The Personal Feud That's Strangling Afghanistan's Precious Mineral Trade

Mountains in Kuran Wa Munjan, Afghanistan. Wikimedia Commons/Falk Oberdorf

Complicated power struggles are paralyzing the country’s development.

The settlement in the shadows of the mighty peaks and cliffs of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan is mostly deserted. The small stone huts are crumbling, and the plastic fabrics of makeshift awnings are torn to rags. But, belying the desolate appearance of the settlement, the rocky slopes just above the encampment hold one of Afghanistan’s treasures—the world-famous mines of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone, that has been extracted for millennia for its mesmerizing deep blue color.

These mines, among others of Afghanistan’s natural resources, are often deemed to be the country’s way out of dependence on international aid. However, the reality at the mines shows that Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli wealth is trapped in a deadlock of political intrigues, rather than the harbinger of a brighter future—and this is only one example of the general problem of complicated political power struggles paralyzing Afghanistan’s development.

The latest and current troubles surrounding the lapis lazuli started in January 2014, when an irregular armed group—neither being with the Taliban nor the government—took over the mines in the district of Kuran Wa Munjan from some kind of semi-official government control. In reaction, the Afghan government has incrementally clamped down on what it sees as illegal mining and trade in the blue treasure, interdicting its transport on the routes outside Kuran Wa Munjan (though there is a nominal police station there, the government has no effective presence in the district, which is controlled by the aforementioned armed group). While small amounts of lapis lazuli are still mined and smuggled through the blockade, mining and trading came to a virtual standstill sometime in the first half of 2016, according to the few miners and merchants that were left there in October 2016. Since then, seemingly no one has profited from the stones. And, more worrisome, there appears to be no solution in sight.

Officially, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum states that, as long as security is not provided around the lapis lazuli mines, it is unable to coordinate the necessary steps for state-regulated legal extraction. Accordingly, it refers to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which is responsible for the Afghan National Police and, hence, security. Despite several efforts, no comment could be obtained from the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

Notwithstanding this lack of official information, the government apparently planned and still plans to bring the mines back under its control by re-creating a special mine protection force. The intended unit, that had in some form already existed before the takeover in 2014, would be under the aegis of the Afghan Public Protection Force, a state-owned security service that protects infrastructure, facilities and construction projects, and is subordinated to the Ministry of Interior Affairs. But this plan is murky, and apparently subject to meddling from political and personal disputes.

At the end of September 2016, different sources, among them a member of national parliament and an official from the province of Badakhshan, confirmed that Haji Abdul Malik, the purported leader of the irregular armed group in Kuran Wa Munjan, had been appointed as commander of the mine protection force. But only days later, the Ministry of Interior Affairs backtracked on what would have been a very controversial choice, stating that Malik has only been nominated as commander for the unit, but that no final decision has been taken yet. What exactly caused this seesaw remains unclear, and there is also no information available on what the current status of the intended mine protection force and the appointment of its commander is. However, it appears that political and personal intrigues simmering under the surface interfere with and hamper any decision regarding the lapis lazuli mines, including the plan for a mine protection force.

For the miners and merchants at the mines, the situation is quite simple—they all blame the government, or rather persons within the government, for wanting to regain control of the lapis lazuli mines to enrich themselves and shut them out. Their wrath is often directed at President Ashraf Ghani, and at Zalmai Khan Mujadidi, a member of national parliament who is said to have controlled the mines before.

While such a view is oversimplified, the problem does seem to be antagonism between Malik and Zalmai Khan and their respective supporters. Sitting in his large but rustic guesthouse in Iskazer, the effective center of Kuran Wa Munjan, not far from the mines, Malik insists that Zalmai Khan instigated a conspiracy and is manipulating powerful figures in government, such as National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar and even President Ashraf Ghani himself, to again take control over the mines. If successful, Zalmai Khan would bereave not only the local people, but also the central government, of the valuable lapis lazuli, claimed Malik, asserting that Zalmai Khan takes everything for himself without paying taxes or royalties.

Zalmai Khan rejected all those allegations in an interview conducted in the Afghan capital Kabul. In particular, he denied having any – past or present – hand or share in the lapis lazuli mines and assured that the extraction before the coup in 2014 had been legal and state-regulated without interference from himself. Contradicting this, various sources nonetheless persist that Zalmai Khan had been the grey eminence behind the exploitation of the lapis lazuli mines before the local armed group seized them in January 2014. Those sources also indicate that, although the government had at that time received some taxes and royalties, it was far less than it should had been. However, none of this could be verified.

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