This developmental push is the rallying cry of the project’s proponents.
“We will use it to build infrastructure – agriculture, electricity – and strengthen the Afghan security forces,” Abdul Aziz Harib, a Ministry of Mines official who is responsible for Mes Aynak, told The Diplomat. “In short, this project will help Afghanistan to stand on its own feet and make us self-sufficient.” According to Harib, some 7,000 Afghans will be directly employed by the mine, while 35,000 will work for the project indirectly.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Whether these benefits will ever truly materialize remains to be seen. According to statements made late last year by Afghan finance minister Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan government could pocket $300 million annually from the project by 2016. Rumors of corruption have haunted the project from its inception, however, with the former minister of mines resigning after accusations swirled that he allegedly took a $30 million bribe.
Moreover, “Chinese companies have a history of making false promises,” Huffman notes. “They buy the right people off, they’re on time, they’re reliable.”
Integrity Watch’s Noorani says, “I think a multi-stakeholder approach with civil society present in the process is urgent to see that things are monitored well and money spent on the intended project.” Given Afghanistan’s record of corruption, this doesn’t seem likely.
Beyond the loss of cultural heritage, the mining project has the potential to wreak tremendous havoc on the local environment. Says Huffman, “In a lot of ways it will look like what happened in Butte, Montana, at the Berkeley Pit. It’s a crater that is so toxic nothing could ever live there again.”
Meanwhile, Huffman has been busy. Besides the documentary, he is drumming up support for a protest against the mine that will take place in Los Angeles on June 16.
“Lots of young people, especially Afghans and Buddhists, plan to attend,” he said. But he admitted that he fears “it will be like the Bamian Buddhas that the Taliban destroyed in 2001: after it happens, people will say ‘how terrible!’ But people aren’t doing much about it ahead of time, while there’s still a chance.” Elsewhere, particularly in Buddhist Asia, fervor to save the Buddhas of Mes Aynak is strong.
Further, what is happening in Mes Aynak serves as a wake-up call to protect similar sites, some quite nearby.
Philippe Marquis, head of Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), told The Diplomat, “Every archaeological site is in certain ways unique but nevertheless there are many sites in Afghanistan that are as important as Mes Aynak, even possibly more important and which are equally in danger of destruction.”
Huffman added, “Mes Aynak could set a very troubling precedent of corporations bribing officials to set up the conditions they want, regardless of the impact.” He continued, “Mes Aynak is unique in terms of the size – a massive ancient city – but it’s not just the Chinese or Mes Aynak.”
Sanjay Kumar, The Diplomat’s New Delhi correspondent, contributed to this report.