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CORRUPTION: The Great Afghan Gem Heist

KABUL , Dec 22 2009 (IPS) - In the last eight years Afghanistan’s precious stones and artifacts have been pillaged at record levels. Thieves, both foreign and domestic, often steal the riches from under the noses of officials.

The eight-year long war has also contributed hugely to the illicit excavation and trade of Afghanistan's precious minerals. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

The eight-year long war has also contributed hugely to the illicit excavation and trade of Afghanistan's precious minerals. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

They end up spread far and wide, from East Asia to Western Europe. Some Afghan government officials even play a key role in the illegal excavation and smuggling process.

But the biggest driver is the war that has dragged on for eight years. Security forces understandably spend the vast amount of their resources on fighting insurgents. As a result, smugglers have free rein in some provinces to pick the land clean of precious gems, stones and antiquities.

Alaf Gul, a resident of Nuristan says that local authorities, armed men, and even Taliban groups in his province dig up precious stones and other mineral resources.

“They sell the stones to traffickers who come through this area,” he says. He presumes that the items are then exported to other countries.

Porous Borders

Despite the conflict on both sides of the Durand Line, it is Afghanistan's long, porous borders that are the main obstacle to ever truly shutting down the illegal gem and artifact trade. The insurgents and warlords who control large swaths of the border pave the way for smugglers, who often line the pockets of whoever is in charge of border crossings.

Mohammad Yaqub, the acting security commander in Khost, says that his forces just don't have the resources to stop the smuggling.

"There is no way we can block [the border]," Yaqub says. "Khost has such long borders and many ways to get out of the country that do not involve roads or mountain passes. Controlling this is a difficult task."

Khost's border with Pakistan is 180 kms. Yaqub says that where his men are stationed in formal checkpoints or customs houses, there is no smuggling. But there are far too many ways in and out of Afghanistan to put checkpoints at every potential point of exit or entry.

He suggests that the Kabul government establish a special unit aimed at intercepting smugglers, because provincial police and local army units have their hands full with day-to-day security matters.

The central government has started a new initiative to curb smuggling. It comes in the form of energising the private sector, to create a legal market for the trade in Afghanistan's precious stones. The programme is underway in Khost and Nangrahar and officials in these provinces, as well as businessmen and heads of associations, say that the markets have already gone a long way toward cracking down on the smuggling.

Dr. Mukhlis Ahmad, a member of the Nangrahar Businessman's Association, says, "After the market was created, all of the precious stones of Nangrahar go through this market, where they are sold."

Mukhlis says that prior to the creation of this legal market, stones were being illegally transported by the hundreds to Peshawar.

The head of the Nangrahar Businessman's' Association says that even transporting stones across provincial lines has also become better regulated since the inception of the government regulated gem markets. Just taking gems to Jalalabad for instance, requires the permission of the local business association.

But not all attempts at privatisation have been a complete success. After the legal trade market was established, the Khost government signed a three-year contract with Ganj Huzur, a company that would dig precious stones legally and bring them to market. The company is also required to employ hundreds of people to enforce smuggling laws. Still, the smuggling continued under Huzur's watch.

A smuggler in Tanyu, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that he has been illegally obtaining and transporting stones over the border for years, undeterred by any of the government's attempts to stop him.

"In the beginning we were smuggling truck-loads of stones. After [Huzur] began work, they set up check-points so we couldn't use trucks anymore. Then we began to use camels and donkeys. Finally, we started using motorcycles because their cars can't catch our motorcycles."

Gul says that in nearby Noor Gram district, area commanders and Malaks -village elders – have the authority to put a stop to this, but choose not to do so because they profit from the illicit trade.

Muhibullah Wakeelzada, a resident of Nandraj Valley, Nuristan, says that the Malaks, smugglers and military commanders in his area “join hands” to loot and export Afghanistan’s precious stones and artifacts.

“All day they take these things,” he says. “The government can’t stop them. They dig precious stones and sell them to Pakistan.”

Local people say that there are many precious stones in the Nandraj Valley. Ghulam Sakhi, a tribal leader and advocate during Zahir Shah’s reign, says, “People and smugglers from Laghman, Kunar, Paktia and Nangrahar are coming here. They work here and take the precious stones.”

According to Sakhi, there are illegal mines in the area where the government has little control or oversight. “The government is weak here,” he says. “Everything is being stolen, looted, because the mines are in areas where the government has no authority.”

He adds that explosives for excavating the mines are brought from regions where the government does have control, but there isn’t enough regulation on those materials either.

Mamoor Shah Wali, of Laghman, is a former member of the Afghan National Army in Nuristan. He says that the mountains in the area are riddled with precious stones and illegal mines which extract them. “The people who run these mines are doing so only to fill their pockets.”

The Waigal district of Nuristan is particularly attractive to looters, who often come to the area heavily armed.

“They have betrayed the nation,” Wali says of the armed thieves. “If they are left to their own devices, all of the wealth and resources of our area will be looted.”

Even road crews in Nuristan have noticed an increase in traffic of those who have come to do business in Afghanistan’s pillaged natural resources.

“They sell these precious stones for very high prices,” says one road builder who asked not to be identified, but has seen an influx of “foreign businessmen” coming through the area to purchase precious stones and gems. “These Pakistani businessmen sell them for a fortune in Peshawar.”

Wakhat News recently ran a story about a soldier who worked with a local commander in Nuristan who had a second job looting ancient artifacts.

Though the soldier would not identify his commander, he told Wakhat that, “The commander looted every mountain and all the artifacts [in the area.] He sold these things, and precious stones cheaply to foreign businessmen.”

According to the soldier, who remained anonymous in the Wakhat report, smugglers are happy even for a small amount of money. The fact that they are selling pieces of Afghanistan’s history or natural wealth seems almost beside the point.

According to Afghan law, deserts, rivers, mountains and mines (both exploited and otherwise,) belong to the government. The government is working to use the natural mineral resources to build economic stability, and illegal looting only undermines that effort.

“The government is investing in coal and precious stone mines,” says one resident of Panjshir. “When we work in a government mine, we can earn a piece of bread, legally. People are employed in the digging.”

But the eight-year long war has also contributed hugely to the illicit excavation and trade of Afghanistan’s precious minerals. Areas that have been destabilised in recent years, Logar for example, have seen sharp increases in the illegal mining and export of precious stones and artifacts. Ironically, the war has also hurt the ability of smugglers to turn a profit on their ill-gotten loot.

After the Pakistani army launched operations against Taliban and insurgent groups in Swat and Waziristan, the fighting shut down a major smuggling route out of Afghanistan. One smuggler from Khost, who wanted to remain anonymous, says that the operations in western Pakistan have crippled his business, cutting the sale price of precious stones in half.

“If the war continues,” he says, “our business will be greatly damaged.”

The conflict has also helped curb the illegal excavation of precious stones, because villagers know that their work will not be as handsomely rewarded. Laiq Khan, the director of mines in Khost, says that the new, lower price of stones has caused many part-time illegal miners to quit the business altogether.

“It is no longer worth it for them,” he says. Still, Khan adds, it is impossible to shut the trade down entirely, especially in the midst of a war.

“There is no way to avoid it,” he says. “Before, people were smuggling the stones out of the country using animals and security forces could sometimes stop them. But now that we are involved in fighting, there is no one to catch them.”

Khan says that he’s shared this concern with security forces in Khost, but has yet to receive a response.

*This was originally published in the Killid Weekly. Killid, part of the independent Killid Group in Afghanistan, and IPS are partners since 2004.

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