Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News, 2013
As Afghanistan prepares to take full responsibility for security and state functions by the end of 2014, the country’s natural resources are often touted as a major source of future state revenue to substitute for dwindling international aid. There are, however, concerns regarding the ability and willingness of the Afghan government to ensure that extraction is managed in an accountable and sustainable way, and there are indications that mining – and the competition over who gets to do it – may spark new conflicts. In a new report by Afghanistan Watch, Jalil Benish explores how the closure of two of Bamyan’s coalmines, after a Chinese company secured exploitation rights, contributed to increased conflict and insecurity. AAN has pulled out some of the main findings, giving insight into a province that is not as secure as many assume and an industry that does not receive much attention.
The Kilij mine is one of the biggest coalmines in Bamyan province. In April 2008, the Afghan government awarded an agreement on the extraction of its coal to the state-owned Chinese company China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), the same company that won the concession to exploit the Ainak copper mine in Logar province. According to the agreement, MCC will also have exclusive rights to another coalmine, located at Eshposhta. MCC needs the coal to generate electricity for its copper mining in Logar. (1)
The Kilij and Eshposhta mines are situated in the lower part of Kahmard valley which is part of an ethnically diverse region. Kahmard district borders Samangan to the north, Baghlan to the east and Bamyan’s Saighan district to the south. The region has a predominantly Tajik population in Kahmard and Saighan, a large number of Tatars in Samangan’s Ru-ye Do Ab district, and Sunni Hazaras in the bordering areas in Baghlan and some parts of Saighan. A minority population of Shia Hazaras lives in the western part of Saighan and Kahmard, but they are farther from the mining areas and have little involvement in the extraction activities.
The ethnic diversity of Kahmard and Saighan made the area a military stronghold for the Taleban from 1998 to 2001. Many Tajik Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami commanders from the two districts – who had felt marginalised by the previously dominant Hazara-based Hezb-e Wahdat of Abdul Karim Khalili – lent their support to the Taleban during that time in the province.
The Kilij coal mine has been in use for decades, employing many local directly and indirectly. After the fall of the Taleban, however, no specific contractor or person had an overall concession for the mine. Instead individual coal traders, powerful local people, exploited individual shafts, sold the coal in the market and appeared to pay revenue to the Afghan government. To what extent this activity was legal or illegal is not fully clear.
Economic impact of the governmen’s action
On 24 May 2012, the government closed both mines, ostensibly to combat illegal mining. Under the supervision of the police forces and a delegation from the Ministry of Mines, 83 shafts were closed. (2) The closure had a big economic impact on the inhabitants of the region. According to Afghanistan’s to statistical office, Kahmard has 35,300 and Saighan 23,300 inhabitants, many of whom in one way or another had connections to mining extraction. Despite reassurances by the ministry that it would take care of the newly unemployed and would ensure that MCC provided assistance to the affected region, results were meagre: according to the head of the policy directorate of the Ministry of Mines, after several months only three hundred former employees had been provided with alternative employment in mines in the north of the country.(3)
The closure of Kilij and Eshposhta mines occurred suddenly, leaving many people unemployed. It also caused serious fuel shortages for the local population, as the coal price almost doubled. Many people returned to gathering shrubs and wood as their fuel supply for the winter. This in turn further degraded this scarcely wooded, high-altitude region, already affected by annual floods along its deforested slopes.
The closures also increased insecurity and conflict in the area, which already had a history of factional trouble involving local commanders from the pre-Taleban civil wars. (4) In the post-Taleban era, many of them secured roles in the irregular coal mining operations – until the mines were contracted to MCC.
Over the past twelve years, Bamyan has been regarded as one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan. Security incidents were rare and coalition forces’ casualties were low. For that reason, Bamyan was selected as the first province where coalition forces handed over to Afghan security forces, starting on 17 July 2011. The security situation initially remained stable. Four months into the process, Habiba Sarabi, until recently the governor of the province, detected no negative consequences and is quoted in an official statement as saying: “The transition of security responsibility to the Afghan security forces in the province has brought no security issue and the security is as good as before.”
