Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, roughly estimated at upwards of $1 trillion, is sometimes seen as the country’s potential savior, with the potential to generate large government revenues, exports, and some jobs. On the other hand, international and Afghan experience amply demonstrates the downside risks associated with mineral exploitation—macroeconomic and fiscal distortions; waste, corruption, and poor governance; environmental degradation; and the risk of financing or fomenting violent conflict, thereby undermining peacebuilding. The so-called “resource curse” is not destiny, however, and some countries have managed to avoid it, though Afghanistan faces much greater challenges than most when it comes to beneficially developing its mining sector.

Above road construction near an iron ore mine near Bamiyan, Afghanistan, July 4, 2012. The country’s lack of infrastructure has hindered efforts to exploit its natural resources. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)
Above road construction near an iron ore mine near Bamiyan, Afghanistan, July 4, 2012. The country’s lack of infrastructure has hindered efforts to exploit its natural resources. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

Beyond widespread insecurity and ongoing conflict (some of it over access to mineral resources), the country is geographically remote and landlocked, topographically very mountainous, and infrastructurally challenged. These constraints are exacerbated by the government’s capacity limitations, widespread corruption, lack of rule of law, and political economy networks and interests that strongly favor informal and illicit economic activities.

As in most other countries, underground mineral resources belong to the state, according to Afghanistan’s constitution, meaning mining activities are supposed to be approved and contracted by the government, with royalties, taxes, and other revenues paid to the national budget. In practice, however, mining contracts are often abused, taxes and royalties are underpaid or not paid at all, and artisanal and small- to medium-scale mining often occurs on an unlicensed, illegal basis.

In this context, effective monitoring and oversight of ongoing mineral extraction activities in Afghanistan would seem almost impossible—making the various elements of the resource curse all the more inevitable. First, many insecure and remote areas cannot be reached by government officials to conduct inspections and monitor activities. Second, even where Taliban insurgents are not in control, other local actors opposed to the Afghan government are often in a position to keep the government out. And third, even where there is meaningful government access, limited capacity and serious corruption vulnerabilities militate against effective monitoring of mineral extraction. These obstacles are above and beyond the normal technical issues associated with measuring quantities, purity, and value of minerals extracted, transported, and exported.

Satellite Imagery Enhances Monitoring of the Extractives Sector

The exciting advances in satellite imagery in recent years—particularly its sharply declining costs—provide new options for strengthening the monitoring and analysis of mining in Afghanistan. “Eyes in the sky”—satellites providing commercially available images—can see evidence of mining activities, stockpiling of extracted ores and bulk minerals, and their transport over significant distances, as well as, importantly, changes over time. Unlike on-the-ground oversight, satellite imagery cannot be hidden from, threatened (e.g., by armed groups), or bribed. There are technical limitations to the technology—for example, it is not feasible to directly monitor artisanal extraction and transportation of precious gemstones—but it is striking how much relevant, useful evidence can be provided by satellite imagery.

Supported by USIP, Alcis recently conducted a preliminary study: “In Plain Sight: Use of Satellite Imagery to Analyze and Monitor Extractive Activities in Afghanistan,” co-authored with Madeleine Alston of Alcis. In addition to the innovative use of remote sensing technology, the report’s presentation includes videos, time-sequences of images, and 3-D imagery. The study delved into case studies of a dozen sets of mining activities involving four different minerals (coal, marble, chromite, and salt/lithium), covering geographical locations, legality of the activities, techniques of mining, and transport routes. The findings and recommendations are thus reasonably robust, pointing the way to more extensive, systematic use of satellite imagery for analysis and monitoring of Afghanistan’s extractives sector.

What did we Find?

First, some striking examples where satellite imagery provides important insights:

  • Mining activity not occurring within the area delineated in a mining contract but clear evidence of extraction nearby, which may reflect either incorrect contract coordinates or illegal mining.
  • Substantial coal extraction from a major site in Samangan province, occurring apparently in the absence of any mining contract at all.
  • Construction or improvement of roads and bridges, funded by foreign assistance, facilitating transport and export of extracted minerals—whether under Ministry of Mines and Petroleum contracts (e.g., marble) or not (chromite and others).
  • Legally questionable mining activity occurring on an irregular basis on the outskirts of Kabul City, possibly with private security overwatch.
  • A recently signed contract for salt mining abruptly cancelled amid reports of the existence of lithium deposits in the area, but evidence of continuing mining activities after termination of the contract.

