Early one morning in June, just a week after the New York Times reported claims by U.S. officials that Afghanistan was perched atop enough copper, gold, iron, lithium, and assorted rare minerals and gemstones “to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself,” I made my way with a local guide to the illegal mines of the Safit Chir, an emerald-rich line of ridges 100 miles northeast of Kabul. After a three-hour climb up trails navigable only on foot or by donkey, we greeted several miners, and one of them led us past the dark maws of the tunnels to the edge of a ridge, the better to see the places where his nation’s wealth might be hidden.
As we looked out over steep slopes dotted with purple delphinium, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas all around us, Abdul Latif told me that he had not always been a miner. He had become a mujahideen commander after the Soviet invasion in 1979, he said, and he’d faced the enemy’s artillery and helicopters in these very mountains: land mines and the bones of men were buried out there, and older things too. Haroon, another miner, said that while he was digging a new tunnel several years ago he came across ancient buried walls, the chamber of a house made with neat stone masonry. He found a clay amphora there and smashed it in the hopes of finding gold, but it contained only dust.