As security forces focus efforts on battling the insurgency in volatile southern Afghanistan, the Taliban have strengthened their grip on lucrative, illegal mining operations in the country’s north.
Lawless practices by local commanders have also driven people into the hands of Islamist fighters, according to officials, making it easier for them to profit from small-scale mines in the area.
"The Taliban provide protection for the villagers to mine, and the people are happy to do it despite a presidential decree banning any uncontrolled mining," said Gul Mohammad Bedar, deputy governor of Badakhshan Province.
He estimated that the Taliban, fighting to overthrow the Western-backed government in Kabul, has raised about a third of its funding in Badakhshan from deposits of minerals, including semi-precious lapis lazuli, found in its mountains.
The biggest source of revenue for the Taliban nationwide in opium, grown mainly in the south of Afghanistan. The total value of opiates reaches as much as around $2 billion to 3 billion annually, according to the United Nations.
By comparison, mining is worth several tens of millions of dollars a year, although slightly more in the north. The Taliban have taken authorities by surprise over the past year by seizing large swathes of territory.
"We always thought that since much of the north, especially Badakhshan, Takhar, and even parts of Kunduz, were anti-Taliban, we would be fine and the militants would never be able to gain ground, but we were wrong," said one Afghan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Last month's attack on Kunduz, a city which the Taliban briefly seized last year, underlined the movement's growing strength in the north and the problems the government has had in enforcing its authority even in a traditional stronghold.
Due to a lack of security and infrastructure, Afghanistan’s mine reserves remain largely untapped. As many as 10,000 deposits are estimated to be beyond government control. Most of those being exploited are small, artisanal operations.
"I have been digging mines, especially lapis, for years," said Mohammad Zahir, a farmer in the Mahdan area of Keran Munjan district in Badakhshan. "These mines are created by our Allah for us to dig and feed our families, and it is not the property of the government or others."
In addition to lapis lazuli, a semi-precious blue stone mined for thousands of years in the region, mining gold and emeralds in Raghestan and Keran Munjan districts has increased in recent years, according to Bedar.
Afghanistan is also home to major deposits of industrial metals, such as the Mes Aynak copper deposit in Logar Province that is valued at $3 billion.
But nine years after the contract went to a Chinese company, production has yet to start, hampered by security concerns and a shortage of roads and railways.
Afghanistan’s mineral deposits are estimated to be worth up to $3 trillion, including gemstones and precious metals, copper, marble, and iron ore. Much of it is located in remote northern region like Badakhshan, and it is these areas the Taliban have moved into and started collaborating with smugglers to ship stones out of the country for processing.
Mines and Petroleum Ministry spokesman Maheullah Noori said the government has no official estimate of the amount raised by insurgents from mining, but local MP Safiullah Muslim said the figure runs into the millions per month.
"Gold, emeralds, rubies, and amethyst are all illegally mined by local militiamen and the Taliban, who profit by hundreds of millions of afghanis monthly," he said.
Shir Aziz Kamawal, a commander of police for the northern zone, said some local villages facing abuses by local strongmen have turned to the Taliban instead.
"Now that the Taliban are there, they have been looking into funding their fighting and digging mines," he said.
With reporting by Jawad Kakar for Reuters