Additionally, the study found some broader takeaways.

Mining contracts often do not contain geospatial coordinates, and in the majority of cases where coordinates are provided, the contract locations are probably incorrect.

Information on locations of mineral resources, as well as of mining activities, does not appear to be drawn together in a comprehensive database, making overall assessments extremely difficult.

Satellite imagery can be utilized for a variety of different kinds of observations: context monitoring, for example, of local infrastructure and economic activities; monitoring of activities at mine sites; identifying stockpiling and transport of minerals along roads, including border crossings; and multi-dated imagery analysis to ascertain changes over time.

Regarding technical approaches, several are suitable for monitoring extractive activities, including analysis of individual images; change detection through use of a large number of images in sequence to demonstrate evolution of activities over time; “ground-truth”—combining satellite imagery analysis with other remote sensing and fieldwork; and imagery data integration such as 3D visualizations.

The limitations of satellite imagery need to be kept in mind. It is not of much use in the case of very small-scale, artisanal activities involving high-value gemstones, which don’t require mechanized or very visible mining activities nor transport by trucks. Satellite imagery can detect extraction, stockpiling, and transport of a wide range of other minerals, as well as changes in such activities over time. But it cannot assess quantities of mineral extraction and flows with precision, though substantial changes will be evident from the sky, and rough estimates can be derived from stockpiled amounts and monitoring transport.

Overall, our work demonstrates the very significant contribution satellite imagery can make to analyzing and monitoring mineral extraction activities in Afghanistan. Thus, it can be a powerful tool to help reduce the risk that the resource curse results in mining harming the country’s development. Satellite imagery can generate reliable observations along mining value chains and assess changes over time, raising red flags when there are prima facie signs of something wrong. And last but not least, satellite imagery can synergize with other information sources including government documents and data, publicly available press and media reports, and careful, targeted fieldwork where possible.


A first, most basic recommendation is to include accurate geospatial coordinates in all mining tenders and contracts. Cartographic maps delineating the contracted mining area could also be included in tenders and contracts, providing geographical confirmation of the coverage of the concerned mining license and facilitating correction of any errors up-front.

Second, focus on the transport and export of many minerals, which are most conveniently moved by truck. While many or even most mining sites are remote, insecure, and/or not conducive to on-the-ground monitoring, the main border points and numerous points on the major, arterial highways of Afghanistan are under meaningful government control. With most minerals being transported and exported by truck through these points, satellite imagery could provide a picture of what is happening and help identify where leakages and under- or non-reporting of mineral flows are most egregious.

Third, prioritize mines of the greatest interest. Prioritization criteria may include larger and more valuable deposits currently being extracted (e.g., lapis lazuli, a rich resource concentrated in a small part of the country), degree of insecurity and inaccessibility of the mine sites, recently discovered and informally exploited resources (e.g., nephrite), and mining areas that may be particularly significant from a security or geopolitical perspective (e.g., chromite and possibly lithium).

Fourth, further expand the use of satellite imagery by moving from individual mines to developing profiles of ongoing extractive activities in selected provinces, and/or along mineral belts such as the “copper belt” in southeastern Afghanistan and the recently discovered (and currently rampantly exploited) “nephrite belt.” Rather than trying to jump to the national level right away, such intermediate approaches will provide additional learning and a smoother transition from individual case studies to the aggregate level.

And fifth, over time begin to develop combined and increasingly comprehensive databases, so ongoing mining activities identified by satellite imagery can be correlated with data on mineral resources; mining contracts; government and other official documents (e.g., those of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative); and other information sources, enabling much better analysis and monitoring than would be possible with any single tool. This in turn can lead to a robust, more effective monitoring framework in the future.

In conclusion, satellite imagery is not a “silver bullet” that can by itself resolve the deep-seated problems affecting Afghanistan’s extractives sector. But as demonstrated by this study, it is a very promising tool to drastically improve analysis and monitoring of ongoing mineral extraction, transport, and export in Afghanistan, which by all accounts is rampant, giving rise to major losses in terms of foregone government revenue as well as serious environmental, social, and safety consequences. As such, in addition to its benefits in making mining more beneficial to the country’s development, satellite imagery can help reduce the very real risks of conflict and corruption associated with mining.

William A. Byrd is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Richard Brittan is the managing director of Alcis. The views expressed in this paper are the authors’ and should not be attributed to the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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