But the security situation had already started to change, particularly in the two districts bordering Baghlan province, Shibar and Kahmard. While only one police casualty was reported in the whole province in 2008 and again in 2009, in 2010 two Afghan policemen were killed, according to the governor’s spokesman. In 2011, this increased to three policemen and two soldiers of the local New Zealand PRT, and in 2012, to twelve Afghan police, six New Zealand soldiers, and four employees of the National Security Department.
Primary and secondary reasons for insecurity
According to Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, the spokesman of Bamyan’s governor, insurgent supply routes are the main source of insecurity in the area. (5) The closure of the mines is, according to him, an aggravating factor. The Taleban and Hezb-e Islami use two main routes to operate in the northern part of Afghanistan. The first crosses from Pakistan into Nuristan, Panjshir, Takhar and Baghlan provinces. Another goes through Maidan-Wardak, Parwan and Baghlan provinces. The second route is shorter; despite the mountains it traverses, the Taleban have used this route frequently in the past two years.
Although neither route directly leads through Bamyan province, both cut through the area in Baghlan close to the Kilij and Eshposhta mines. The terrain between the mines and the main roads in Baghlan is mountainous with minimal government control. Insurgent activity along these supply routes are thus an important driver of insecurity around the mining sites.
General discontent and lack of employment opportunities
The government did little to provide alternative employment for miners and workers. Local development and infrastructure development, two key principles touted by the Ministry of Mines, did not materialise. This negligence not only increased the distance between the central government and local people, it also stirred anti-government sentiments and action.
The workers, having lost their main income due to the mine closures, returned to impoverished communities, which were in many cases unable to reabsorb them. The newly unemployed also seem prone to disputes and banditry. Shamsuddin, a resident of Do Ab village in Kahmard who transported coal in his lorry, said that the roads are no longer safe “You can now witness disputes among people every day, while before the closure of the mines everybody was busy working.” Shamsuddin himself was robbed once, and knows of robbers being arrested or killed by the police. According to this village resident, before the closure of the mines, the Do Ab area was bustling with people; now it has gone quiet.
The newly unemployed and those who have taken up banditry provide fertile recruitment ground for anti-government armed forces like the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami that have stepped up their activities in the region, as illustrated below.
Local traders and commanders deprived of livelihoods
Kilij and Eshposhta mines were not only a major source of income for the local population, but also for many of the local commanders. They sold extraction permits or owned semi-legal shafts in the mines, from which they extracted and sold coal. Hamidullah Lali, the director of the mines department in Bamyan, recalled “when we arrived [in May 2012] with 150 soldiers from the Mines Protection Brigade to close the mines, it appeared that all the people around the mining sites were armed, which was very threatening.” According to Lali, almost everyone who was involved in controlling extraction from the mines had at least 40 to 50 armed men. Many of them now appear to be looking for other illegal ways to keep the money coming.
One of the powerful local figures who had profited from the mines was Saleh Bey. He is from Do Ab village, situated between Kilij and Eshposhta mines. He would buy permits from the directorate of coal extraction in Pul-e Khumri and sell them on to others in Kilij. Saleh Bey was killed in 2011. Another local powerbroker affected by the closure of the mine was Mawlawi Mohammad Nabi. He died in 2012. One of his followers, Mawlawi Hamidullah from Tala-o-Barfak, is now reported to be the Taleban’s shadow governor in Baghlan.
One of the largest security incidents in Bamyan province since 2012 was apparently directly related to the mine closure. It involved Haji Abdullah, a resident of Shibar district who owned a shaft in Kilij mine, and Abdullah Kalta, a commander from Barfak in Baghlan who was related to him. According to Mohammad Ali Lakzai, Bamyan’s police chief, there had been a report that alleged that Haji Abdullah had received “explosive materials from the Haqqani network”, after which he became the target of a joint operation by Afghan security forces and Western troops. When the forces came to arrest him, commander Kalta who previously extorted money from shaft owners and who had taken to robbing after the two mines were closed, came to his rescue. He laid an ambush, during which ten policemen and two coalition soldiers were killed. According to Lakzai, Kalta was later killed in a coalition airstrike in Shekari in November 2012.
