Even if Taliban forces and opium warlords do not try to interfere with mining by Afghan or international companies, other factors could complicate commercialization. Challenges faced at the country’s largest development project, the planned copper mine at Aynak, 20 kilometers south of Kabul, are emblematic.

For one thing, the huge site that China Metallurgical Group leased for mining encompasses a national treasure: ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries that many Afghans hope will be protected.

Recent U.S. Geological Survey investigations suggest that earthquakes and water scarcity could threaten operations as well. "An earthquake could set them back five or 10 years in less than a minute,” says Anthony Crone, who leads the USGS seismic hazard–assessment team. Kabul has about the same earthquake risk as Port-au-Prince in Haiti, where more than 200,000 people died during the January 2010 quake that struck there. That earthquake released strain that had been building along massive blocks of the earth’s crust moving in opposite directions for some 500 years. A similar tale is playing out along Afghanistan’s Chaman fault system, which extends southwest of Kabul.

Water scarcity is another concern. The three million to four million people who live in and around the city—more than 10 percent of the country’s population—draw all their water from about 1,000 shallow wells in the Kabul Basin. The region has been in severe
drought since 2000, with no precipitation at all in the past five years. USGS water specialists predict that more than half of the wells may dry up simply because of greater water needs by a growing population. A new copper mine, which demands a lot of water, could add to the strain.