‘The Taliban Have Picked Up the Resource Curse’

The Taliban are strip-mining their mineral wealth to fund factional power grabs.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Afghan miners work.
Afghan miners work.
Afghan miners work in a coal mine east of western city of Herat, Afghanistan, on June 25, 2010. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

For decades, Afghanistan’s people have been told of the vast riches beneath their feet, untapped mineral resources potentially worth billions of dollars that the world is clamoring to explore, exploit, and export to create jobs in a world-class, sustainable industry that would catapult them into a future of peace and prosperity.

It’s not entirely a myth. Afghanistan does sit atop huge deposits of copper, iron, marble, talc, coal, lithium, chromite, cobalt, gold, lapis lazuli, gemstones, and more—making Afghanistan one of the world’s most resource-rich countries on paper. The tricky part, as it has been for the better part of two decades, is turning potential into reality.

The mining sector—which never really took off under the former Afghan government, due in no small part to security risks posed by the Taliban insurgency—has yet to fully bloom, even though those at the top of the Islamist group understand its earning and jobs-creation potential. But as the Taliban become increasingly fractured and security nationwide deteriorates, the mining sector is still just a cash cow funding the power base and survival of those who control it, not a motor for nationwide economic growth.

For decades, Afghanistan’s people have been told of the vast riches beneath their feet, untapped mineral resources potentially worth billions of dollars that the world is clamoring to explore, exploit, and export to create jobs in a world-class, sustainable industry that would catapult them into a future of peace and prosperity.

It’s not entirely a myth. Afghanistan does sit atop huge deposits of copper, iron, marble, talc, coal, lithium, chromite, cobalt, gold, lapis lazuli, gemstones, and more—making Afghanistan one of the world’s most resource-rich countries on paper. The tricky part, as it has been for the better part of two decades, is turning potential into reality.

The mining sector—which never really took off under the former Afghan government, due in no small part to security risks posed by the Taliban insurgency—has yet to fully bloom, even though those at the top of the Islamist group understand its earning and jobs-creation potential. But as the Taliban become increasingly fractured and security nationwide deteriorates, the mining sector is still just a cash cow funding the power base and survival of those who control it, not a motor for nationwide economic growth.

Acting Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, a sanctioned terrorist and scion of the eponymous terror network, is one of those who is digging his way to power. He has long had control over an enormous seam of chromite, stretching from near Kabul to Pakistan, so he knows what’s under the ground. His grip on what happens aboveground is just as important—trucking, roads, taxes, and border duties.

Haqqani is tightening his control on the sector, understanding that mining money will fund his own power grab as intra-Taliban divisions widen and the possibility of civil war looms, said Javed Noorani, an independent Afghan researcher who is an expert on Afghanistan’s mining sector.

“The Haqqani network was a fringe player within the Taliban but will move to center stage once they have full control of the mining sector,” Noorani said.

“Already, the Haqqani network is keeping much of the revenue generated by the sector,” he added. “Much of it may eventually be funneled to the [Persian] Gulf, but in the meantime, corruption and poor governance of the sector and the revenue it generates will increase the divisions among the Taliban further as they start to struggle between themselves for control.”

Mining is driving other conflicts. Recent armed clashes over coal mines in northern Badakhshan and Sar-e Pol provinces highlighted tensions that have exploded in some resource-rich regions, where local commanders ruled over mines that made them rich while helping fund the war against the Afghan state. The Taliban, like Afghan governments before them, are trying to fold recalcitrant regional power brokers into a national governing structure but are coming to blows over the rents that mining can provide.

Afghanistan’s mineral wealth has been well documented for decades. The Soviets did surveys in the 1970s and 1980s, and the United States did plenty of its own during its 20-year adventure. Some big contracts were signed, notably a 30-year, $3 billion deal in 2007 with a Chinese consortium to develop a copper deposit near Kabul called Mes Aynak, though that sputtered to a halt after the Taliban killed several Chinese workers. Little else was done to turn reserves into riches.

The Afghan republic’s inability to tap its potential mineral wealth was due in part to security concerns like the Taliban as well as substandard infrastructure and a lack of easy export options. As a result, the former government’s mining revenues were inconsistent, corruption was rife, and investment in the sector was low. Analysis written for the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum just five days before the government collapsed on Aug. 15, 2021, found that annual exports were plummeting: from $31 million in 2020 to just $3 million a year later. 

That was probably a reflection of the Taliban’s enlarging footprint as their war proceeded. By the time the republic died, the Islamists controlled most of the country’s mines, trucks, and roads. Now that they’re in control of the whole country, the Taliban are touting the sector as the country’s savior. Sheikh Shahabuddin Delawar, the acting minister of mines and petroleum, said thousands of jobs have been created by restarting mines that were closed down by the war. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said on social media that in just one week, the ministry collected almost $4 million in revenue, with no details of its source. Neither figure can be independently verified.

However, Afghan and U.S. industry sources say the Taliban are essentially strip-mining the country’s mineral wealth. There is little governmental expertise available to develop a soup-to-nuts mining industry that could include mineral extraction, processing, and higher-value exports. Industry sources say the Taliban are honoring existing mining contracts signed by the former government likely because the new government lacks the know-how to write its own. And that’s impeding fresh investment of the sort that could turn a potential industry into a real one.

Case in point: The mining battle in northern Afghanistan hinges on easy-to-access coal deposits that can quickly be shipped across the border to Pakistan for a quick return in the form of export duties. 

The Taliban have taken a “serious approach to the mining sector, recognizing its potential for revenue generation,” said Jeffrey Grieco, president of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce. But the cash crisis caused by U.S. and U.N. sanctions on Afghanistan’s banks, coupled with their inability to govern or run a functioning economy, see them chasing quick returns. And for that, the mining sector is their prime focus.

The Taliban, he said, “don’t have the experience or capacities to effectuate new laws within complex sectors like the mining and natural resource area.” In the meantime, he said, “they’re trying to take as much financial advantage as possible from the exports of coal and precious mineral resources to Pakistan and elsewhere because that provides both taxes and export duties.”

That’s not to say the Taliban aren’t trying. Taliban figures have met with Chinese officials to discuss the terms of the Mes Aynak copper contract, which the former government had planned to amend to make it more attractive to the Chinese contractor, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation. Delawar, the acting minister of mines, even visited the site, an hour’s drive from Kabul, and pressed the Chinese representatives to ensure Buddhist relics there are protected—a radical turnaround for a group that destroyed the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 and hasn’t entirely let up. A Chinese delegation was recently flown by helicopter south to Helmand province to visit a uranium mine, where they extracted samples they took back to China, industry sources said.

China’s long-term interest in Afghanistan’s mining sector is widely known; the country’s lithium deposits, for instance, could be among the biggest in the world and essential for China’s production of batteries. Many Afghans are concerned that the Taliban’s silence on Chinese mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims is a quid pro quo for mining deals.

For now, the Chinese are keeping their interest low key while developing their ties with the Taliban’s more business-minded acolytes, such as Haqqani and Delawar.

“The Taliban have picked up the resource curse,” said Noorani, the mining expert. “Afghanistan should be blessed with the riches that it has underground, but the curse here is fourfold: Mining can disrupt life and the environment, as it has in Afghanistan for a long time.”

“Second, it is a source of conflict as different groups fight for control of the resources,” Noorani added. “Third, it can impact the political configuration, and finally, it can decide the character of the state. Afghanistan is on the edge of all these potential consequences, and if the past is an indication, the future won’t turn out well.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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