China's thirst for copper could hold key to Afghanistan's future

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 8, 2009 

JALREZ VALLEY, Afghanistan — In this Taliban stronghold in the mountains south of Kabul, the U.S. Army is providing the security that will enable China to exploit one of the world's largest unexploited deposits of copper, earn tens of billions of dollars and feed its voracious appetite for raw materials.

U.S. troops set up bases last month along a dirt track that a Chinese firm is paving as part of a $3 billion project to gain access to the Aynak copper reserves. Some troops made camp outside a compound built for the Chinese road crews, who are about to return from winter break. American forces also have expanded their presence in neighboring Logar province, where the Aynak deposit is.

The U.S. deployment wasn't intended to protect the Chinese investment — the largest in Afghanistan's history — but to strangle Taliban infiltration into the capital of Kabul. But if the mission provides the security that a project to revive Afghanistan's economy needs, the synergy will be welcome.

"When you have men who don't have jobs, you can't bring peace," said Abdel Rahman Ashraf, a German-trained geology professor who's Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief mining and energy adviser.

"When we take money and invest it in a project like Aynak, we give jobs to the people." Indeed, the project could inject hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties and taxes into Afghanistan's meager coffers and create thousands of desperately needed jobs.

Beijing faces enormous challenges in completing the project and gaining access to the estimated 240 million tons of copper ore that are accessible through surface mining. Taliban-led insurgents operate in large parts of Logar and Wardak; the area is sown with mines; and China must complete an ambitious set of infrastructure projects, including Afghanistan's first national railway, as part of the deal.

China's willingness to gamble so much in one of the world's poorest and riskiest nations testifies to its determination to acquire the commodities it needs to maintain its economic growth and social stability.

In Mt. Toromocho in the Peruvian Andes, for example, the only copper deposit said to be larger than Aynak, China is relocating a town and its inhabitants to get at a mountain of copper ore.

"Why the Chinese? Because they have money, they have lots of money," Ashraf said. "One day, when there is no more copper elsewhere in the world, the Chinese will have copper."

"If they (Chinese leaders) don't feed their immense industrial complex, their populace could become disruptive," said a Western official, who asked not to be further identified so he could speak freely. "We expect to see more such competitions" over Afghanistan's huge untapped reserves of natural resources.

Although China is contributing a much smaller share of the more than $25 billion in international assistance that's been pledged to Afghanistan since 2001 than the U.S. is, the Obama administration isn't complaining. China's investment in Aynak dovetails with the administration's emerging strategy for ending the war in part by delivering on unfulfilled vows to better the lives of the poor Afghans who constitute the vast majority of the Taliban's foot soldiers.

"The problem of security, the problem of the Taliban, we cannot solve these problems with the military," Ashraf said.

Site preparation work has begun. But it'll be some years before state-owned China Metallurgical Construction Corp. can begin the projected 15 to 20 years of production at the site 30 miles south of Kabul.

Copper is used in everything from batteries and electrical wire to computers and coins. International prices were high when MCC won the 30-year lease in April 2007 — one estimate at that time put the potential earnings at $42 billion — but they've fallen dramatically since. Still, China and Afghanistan stand to make a healthy profit, especially if demand recovers as expected.

The site was discovered by an Afghan-Soviet team in 1974. However, in the face of armed resistance during their 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviets were never able to develop the site or harvest the ore.

The main challenge to MCC is the Taliban, who moved into Kabul's southern fringes after China clinched the deal, prompting the January deployment in Logar and Wardak of more than 2,000 troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y. On Tuesday, a roadside bomb injured three policemen protecting a crew building an access road to Aynak.

"We have stopped our work," said Noorzaman Stanakzai, the road contractor. "The enemies of Afghanistan are preventing families from putting loaves of bread in their children's mouths."

Other challenges include transporting equipment and materials into the landlocked nation from Pakistan and Central Asia; Kabul's inexperience in handling massive projects; endemic corruption — World Bank monitors, however, blessed the Aynak bidding process — lax enforcement of laws and the global economic meltdown.

Moreover, China must deliver the infrastructure projects that helped it snag the deal over six rivals, including Phelps Dodge Corp., which was acquired by Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. in 2007.

These include an onsite copper smelter, a $500 million generating station to power the project and augment Kabul's electricity supply, a coal mine to fuel the power station, a groundwater system, roads, new homes, hospitals and schools for mine workers and their families, and a railway line from the country's northern border with Uzbekistan to its southeastern border with Pakistan.

The deal, Ashraf said, is structured so that by the seventh year, the entire work force will be Afghan. Beginning in 2010, 60 Afghan engineering students a year will study in China, he said, adding that Chinese language courses have begun at Kabul University.

Employment projections vary, but there's general agreement that as many as 10,000 workers could be hired at Aynak and the coal mine in central Afghanistan, which the Jalrez Valley road project will link to the copper field. The railway will need thousands more.

Tens of thousands of indirect jobs are also projected to be created.

"The big question is whether they (China) will deliver on all that or not," said a second Western official, who requested anonymity to speak freely. "The transparency going forward will be all important. We don't want this great resource potential to become a great resource curse, as has happened in other countries."

There may be some cause for concern.

A January 2008 report by Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a European research group, said that MCC extracted more copper than expected from a mine in Sandaik, Pakistan, but that the project has "had virtually no spillover effect on the local economy to date."

The report also warned of the potential for an "environmental and social disaster" if Aynak isn't properly managed, noting that the area is home to some 90,000 people and a source of Kabul's water supply.

Ashraf said that the government will ensure that MCC takes rigorous precautions, including systems to store the highly toxic wastes produced by copper smelting.

"The sediment will go into a holding lake, and the water will be cleaned and then provided for agriculture," said Ashraf, a veteran geologist who's worked the world over, including in China.

China may hope that the Aynak deal will help it position it to compete for more projects in Afghanistan, where three tectonic plates converge. The region is thought to hold some of the world's last major untapped deposits of iron, copper, gold, uranium, precious gems and other raw materials.

"It's the last frontier," said the second Western official.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Afghanistan also has more than 1.5 billion barrels of oil — almost untapped since soldiers of Alexander the Great discovered pools of oil in the north more than 2,000 years ago — and 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Two other major copper deposits are close to Aynak, and the government is preparing to solicit bids for a lease to develop the Hajigak iron mine, which Minister of Mines Ibrahim Adil last year said contains an estimated 60 billion tons of ore.

Ashraf said that China and India have shown an interest in Hajigak.

"When we have a little security here, this will be a paradise to come and mine," he said. "We are near the markets. Those markets are China and India. The transportation is not difficult. The difficulty is that everyone says, 'We must have security and then we will invest.'"

ON THE WEB

Integrity Watch Afghanistan's report on Aynak

Afghanistan Ministry of Mines

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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