Afghan officials are turning their attention to the illegal mining and illicit sale of the country’s mineral resources, which earn Taliban terrorists an estimated $20 million a year.
The mountains of Afghanistan hold between $1 trillion and $3 trillion in mineral resources, including lapis lazuli, a deep blue, semiprecious stone mined for centuries in northern Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province.
Since 2014, at least 12,500 tons of lapis lazuli worth about $200 million have been extracted, much of it illegally or in a way that avoided nearly $30 million in government taxes, according to a report by the group Global Witness, which exposes resource-related corruption.
The country’s mines also hold copper, iron ore, gold, coal, lithium, marble, gems and other minerals that could generate revenue for Afghan development.
Afghan officials are promising to do more to protect the minerals. “The Taliban not only are benefiting from opium and drug smuggling; unfortunately, they have also targeted the country’s mines — mines that are a national asset of the country and the people,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in June 2016.
Lapis lazuli mining was outlawed in 2015, but the mines now lie in a region controlled by the Taliban and warlords of varying allegiances. As many as 10,000 deposits are estimated to be outside government control, according to a report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based independent think tank.
As a result, mineral smuggling has become the Taliban’s second-richest funding source after drugs produced in the southern Afghan provinces. The prized Afghan lapis lazuli is reportedly sold for between $2,000 and $4,000 per kilogram.
According to Global Witness, the government lost at least $17.5 million in revenue from lapis lazuli in 2014 and $10 million in 2015, while the Taliban has paid millions to protect the illegal operations from police. The group said Taliban commanders also operate government-owned marble mines in Helmand province, where they reap $10 million annually.
Global Witness warns that the Badakhshan mines have become a strategic priority for a local terrorist Daesh affiliate, which has emerged mostly in the country’s east, along the border with Pakistan. “Unless the Afghan government acts rapidly to regain control, the battle for the lapis mines is set to intensify and further destabilize the country, as well as fund extremism,” Global Witness said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani compared Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the race for minerals has fueled conflict for decades, and he said he would urge Afghanistan’s parliament to classify lapis lazuli as a conflict mineral.
The international classification indicates that a product’s sale contributes to war and human rights abuses. The best-known example is “blood diamonds,” long used to fund wars across Africa. A United Nations resolution in 1988 proposed measures that could trace diamonds from their origin to point of sale.
Should Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli be classified as a conflict mineral, it would compel Kabul to regulate the mines and possibly set up a system to ensure accountability and transparency for each stone, a proposal made by Afghanistan’s former minister of mines.