LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Lawmakers and locals in a southern Afghan province say the illegal mining of gold and other precious minerals has dramatically increased in Taliban-controlled regions close to the border with Pakistan.
Attaullah Afghan, head of the provincial council in Helmand, says the exploitation of existing mines and the excavation of new mines have accelerated to unprecedented levels in the restive region.
He told Radio Free Afghanistan that the mining of gold, marble, lithium, and rare-earth minerals in Helmand’s southern districts of Deshu and Khanishin has increased dramatically. He says the Taliban have complete control over the two districts, which border Pakistan.
“Anyone can take as many raw materials from these regions as they wish,” he said, adding that neither the government nor local civilians have any role in the excavation or transport of raw materials from the remote region. “Nobody has even bothered to stop this exploitation.”
Tribal leader Najibullah Baloch was the former district governor of Khanishin, and he knows the inner workings of the expanding illegal trade. He says that, once excavated, the raw materials are smuggled into neighboring Pakistan, where they are processed.
He says the people involved in the mining, excavating, and trade clearly know how to utilize the services of Pakistani experts in choosing the right stones and soil.
“The Taliban are taxing each truck about 80,000 rupees ($550). They are also handing out contracts for the excavation and exploitation of existing mines,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Baloch estimates the Talban are racking up millions of dollars from mining in Helmand.
He says the Taliban are now allowing the excavation of gold in Deshu, which is near the Siandik and Rico Diq copper and gold mines in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province, which borders Helmand.
The Taliban, however, say they are not allowing anyone to exploit Helmand’s natural resources. “We have not allowed any Pakistanis to exploit or smuggle the marble and gold mines in Helmand,” purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi said in a message sent to Radio Free Afghanistan.
Some 200 kilometers away in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, Governor Mohammad Yaseen is waiting for Kabul to approve his plans to protect Helmand’s mines.
“We have given them [the central government] three options. If they approve any of those, we will be able to protect these mines,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Afghan, the head of Helmand’s provincial council, however, says Helmand’s residents are responsible for protecting their natural resources. “This our national wealth, and every Afghan is responsible for protecting it,” he said, alluding to the possibility of mobilizing local communities.
Helmand, the size of Switzerland, is Afghanistan’s largest province. Since 2014, the Taliban have captured large swathes of the region. They currently control or contest 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts.
The fertile agricultural region is the leading global producer of illicit opium, which is also processed into heroin. The insurgents benefit from the trade, and Helmand has also provided the Taliban with a steady stream of recruits.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.