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OSH, Kyrgyzstan (TCA) — Precious metals and stones, along with ferrous and non-ferrous metals, worth according to some estimates up to 3 trillion dollars are waiting under Afghanistan’s soil to be exploited. But to do so appears to be a remote dream at best for mining entrepreneurs given what happens on the ground rather than beneath it, leaving mining activity to thugs and terrorists whose variety in Afghanistan is hardly less rich.

It has been widely known for many years that Taliban which used to terrorise Afghanistan during the half-decade it held power finances itself with the revenue from narcotics. Since the hapless country, now at least in theory under a civil, secular government installed through the United States intervention, produces about 90 per cent of the poppy and opium in the world, that revenue can be estimated at tens of billions in US dollar each year. Cultivation is concentrated in the south of Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan, dominated by the Pashtun tribe.

In that area Taliban “insurgents” are virtually lords and masters and the government has difficulty to lay anything in the way for the harvests they confiscate, paying farmers trifles but at the same time a lot more than they would earn on legal crops.

Extensive mineral wealth

Now the Taliban are once more spreading towards the north of Afghanistan, where the borders of Tajikistan and China can be opened in order to create footholds in China’s Xinjiang province. Here they are reputed to have a fifth column among the native Uygur tribes while in Tajikistan they have similar armed sympathisers lurking in dark corners, but also because of the mineral wealth under the area’s soil.

Northeastern Afghanistan is still the only known place where the legendary lapiz lazuli stone, still much in demand in modern jewelry, is being mined. And apart from drugs, it means an important source of income for the Taliban, especially now that funding from the Arabian peninsula seems to be dwindling. The largest mine by far is located in the province's Kuran-wa-Munjan district in the mountains near the border with Pakistan in the northeast of Afghanistan, at short distance from the narrow corridor that leads to China, the entrance of which is the main issue in ongoing battles for control between government troops and Taliban gangs.

Rare earth elements

Apart from lapis lazuli, considerable deposits of rubies, emerald and jade are located in the same area. But the game goes far beyond gems. Back in 2006, an American survey team flew over most of Afghanistan and identified ore deposits containing 60 million tonne of copper, together with 2.2 billion tonne of iron ore. But there is much more since the survey also identified 1.4 million tonne of so-called rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, and lodes of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium, according to the report published after the expedition.

Billions to be exploited

And markets are far from being the most serious cause of concern for miners, local or foreign, dreaming of developing business in the area or, for all it matters, anywhere in Afghanistan. The entire economy is virtually in the hands of arguable groups - if not of the Taliban or its rival “Islamic” groups - certainly by more secular warlords present about everywhere in the country. Such warlords are well known to shift sides between the government and insurgents from time to time and hardly less ruthless where it comes to treating local populations.

Only some years ago the Peking-based state-owned China Metallurgical Group signed a contract worth the equivalent of some $3 billion to exploit the Mes Aynak copper deposit located slightly west of the current battle zone. But even if its managers would try to start the suicidal operation up, local gangs simply will not let them.

A dream world

It looks indeed as though entrepreneurs looking at Afghanistan’s underground wealth are living in a dream world indeed. “The United States Agency for International Development and the Pentagon Task Force for Business Stability Operations, had been attempting to develop an extractive industry in Afghanistan, to mine valuable minerals and other natural resources in the war-torn country,” a report by Sputnik posted in January this year read. “Raw material commodities are believed to be currently worth some $1 trillion. The report found that the program is failing due to poorly planned programmes, inadequate infrastructure and an unhealthy relationship with the Afghan government. Many mines were found to be operating illegally, with profits going to insurgents, as efforts are hampered by corruption and lack of infrastructure.”

Even the Soviets, along with their vain effort to get Afghanistan under control, saw their efforts to explore and develop the country’s mineral resources in an orderly manner go up in smoke.  After the USSR’s withdrawal not long before it broke up itself, the Afghan government it left behind found itself in pretty much the same situation as the present-day regime. For miners’ Afghan phantasmagoria, this is not exactly the time…

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