Back at the Afghanistan Geological Survey, in a half-renovated office down the hall from the World Bank team, Abdul Rahman Ashraf sat hunched over a desktop PowerPoint presentation, occasionally sketching on a pad of paper to illustrate the wavy lines of rock formations—clines and anticlines—that inform decisions about where and when to begin extraction. Ashraf spent most of his career as a geologist abroad, but now he is Karzai’s chief adviser on energy and mines. His job is to bring the country’s mineral-extraction infrastructure up to international standards. “This is Stone Age stuff they’re practicing out there,” he said, referring to the methods of artisanal miners like Haroon and Abdul Latif. “The blasting shatters the emerald crystals and damages their value. But people have learned in these past 20 years to go fast and take what they can.”
Ashraf hopes to change that by opening the nation to long-term investment in mining technology and infrastructure. At Peru’s Antamina mine site, for instance, miners on a 15,000-foot mountain ridge send copper and zinc ore on a conveyor belt to an intermediary plant, where it is crushed into a slurry that can be sent through a nearly 200-mile pipeline that terminates at the port of Punta Lobitos. Such systems are not especially complicated, but they are massive, and making them a reality in Afghanistan will require a commensurately massive investment.
Attracting such investment may prove the greatest challenge of all. Even by the turbulent standards of the Karzai administration, the Ministry of Mines has seen rapid turnover (there have been six appointed ministers since 2002), and it has gained a reputation as one of the most corrupt agencies in Kabul. In 2007 the completion of the largest private foreign-investment deal in Afghan history—a $2.9-billion contract with the China Metallurgical Group Corporation to extract the Aynak copper—was marred by accusations that one of those former ministers had accepted a $30-million bribe from the company.Ashraf is quick to point out, though, that the company, which is owned by the Chinese government, had offered more in direct foreign investment than any of the other bidders, some $2.8 billion. It had also agreed to build Afghanistan’s first railroad, running from Uzbekistan through Kabul and over the Hindu Kush to Pakistan. In fact, the rapid growth of neighboring China and India could provide Afghanistan the opportunity to develop its own infrastructure, and ultimately to open up the whole region.
And the Chinese government has already funded the construction of a Pakistani deepwater port at Gwadar. India and Iran, meanwhile, are working together to build roads from southwestern Afghanistan to the competing Iranian deepwater port at Chabahar. It’s not the desire to defeat the Taliban, or the need for a political friend in an unstable region, or the hope for peace that will inspire such partnerships. It’s what’s in the ground.
And so real surveying leads to real investment, which in turn leads to real roads, real jobs and eventually—perhaps—real peace. But precise information about Afghanistan’s mineral reserves is still scarce. The Hajigak iron ore deposit, which at upward of two billion tons is the largest in Asia, is due to be opened for bids this month, but mining experts expect many years to pass before other major deposits in Afghanistan are adequately surveyed.
It’s hard to have patience after these dark years,” Ashraf said, looking down again at his careful sketches of Afghanistan’s geologic inheritance. “But we cannot make these things tomorrow.”
Matthieu Aikins is a freelance writer and photographer based in New York.single page
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