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The Taliban say they're giving China the green light to restart a $3 billion mining project, but Afghanistan's legal government says the militant group is just blowing smoke.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan directs all its Mujahideen to help in the security of all national projects that are in the higher interest of Islam and the country, " the Taliban announced on Nov. 29, adding that a massive copper mine called Mes Aynak is among the sites it is "committed to safeguarding."
Mes Aynak was signed over to China's state-owned Metallurgical Group Corporation in 2008.
Speaking to CNBC on Friday, the Afghan government dismissed the Taliban's announcement.
"The Taliban never protects projects, and it isn't their job. There is no stake for a terrorist group in the [national] projects," said Javid Faisal, a spokesman for Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Over the last 15 years, he noted, the Taliban have "attacked highways, destroyed bridges, burned schools, clinics, and universities."
The Mes Aynak copper mine is north of Kabul and is protected by a security unit under the Afghan Ministry of Interior. The Taliban killed eight Afghan workers near Mes Aynak in June 2014.
In 2008, China signed a 30-year contract with the Afghan government to access the world's second largest untapped copper deposit at Mes Aynak, which happens to lie underneath the ruins of an ancient Buddhist city. Security concerns have stalled the project.
The Taliban have been fighting against the U.S.-backed Afghan government since 2001, when their authoritarian regime was overthrown by NATO working with local fighters.
Robert Crews, a professor at Stanford University and author of the book "Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation," said the Taliban's announcement is designed to give the militant group longed-for credibility.
"Taliban spokesmen have been presenting the movement as a competent, development-oriented government-in-waiting, one that can advance the welfare of the Afghan people more efficiently than the current Afghan government," Crews said.
The protection of national development projects is an important plank in a "multifaceted strategy aimed at winning popular support for a return to power, or at least inclusion in some kind of future power-sharing arrangement," Crews added.