Is Lapis Lazuli fuelling conflict in Afghanistan?

A new report charges lapis lazuli smugglers with funding the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan. But traders should not be scapegoated, argues Magnus Marsden.

A recent Global Witness report has brought much-needed attention to the plight of Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli and tourmaline mines, located in the country’s north-eastern province of Badakhshan.[1] The report highlights the ways in which the mines have become a focus of dispute between local ‘strongmen’ and the armed groups they control; it also claims that funds from the mines have been channelled to militant groups, including the Taliban, in return for these groups not seeking to directly capture these vital sources of revenue. According to the report, there is even a possibility that ISIS, who are purportedly active in Badakhshan, regard these mines as being a potential revenue source. Finally, the report also emphasises the role played by traders from Afghanistan, and especially the Panjshir valley, which borders Badakhshan, in the smuggling of lapis to markets across Asia, especially in Pakistan and China. Overall the report argues that lapis should be regarded as a ‘conflict mineral’ and that there is therefore an urgent need for further government regulation and control over the mines.

The report quite rightly makes the case for Afghanistan developing laws relating to the mineral sector: doing so would allow all of the country’s people to benefit from its many precious national resources, including Badakhshan’s lapis lazuli and tourmalines. There are however some ways in which the report’s analysis of the material, as well as its presentation of the wider context, could be further enriched. Because a consideration of these areas for potential improvement reveal wider issues in the ways in which international actors think about and develop policy toward Afghanistan, I wish to draw attention to them here.

Firstly, and perhaps most seriously, the report argues that lapis lazuli mining is a source of conflict in the region without seeking to assess its relative significance in relationship to other flows of illegal or illicit commodities. Most obviously, as Jonathan Goodhand has demonstrated on the basis of research conducted over several years, Badakhshan is an important locale for the production of opium and heroin.[2] The region is also the home of individuals and groups involved in the transportation of these drugs to Tajikistan, and thereon to Russia and the West. At the same time, Badakhshan’s border with Afghanistan also means that it has been an important region through which Taliban fighters have passed — a journey, as Antonio Giustozzi has demonstrated, that involves the payment of a fee (or tax) to local leaders.[3] To isolate lapis as a source of conflict without exploring these other important revenue providers in the region, or the relationship of these to each other, renders impossible a fair assessment of the relative significance of the mines to the emergence of current levels of conflict in Badakhshan.

By focusing principally on the strategies and activities of individual commanders involved in battles for control over the mines, secondly, the report gives insufficient emphasis to the significance of the wider geopolitical processes affecting Badakhshan today. Badakhshan is located in a politically precarious region that cuts across not only the nation-states of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, but also the wider regions of South and Central Asia. Badakhshan’s site in this tense geopolitical environment has meant that its people have witnessed and played a role in varying and overlapping forms of conflict and dispute over the past decades. In today’s context, for example, as the report notes, certain valleys, especially Jurm, have become the holdouts of international jihadi fighters, especially from Chechnya and the Central Asian states. These fighters, along with their families, were forced to leave Pakistan’s Federally Associated Tribal Areas after that country’s government launched a military campaign against them in the wake of the attack on Karachi Jinnah International airport on 8 June 2014 (carried out by gunmen of Uzbek origin). For the region’s people, however, these fighters’ presence in their valleys and villages is often thought of as reflecting a more multidimensional ‘political game’ over which they have little or no control. An element of this game is what they talk about as being the opening by ‘the West’ of a southern front with Putin’s Russia. Another element, according to traders from the region with whom I have spoken, arises from China’s recognition of Badakhshan’s potential importance for its ‘New Silk Road’ strategy. A road connecting Badakhshan to China would give the People’s Republic speedy access to Afghanistan’s markets, as well as those beyond. Yet, they say, this prospect is feared by commercial and political elites in the south of Afghanistan who regard the development of this route as threatening their control of the country’s international trade. In this context, such traders argue, militant groups have risen in prominence in Badakhshan and northern Afghanistan. Regardless of whether or not evidence can be mustered that ‘proves’ such claims, the political agency of individuals in Badakhshan, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, are shaped in powerful ways by this broader, geopolitical context. As a trader from the region based in China told me in March 2016, conflict in Badakhshan is about territory (jang-i mantiqawi), not just about lapis. Assessments of the role played by the mines in generating conflict between these men and their groups need to be analysed in this wider geopolitical context. Indeed, Robert Crews argues that a ‘core feature’ of Afghan nationalism is the commitment that the country will always have an ‘immense impact on the world’ and the fortune of humanity.[4]

Thirdly, it is of critical significance that the report argues that traders involved in the sale of lapis should not be ‘scapegoated’ by the Afghan government. Yet the report also highlights the role played by ‘Panjshiri’ smugglers who transport lapis mined in Badakhshan out of the country. To the best of my knowledge, those involved in transporting lapis from Afghanistan and dealing in it globally are not ‘Panjshiri’ per se: they hail largely from a few villages in the upper reaches of the Panjshir valley (most notably Dasht-e Rewat and Safid Sheer). By labelling these traders collectively as ‘Panjshiri’, a regional group of Farsi speakers most commonly associated with the Jamiat party and anti-Soviet jihadi leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the report feeds into and simplistically builds off the ethnic discourses that are a feature of much political conflict in Afghanistan today.

