The mines of the rugged northeastern province of Badakhshan are one of the richest assets of the Afghan people, an extraordinary national treasure that should be a powerful resource for development.
Instead, as a two-year investigation reveals, they are a major source of conflict and grievance, supply millions of dollars of funding to armed groups, insurgents, and strongmen, and provide a tiny fraction of the benefit they should to the Afghan people. Without a coherent response, these mines – and others like them across Afghanistan – represent not just a lost opportunity, but a threat to the whole country.
The direct rivals in the violent competition for Badakhshan’s ancient lapis lazuli mines are two local strongmen. Both have exploited the mines, both have links to national politics, and both allegedly have had back-door ties to the Taliban. According to rough but plausible estimates, the revenue going to these strongmen and the Taliban from just one small area of Badakhshan rivals the government’s declared income from the entire Afghan natural resources sector. For now, the lapis which supplies much of the world market is, by any reasonable definition, a conflict mineral.
For now, the lapis which supplies much of the world market is, by any reasonable definition, a conflict mineral.
This struggle is one of resources, not ideology: a “business war.” But it has nonetheless created the conditions in which the Taliban – who have a close relationship with the local affiliate of the Islamic State – threaten to take the mines, and already control the much of their revenue. And it is a major reason why a province which resisted the Taliban at the height of their power is now one of their strongholds. Amid the conflict and lawlessness around the mines, it is the insurgency that has benefitted above all.
Badakhshan illustrates wider dangers around Afghanistan’s natural resources. Mining is implicated in violence from Balkh to Helmand. Nationally, it is thought to be the Taliban’s second largest source of revenue, while contributing less than 1% of state income in 2013. Afghanistan’s estimated $1trn of mineral reserves could in theory generate $2bn revenue a year: hopes for the country’s economic growth, and by extension its independence from foreign aid, rely on their development. But they threaten to do the opposite – to be a chronic source of conflict and corruption, while generating little revenue. Improving the governance of the whole sector is not just a matter of legality or of morality: it is of fundamental importance to the future of the country.
According to estimates, the revenue going to the Taliban from just one small area of Badakhshan rivals the government’s declared income from the entire Afghan natural resources sector.
That urgency has not so far been adequately reflected in the policy of either the Afghan government or its partners– despite some distinctly encouraging recent announcements. They should make it a first-order priority, first by increasing accountability, transparency, and local engagement around mining (notably in the mining law), and by prioritising security in mining areas. Badakhshan, where both the scale of the threat and the potential reward are disproportionately high, is worth particular attention – but reform is needed for the whole country. With some basic safeguards yet to be implemented, effective action is possible. READ MORE OF THIS REPORT BY GLOBAL WITNESS