The Afghan government is indirectly but knowingly funnelling money to the through the country’s lucrative marble business, the Guardian has learned. Afghanistan’s vast mineral deposits, which under different circumstances could fund development, instead nourish some of the worst ills plaguing the war-torn nation: corruption, smuggling and a militant insurgency.
In Helmand province, large marble reserves are in areas long under Taliban control. The government, largely unable to extract marble on its own and intent on maintaining an embryonic marble industry, buys the stone from private companies, who in turn pay the Taliban ample taxes and for extraction rights.
As a result, the government adds to a revenue stream into the militant group’s coffers worth millions of dollars each year. In 2014, that at least two-thirds of the $15m (£10m) made on Helmand marble each year went to the Taliban.
The presidential envoy to Helmand, Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, put the figure even higher. He told the Guardian that the Taliban now made $50,000-$60,000 per day from marble, or more than $18m (£12m) annually.
“Yes, we are concerned,” said a government official in Helmand familiar with the mining industry, requesting anonymity because the government has ordered provincial officials not to speak to the media. “But we don’t have any other way.”
A 55-year-old Italian-built marble factory in Lashkar Gah is the only one of its kind in Helmand. On a recent morning, elderly men caked in dust were sanding ashtrays and vases with surgical concentration. A younger man ran the saw of an ancient-looking Cappelli Africa stonecutter machine smoothly through wet slabs of marble, spraying himself with grey mist.
Business has never been better, said Mohammad Lal Kargar, the factory’s manager, who has worked here since the 1970s. That was not saying a lot. Afghans only recently warmed to marble, and though demand is growing, the factory’s revenue totals £8,000-£9,000 per month.
That is a fraction of the Taliban’s earnings, and a fair bit short of the approximately £500m that USAid is Afghanistan’s total export potential. According to the UN, Afghanistan’s marble reserves are worth between £100bn and £140bn.
The factory in Lashkar Gah is 49% government-owned, with 51% belonging to a private company headed by a former US contractor. Because the Taliban refuse to sell marble to the government, Kargar said, the factory buys marble from private contractors who extract the stone and transport it to Lashkar Gah.
The government and Taliban both charge contractors for extraction rights, because both claim the southern districts containing the mines as their territory. In addition, according to one prominent industry source, the Taliban tax trucks between $300 and $500 per tonne of marble, depending on its quality.
By the time pink onyx marble – the most valuable kind – makes it to Lashkar Gah, the price tag is $700 per tonne. According to the (AISA), Afghan onyx is seven times more expensive than Pakistani marble, which makes export more difficult.
Musafar Quqani, a spokesman for the ministry of commerce, which administers the government share of the Helmand factory, denied channelling money to the Taliban. Nobody in Helmand had ever complained about having to bribe the Taliban, he said, adding that no marble went to Pakistan illegally.
But a former ministry spokesman, Wahidullah Ghazikhil, confirmed that the government worked with private companies who paid off Taliban and smuggled marble to Pakistan. “The private companies are bribing Taliban for their own profit,” said Ghazikhil. “The government can’t do anything.” He said nobody knew exactly how much money the Taliban had made this way.
Asked whether the government should stop buying marble altogether, the Helmand official said: “The government has seriously considered this. But someone else would buy it, and then all of the marble would go to Pakistan.”
In 2014 signed a new mining law. While an improvement, the law still “lacks a provision prohibiting illegal armed groups, militias or members of the national army from benefiting from mining,” according to the corruption watchdog Global Witness.
“Marble is just part of the wider connection between extractives, corruption and armed groups,” said Stephen Carter, the group’s Afghanistan campaign leader. “Resources like these should be funding development and increasing Afghanistan’s independence from foreign donors. Instead they are putting Afghanistan at a real risk of a chronic, resource-driven conflict.”
The UN has identified between 25 and 30 illegal mining operations in Helmand, from where, several sources estimate, at least 80% of marble disappears into Pakistan. “They put their own stamp on it and call it Pakistani marble,” Kargar said.
Some of it ends up back in Afghanistan. Due to insecurity on roads, it is often easier to import marble to Kabul from Pakistan than to transport it from provinces such as Helmand and Badakhshan. According to AISA, more than 80% of the Afghan marble market comes from Pakistan.
Marble is smuggled along a well-trodden route used also for weapons and drugs. From mines in the desolate Khanashin and Dishu provinces, it snakes through Badamchar, a smuggler’s haven as “a Taliban command-and-control area”, with ammunition storages, bomb factories and training camps for foreign fighters. This smuggling route is a backbone of the insurgency, which the government and its international backers have never broken.
For 14 years, the US-led coalition sacrificed more lives and money in Helmand than in any other Afghan province. But Brig Gen Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for the coalition in Afghanistan, admitted that clearing the southern, rural areas had not been first priority. “Focus was on population centres,” he said. “We would like to have done, and would still like to do, everything we can to secure the border. But the bottom line is, trying to secure those borders from every single smuggling route is probably going to be a futile effort.”
Cutting off the Taliban supply routes required cooperation from Afghanistan’s neighbours, he said. “Securing the border is not just done from one side of the border. The Afghan government won’t be able to do it by themselves.”