FAIZABAD, Afghanistan -- Residents and officials in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan say the Taliban is raking in considerable revenues by taxing illegal gold mining in the remote region bordering China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.
They say revenues from gold mining are helping the hard-line movement to expand its control in the strategic province, which largely remained outside its control during the Taliban’s stint in power in the 1990s when it controlled most of country’s more than 650,000-square-kilometer territory.
“The Taliban controls the district of Raghistan and control the gold mining there, too,” Haseebullah, a resident of the remote district, told Radio Free Afghanistan in Badakhshan’s capital, Faizabad. “Everyone who looks for gold in the region is forced to share one-fifth of their find with the Taliban.”
Haseebullah says the Taliban is also equipping some of the rudimentary mining operations with modern machinery to increase their output. Revenues from illegal gold mining are now seen as supplementing the Taliban’s income from lapis lazuli mines, which the group has exploited for years.
While the Taliban denies taxing gold mining in Badakhshan, its actions are in line with insurgent tactics during the more than four decades of war in Afghanistan. Many groups, mostly Islamist factions, have exploited Afghanistan’s natural and mineral resources, trade routes, and illicit narcotics to fund their violent campaigns in the country where most governments have struggled to control the countryside because of attacks by rural rebels.
Badakhshan’s governor, Mohammad Zakaria Sawda, estimates the Taliban raises tens of thousands of dollars every month from Badakhshan’s gold mines, which are mostly concentrated in the Raghistan and Yaftali Shufla districts of Badakhshan. He says the group uses this money to bankroll its violent campaign in eight of Badakhshan’s 29 districts.
“There is no doubt that control over resources plays a major role in the violence in the region,” Sawda told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They [the Taliban] engage in extraction themselves and also tax the locals, who mostly pan for gold in rivers and streams.”
Abdul Baseer Haqjoo, a local mining expert, says that in addition to funding streams from abroad the Taliban’s taxation of gold and lapis lazuli extraction contributes to its war chest. “The areas the Taliban controls in Badakhshan have gold and lapis lazuli mines, which are central to buying its weapons and strengthening its forces [through recruitment],” he said.
But Zabihullah Mujahed, a purported Taliban spokesman, denied taxing illegal gold mines in Badakhshan. In a message to Radio Free Afghanistan, he said only locals were involved in mining in the region.
Lapis lazuli is believed to have been mined in Badakhshan’s rugged mountains for thousands of years. The region is said to have major deposits of gemstones such as azure, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. Estimates suggest that one ton of substance has 80 grams of gold while some of the region’s rivers have considerably more gold reserves. Locals often find gold by panning the river sediment or sand.
In a 2016 report, Global Witness, a resource and conflict watchdog, estimated that revenues going to the Taliban from lapis lazuli mines in one small area of Badakhshan rivaled the Afghan government’s revenue from the entire natural resource sector.
“Badakhshan illustrates the wider dangers around Afghanistan’s natural resources,” the report said. “Mining is implicated in violence from Balkh to Helmand.”
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nimatullah Ahmadi’s reporting from Badakhshan, Afghanistan.