving Mes Aynak appears to be a daunting task, one that involves taking on the Afghan government and even the United States, as well as China.
The Mes Aynak copper bonanza is seen by the Afghan government as a vital source of revenue. Per the announced contract, the Chinese side will pay a bonus of over half a billion dollars when the mine commences commercial operations, a big chunk considering Afghanistan’s total GDP is only $7 billion. The United States sees income from the mine as an important step in weaning the Afghan government off its reliance on foreign aid (like Southern Sudan, the Kabul government is a foreign-aid state, with 72% of its budget coming from overseas sources).
The Afghan government is unambiguously eager to see construction at the mine begin. It appears the collection of several hundred photogenic artifacts that survived the looters (the site was discovered in the 1960s and only secured in 2008 when the Chinese perimeter went up) for preservation and display at the national museum has exhausted the government’s interest in Mes Aynak’s archaeological angle.
The United States government, which provided a million dollars of military funding for the archaeology work, now also maintains a studied indifference to Mes Aynak. Brent Huffman told me he contacted the US embassy in Kabul repeatedly for interviews, but was rebuffed.
The Chinese are usually cast as the heavies in these sorts of scenarios and saving Mes Aynak from destruction “by a Chinese copper mining company chasing corporate profits” is the hook for the Indiegogo fundraising campaign. MCC and Jiangxi Copper also receive a certain amount of stick in Huffman’s documentary as corrupt, indifferent, and not too good at running a copper mine, which occasioned some resentful pushback in Global Times.
However, the Chinese seem to be the ones dragging their feet on digging up the site.
China’s reticence about ripping up Mes Aynak perhaps has less to do with its love of archaeology than the fact that the copper project is more of a geostrategic placeholder for PRC rather than an economic opportunity. Copper prices have collapsed since the deal was signed in 2007, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to transform Mes Aynak from a windswept waste into a world class industrial and export center is probably not the highest priority for MCC and Jiangxi Copper.
Add to the practical difficulties of the site the fact that the area, although only forty kilometers outside of Kabul, is controlled by the Taliban. Recently the Taliban, much to the resentment of the Afghan government and, perhaps, in response to some financial outreach from China, announced they would “protect” Mas Aynak instead of shelling it and occasionally murdering people on the road leading to the site. Huffman views the Taliban statement as an ominous sign that a significant obstacle to active development of the mine by MCC has been removed.
The Chinese government, as opposed to MCC and Jiangxi, can regard Mes Aynak primarily as control over an economic lifeline of the Afghan government—and a pre-emptive move blocking other interested parties, like the United States and India—that provides effective leverage for China in Afghanistan and reach in Central Asia, a region seen as key to the PRC’s national security.
The PRC allegedly paid a $30 million bribe to Afghan officials to secure the concession and dribbles out “signing bonuses” progress payments, so the lease agreement remains valid—and the expectation of a $500 million payday at the start of commercial operation, realistic or not, might be enough to keep the Afghan government on the hook even as the deal drags on. At the same time, China is demanding a renegotiation of royalty terms and faults the overwhelmed Afghan government for failure to execute its population relocation, infrastructure, landmine removal, and matching resource commitments.
It is a point of interest whether MCC resents the furor over the archaeological site, or welcomes it as another excuse to let the project and renegotiations drag on to the frustration of an increasingly anxious Afghan government.
So Mes Aynak sits there, with a contingent of MCC engineers residing and working or not working in neatly built blue and white portable structures.
The construction hiatus should provide a golden opportunity for archaeologists to excavate and document the site but it isn’t happening.
For Afghan archaeologists, their work at Mes Aynak is hampered by government disinterest, lack of funding, and mortal peril from the Taliban. As Huffman’s film documents, the World Bank, for whom Mes Aynak is a key Afghan project, allocated millions of dollars for archaeological work, but virtually none of that money has found its way into the hands of the people actually doing the work.
Archaeological work started in 2010, was supposed to be finished by 2013, wasn’t, and limps along amid widespread indifference by the copper-centric interests. In 2013, the Afghan government claimed 75% of the excavation work was complete, which doesn’t quite jibe with the estimate in Huffman’s film that 90% of the site remained to be excavated as of 2014.
Today, only a skeleton crew works Mes Aynak when the weather permits.
It seems rather absurd that this well-protected, accessible, and important site should not be the object of intensive archaeological efforts. And based on his information from Afghanistan, Huffman tells me he fears that the archaeological site is at imminent risk of destruction now that the Taliban has shifted from threatening the copper project to—supposedly—protecting it and MCC may have sufficient incentive to proceed with demolition.
Beyond the various actors pushing for rapid development of the mine, Huffman speculates that the usual suspects in international art and archaeological preservation work—like the Getty Trust, which has made preservation and even duplication of another key Silk Road site, the Dunhuang caves in western China, a showcase for its conservation efforts—shy away from Mes Aynak to avoid offending the PRC.
Huffman asks interested parties to petition the Afghan government to declare Mes Aynak a protected site. He also urges support for the Afghan government’s beleaguered Department of Archaeology, now run by Qadir Temori, the young man who serves as a focus for Huffman’s documentary, with the unfortunate caveat that any financial or material assistance that isn’t hand-carried to Kabul by Huffman will probably vanish.
The “Get Involved” page at the Saving Mes Aynak website offers several suggestions and opportunities to participate in the effort to preserve the site. There is also a contact form on the site for anyone seeking to contact Huffman and his team.
Let’s hope the world will get to see more wonders and knowledge emerge from Mes Aynak, not just copper.