“At any price we will take the mines.” –Islamic State militant commander.
The Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban are fighting to gain control of mines and the extraction of talc in the Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. A recent report by the Global Witness reveals that illegally mined talc in Afghanistan is commonly found in Western consumer products and is a major source of revenue for armed groups and is used to fund terrorism. IS has previously exploited natural resources in Iraq and Syria. Now they have taken advantage of Afghanistan’s poorly regulated talc mines to fund their insurgency. IS controls large talc, marble and chromite mines in eastern Afghanistan, particularly around their stronghold in Achin district in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border. Control of resources and access to talc mines are a source of conflict between IS and the Taliban. In late 2017, more than 60,000 people were displaced when fighting escalated between armed groups trying to gain control of mineral-rich districts near Achin.
Talc is found in everyday consumer products including, cosmetics, paint, plastics, and baby powder. The high demand for talc is driven by Western lifestyles and consumer habits. Approximately 500,000 tonnes of talc were exported from Afghanistan in 2018. The largest market is the United States with 40% of talc exported from Pakistan going to the US. Talc mined in Afghanistan is smuggled across the border to Pakistan, it is then mixed with Pakistani talc before it is exported. Consumers may be unaware, and unknowingly financing terrorist groups due to a lack of transparency in the supply chain. Western companies must carry out due diligence on the source of their minerals and place stronger controls over supply chains from conflict affected regions.
The Taliban is profiting heavily from Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, and is estimated to be earning $300 million per year from minerals in the Nangarhar province, including millions from talc alone. The trade is likened to a “mafia system”, where provincial authorities benefit financially by protecting the illegal extraction and smuggling of minerals. Furthermore, armed groups are fighting to maintain control of mines because they do not want to lose revenue.
Insurgents have become more involved with talc mining as it has become a key strategy for IS. They have gained further territory in Afghanistan, spread influence and extremist ideology to remote districts, and profited from mining. Nick Donovan, campaign director for Global Witness said, “The Islamic State appears to have a significant strategic interest in Afghanistan’s minerals and controls some major mining areas. Given its track record of exploiting natural resources in Iraq and Syria, this should be a wake-up call for both the Afghan government and the Trump administration.”
The illegal control of natural resources by armed groups is an issue affecting Afghanistan’s national security and economic well-being. The government is losing revenue and a potential opportunity for development. Instead, mining is empowering insurgents and fueling armed conflict. The resource conflict is also damaging for the US who are involved in the Afghan war and are the largest consumer market for talc. Despite this the US has not responded to the issue. The report illustrates US military intervention as a “disastrous recourse” as they would attempt to seize control of the mines in a colonialist manner. The resource conflict has failed to gain international attention. According to Nick Donovan, campaign director for Global Witness, commodities like talc and chromite “may be the least glamorous of conflict minerals” because talc “lacks the imaginative allure of blood diamonds” which feature in Hollywood films and rap music.
Mineral resources could be used to generate revenue and economic growth for the Afghan government, instead it is creating conflict and corruption. Sustainable mining of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth could fund development and reconstruction after 16 years of war. Mineral reserves could also fund public services, making Afghanistan less dependent on international aid and support, which would allow economic independence. It could become a viable economic model for the country with mineral deposits estimated to have a potential value of $1 trillion. In an attempt to fight corruption, the Afghan government banned the talc trade in 2015. However, enforcement is weak and has been ineffective at preventing extraction from insurgent-controlled areas. Upcoming reforms and amendments to the Afghan Mining Law may facilitate legal extraction by making conflict mining less feasible.
The government must prioritize the protection of mineral deposits by establishing government-controlled zones in resource-rich areas. Global Witness advocates for the government to strengthen control over the trade in Nangarhar and across Afghanistan, especially along the Pakistani border where the movement of minerals needs to be restricted. A blockade must be enforced which would inhibit the transit of minerals by illegal armed groups. This will facilitate the conditions for ‘clean’ extraction of minerals and promote legitimate mining to empower local communities and boost Afghanistan’s economic well-being. Local community monitoring and ownership of legal mines would ensure locals have control over the distribution and spending of revenue. Communities would benefit, and this would help reduce insurgent influence in areas. Legal mining has the opportunity to overcome conflict and corruption by creating a viable and stable alternative for Afghanistan.