Mes Aynak, Afghanistan's most well-known copper project, means "small copper deposit" in Pashto. Indications suggest it is anything but.
The deposit holds 240 million tonnes of 2.3% grade copper ore, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), making it one of the largest untapped high-grade projects in the world.
While scenes of human tragedy in Afghanistan crowd newsfeeds following the Taliban’s takeover of the country, the fate of its vast metal and mineral reserves, including the Aynak copper mine, have come to the fore again.
Deposits like Mes Aynak are increasingly rare and the question of who gets access to them has become increasingly important; while nations and industry move toward lofty energy transition goals, a scramble for finite metal resources to fuel the shift is underway.
"The initial soundings have always been that this is one of the mighty projects that will be supplying the world with copper, but when that will be is obviously uncertain," metals industry analyst and consultant Robin Bhar said.
"We... appreciate that demand for copper is rising and the low hanging mining fruits for all metals have already been discovered, most of them already mined," Bhar said.
But while Mes Aynak's resource indications have been highlighted by geologists for generations, several hurdles remain in the way of mining at the site.
Aynak was one of the Chinese copper industry's first sizeable overseas investments, occurring during the country’s ‘Go Out’ initiative in the early 2000s to promote a national policy of acquiring key assets outside of the country.
In 2007, Jiangxi Copper, then the biggest refined copper producer in China, partnered with Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC), a subsidiary of state miner-trader Minmetals, signing a $2.83 billion deal with the Afghan government to mine the project for 30 years.
Initial plans from the two companies were to develop the mine with an annual output of 320,000 tonnes of copper concentrates
, ready to feed Jiangxi and China's soaring demand for copper raw materials.
Demand for mined copper continues to expand but despite initial enthusiasm for Mes Aynak, the companies have yet to mine a tonne of copper from the resource.
Afghanistan's deal with the Chinese consortium was done during the commodities Super-Cycle, when a dramatic opening up of China's manufacturing industry fueled unprecedented imports of everything from oil to copper, leading to then-record prices of $10,190 per tonne for the red metal in 2011.
The hayday didn't last - prices collapsed after miners responded to the boom by bringing on projects the world over, only to reach new records this May at $10,747 per tonne in a post-pandemic wave of demand.
Lower prices made the already-risky mine uneconomic, given the need for additional investment in regional infrastructure to export the copper, which MCC and Jiangxi had agreed to pay for.
The contract with Afghanistan stipulates that the consortium would need to construct a railway from Pakistan to Uzbekistan via Aynak, resettle the local population and create a 400-megawatt-capacity coal power station to provide the necessary electricity to the project and to nearby capital city Kabul.
Perhaps most punishing is that the deal also committed MCC and Jiangxi to pay Afghanistan a royalty rate of 19.5% of the value of the copper produced at Mas Aynak when the copper price is over $2 per lb, or $4,410 per tonne. Prices haven't been below that level since the financial crisis in 2008.
"It's like what happened with Reko Diq in Pakistan
; just to secure the project the mining companies offered crazy terms in the tender just to sit on it," an expert in mine finance and development who declined to be named told Fastmarkets.
The consortium have since tried to re-negotiate the deal, but turbulent Afghan politics and a corruption scandal removing one of MMC's most senior executives mean on-off talks yielded little concrete progress.
The copper deposit at Mes Aynak sits underneath several centuries old sites of national and cultural heritage. A central point in the first Silk Road, copper mining and trade helped foster the building of towns and Buddhist monuments as long as five thousand years ago.
A Zoroastrian fire temple, several Buddhist monastery complexes and a bronze-age settlement are just some of the treasures being uncovered.
Since the contract to develop the mine was awarded, Afghan archaeologists, supported by French development fund initiatives, have worked to uncover and record countless artifacts and ancient structures.
The work is part of an uneasy pact between miners and heritage workers; while an open pit mine would likely completely destroy buried artifacts and structures, the security of the complex has made excavation possible and fended off looting and destruction prevalent in some of Afghanistan's other major historical sites.
"The destruction of Mes Aynak would be like Atlantis going into the ocean and disappearing from history," Dr Mark Kenoyer at the University of Wisconsin told documentary makers in 2015.
The delays have brought the project to an uncertain point.
The Taliban are now consolidating control over Afghanistan; Jiangxi Copper has already evacuated staff stationed at the project to neighboring Pakistan., Wind Gap
reported on August 18, citing a company spokesperson.
Chinese government news organization Global Times reported the possibility of the Mes Aynak project restarting, pending a recognition of a Taliban government by China, citing an MCC source.
But Fastmarkets sources with knowledge of the matter noted that after fifteen years of waiting, Mes Aynak is still a way off being mined.
“We are now looking into it but it is a very lengthy process and we prefer to be cautious,” a source affiliated with MCC told Fastmarkets.
Ana de Liz in London contributed to this report.