Afghan mineral wealth being looted by Taliban
The brilliant blue stone, lapis lazuli, prized for millennia, is almost uniquely found in Afghanistan, a key part of the extensive mineral wealth that is seen as the best hope for funding development of one of the world's poorest nations.
Instead, lapis has become a source of income for the Taliban, smugglers and local warlords, emblematic of the central government's struggle to gain control over the resources and rein in corruption.
Afghanistan is missing out in millions of dollars in revenues from lapis as illegal miners extract thousands of tons from the mines in northeastern Badakhshan province, according to experts and officials.
A local police commander named Abdul Malik has control over a major mine, charges illegal miners to use it and pays the Taliban to allow him to operate, according to an internal memo to Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, from his top adviser on mines, seen by The Associated Press, and a top official.
Smugglers bribe local officials to turn a blind eye as they transport the gems to Kabul and to neighbouring Pakistan for sale, they said.
Stephen Carter, Afghanistan campaign leader at international advocacy group, Global Witness, said the country's mining sector, "funds armed groups and is a major source of instability and corruption, not just in Badakhshan, but across the whole country."
Describing lapis lazuli as a microcosm of the mining sector, he said that without fundamental safeguards, especially to increase transparency and security in mining areas, "there is a real risk Afghanistan could face a chronic, resource-driven conflict."
Javid Mujadidi, a Badakhshan lawmaker, estimates that 70 per cent of the proceeds from the lapis lazuli "goes to the Taliban, who have a presence at the mine," located in the province's Kuran-wa-Munjan district in the mountains near the border with Pakistan.
The extortion has helped fund the insurgency's spread from the southern heartland to the previously peaceful northern provinces.
Malik charges enormous rents to illegal miners allowing them to mine for 24 hours at a time. The mines are being damaged by the high explosives that the miners use in an effort to get out as much as possible in their short permitted time.