Blood Lapis: How Mining Funds Afghanistan’s Violence
A Global Witness report details how lapis has become a conflict mineral in Afghanistan.
In northern Afghanistan, a man ties a 200-pound chunk of lapis lazuli to his back and hauls it down a mountain that is too steep for even donkeys to navigate. He’ll reportedly be paid around $10 daily to do the dangerous work. But profits for armed groups, including the Taliban, will be huge: In 2015, they raked in $12 million from lapis mining, according to a new report by Global Witness.
This year, the Taliban alone is expected to reap more than 50 percent of those profits, according to the report released Monday.
Stephen Carter, the report’s author and Afghanistan campaign leader for Global Witness, calls mineral extraction a “massive strategic blind spot.” He said it’s particularly alarming that mining is considered “a sort of economic or corruption issue, rather than a massive potential threat to security.”
The lapis-rich Badakhshan Province has been outside of government control for the past two years, after former district police chief Commander Abdul Malek seized the mines in a 2014 coup. Locals, who had long complained about being prevented from working in the mines and therefore sidelined from profits, largely supported the coup.
Under Malek’s regime, things have improved slightly for locals, if only because things were so bad before. “Everyone gets their share, whether they are rich or poor,” a miner told Global Witness after the coup. “The money is distributed among many villages.”
Others were happy that Malek, unlike the government officials who controlled the mines before 2014, reinvested some of the money in the community — including repairing a local road and building a mosque.
However, the benefit to locals is still very small and the Afghan government itself takes in hardly any tax revenue from mining. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reportedly sent a warning to Kabul, saying the country’s lapis trade was vastly undervalued and millions of dollars in profits likely were going to warlords and corrupt officials.
In a recent Foreign Policy interview, a European Union official said that the tax revenue gained from lapis mining is next to nothing, despite the massive profits made by powerful individuals and armed groups.
Meanwhile, Afghan government officials may be illegally profiting from mining. The Global Witness report said armed groups mainly associated with an Afghan parliamentarian, Zulmai Mujadidi, earned $700,000 from lapis mining in 2014.
“Everyone has their finger in this — the Taliban, criminal gangs, warlords, government officials, security forces,” the EU official said of illegal mining. “Everybody is into this.”
And the Taliban has taken advantage of the chaos, and has skimmed enough of the profits to make mining its second-largest source of income, behind the poppy trade. In 2014 alone, according to the report, Malek handed over $750,000 to the extremist group — his formerly sworn enemy.
Most of the lapis is carried through Pakistan into China, where it is a luxury item.
“If the Chinese government said, ‘We’re banning the trade of lapis until it no longer benefits armed groups,’ immediately the bottom would fall out of this market completely,” said Carter.
Whether that happens depends on how worried the Chinese become about how friendly Taliban fighters in Badakhshan become with the Islamic State in Afghanistan. It’s also noteworthy that ethnic Muslim Chinese Uyghers, whom Beijing considers terror threats, have reportedly joined groups of foreign fighters in Badakhshan, according to the report.
But the problem is bigger than just lapis. Illegal or marginally-legal groups are also extracting tourmaline, gold, coal, and other resources from Afghanistan. Washington has given Afghanistan about half a billion dollars to support the mining sector, “with very little of it going to governance,” Carter said.
Yochi Dreazen contributed reporting.
Photo credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Corrections, June 7, 2016: The U.S. government has given Afghanistan half a billion dollars for mining development, not half a million dollars as a previous version of this article stated. A previous version of this article also quoted a tourmaline miner rather than a lapis miner.