Moreover, men from these villages have been trading in lapis for at least the past forty-five years: they think of themselves as being traders as much as ‘Panjshiris’ or the followers of one or another political faction. One trader aged about fifty-five, and currently based in Hong Kong, told me how he could remember going with his father to Badakhshan in pursuit of lapis in the mid-1970s. Another trader in Hong Kong, now in his seventies, reminisced that after the mujahidin came to power in 1992 he had shunned the offer of a position in the government because he considered himself a trader first and foremost. Over the years in which men from the upper reaches of the Panjshir valley have been involved in the trade in lapis, they have transported the stone in the various contexts: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the control of the country by the Taliban, and so forth. In these circumstances, the traders shifted the routes they use to move lapis: during the 1970s the stone was transported in the bottom of trucks full of wood to the Pakistani city of Peshawar by way of the border post at Landi Kotal; in the 1980s and 90s mule and donkey trains freighted the stone across multiple mountain passes to the Chitral district of northern Pakistan; in recent years the traders have taken steps to export the stone directly to China from Kabul in shipping containers.

These so-called ‘smugglers’ also have an intimate and in-depth knowledge of the global market for lapis: having established networks that connect all the world’s nodes of the market in semi-precious and precious stones (Jaipur, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kaifeng in China, and Kofu in Japan), they are also able to understand the shifting cultural value attached to lapis in varying parts of the world: when a popular musician in China wore a set of lapis jewellery, for example, they told me that the cost of the stone increased dramatically. Today, prices are so low (as a result of high levels of export in the 2000s, and a downturn in China’s economy) that the traders are shutting up their warehouses in Hong Kong and moving their stocks to locations where rental prices are cheaper.

In bringing attention to these details, my aim is not to devolve these traders of responsibility for the violence surrounding the lapis mines. It is important, rather, to recognise that these traders have carried out their work in a greatly varying range of political conditions, all of which have been characterised by a profound lack of security, an absence of the rule of law, and a failure of the government of Afghanistan to develop a coherent policy: not merely towards lapis lazuli and minerals but to the country’s commercial sector more generally. As the report correctly suggests, these traders should not be scapegoated. More crucially, perhaps, the significance of their knowledge and expertise for the future of the mineral sector in Afghanistan deserves greater recognition.

More broadly, the style of the report also reflects the predictable ways in which Afghanistan is represented globally, and, as a result, is unlikely to resonate with the local populace in the way that would ensure that it and comparable pieces of work ultimately affect policy-making within the country. The report is peppered with phrases that mark out Badakhshan’s dynamics as being distinctively ‘Afghan’. The conflict over the mines is thus described as ‘a typically Afghan conflict of bribes, shifting allegiances and sporadic violence’. This impulsive use of the stereotype is disappointing, not least because a strong point of the report is that it focuses on one region of Afghanistan, rather than the entire country or populace. By failing to emphasise what is distinctive about the goings-on in the mines and instead buying into simplistic images of Afghanistan as a space of unbridled corruption, where all political actors inevitably behave in the manner of cynical turncoats, and the use of violence is ubiquitous and without moral boundaries, the report is, unfortunately, unlikely to generate the levels of debate required to encourage Afghanistan’s political leadership to collectively work for a different future for their country.

[1] Global Witness, War in the Treasurer of the People: Afghanistan, Lapis Lazuli and the battle for mineral wealth (Global Witness: London, 2016). The report has been covered in a wide range of media outlets including the BBC and The Guardian.

[2] Jonathan Goodhand, Bandits, Borderlands and Opium Wars: Afghan state-building viewed from the margins (Danish Institute for International Studies: Copenhagen, 2009).

[3] Antonio Giustozzi and Dominique Orsini, ‘Centre-periphery relations in Afghanistan: Badakhshan between patrimonialism and institution-building,’ Central Asian Survey, 28 (1), 2009, pp. 1–16.

[4] R.D. Crews, Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. 311.

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Director of the University of Sussex Asia Centre. He has spent fifteen years conducting research in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, with Benjamin Hopkins, is the author of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier and editor of Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier. His most recent book, Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers, was published by Hurst in March 2016. He is currently PI of an ERC Advanced project entitled: ‘Trust, Global Traders and Commodities in a Chinese International Trade City.’

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