According to a (different) Abdullah, a coal trader who lives in a neighbouring village, Haji Abdullah had had no previous insurgent links: “Haji Abdullah owned a tunnel in Kilij mine and he did all the mining and loading work there. He had no background as a Taleb, nor did he have any known ties with the insurgent groups. He was a hard-working man. Several times I bought coal from him. But following the closure of Kilij mine, he approached the Haqqani group and caused these incidents. He fled to Pakistan before the police and foreign forces were able to arrest him.”
Grudges held by newly unemployed
Police chief Lakzai links other security incidents in the province to the closure of the mines “There was an explosion in the mining area in which two New Zealand soldiers lost their lives. Before the closure of the mines there were no such incidents in the area.” Furthermore, he says,there were several attacks under the cover of night on the Shibar district centre: “Those behind the attacks were angered by the closure of the mines. In another incident in Balagh village we lost five of our security personnel. We arrested the person behind the incident; he was a former worker of the mine. We confiscated a remote control device, cords and other bomb making material from his home.” Abdul Jamil Tabish, provincial director of Save the Children in Bamyan, said: “I was in Kahmard district when two IEDs were discovered there. Locals believed that the placing of the explosives was the work of those who previously worked as miners or transported the coals, but who now hold a grudge because of the closure of the mines.”
Fully linking the deterioration of security in Bamyan to the closure of the two coal mines would be going too far. But clearly the government’s award of the contract of a major national asset to a foreign company without assuring that basic needs of the local population (like jobs and access to affordable fuel) are met, has led to suffering and discontent in an already volatile area. It sets a negative example for the planned extraction of the country’s mineral wealth, necessary to help close the expected post-2014 funding gap as well as to improve the social situation of the most vulnerable in the population.
Jalil Benish is the Executive Director of Afghanistan Watch, an Afghan NGO focusing on human rights and transitional justice. He has written extensively on transitional justice, human rights, conflict and politics in Afghanistan.
The full report by Afghanistan Watch “Dawa ya Bala? Implications of the Kilij Coal Mine Closure for Bamyan’s Security Situation” can be found here.
(1) On 25 May 2008 the Anak copper mine concession was awarded to MCC. This is the biggest concession awarded by the Ministry of Mines so far. It includes establishing power plants for generating electricity and building railroads from Torkham border to Shirkhan border in the northern part of the country. Both the Kilij and Eshposhta mines were included in the concession to provide electricity for the Anak mining activity, with its power plants expected to generate 400 megawatts of electricity. The precise details of the Anak copper mine agreement, however, were never disclosed.
(2) Bakhtar News Agency, on 28 May 2012, quoted a source in the Ministry of Mines as saying “The Ministry of Mines in Afghanistan closed un-official coal mining regions in Eshposhta and Kilij under the supervision of Nasir Ahmad Durani, the deputy minister, on 24 May 2012. The areas are now being controlled by the security forces.”
(3) There are other government-run coalmines in Dara-ye Suf (Samangan) and Herat.
(4) Before the emergence of the Taleban, people surrounding the mines mainly affiliated with Hezb-e Islami and Jamiat-e Islami. Several of them later affiliated with the Taleban regime.
(5) Ahmadi cited the example of the Ghandak Jalmish valley, where one bank of the river belongs to Bamyan and the other to Baghlan “When we drive out militants from our side of the river and they are pushed into Baghlan province, there are no security forces from Baghlan to deal with them. We cannot go into Baghlan province due to the administrative jurisdiction. We have brought up this issue during several co-ordination meetings with the authorities in Baghlan province but they do not take the issue in Barfak very seriously. Barfak is a far-flung area in Baghlan province. Even when the insurgents from Barfak area want to surrender to the government, they come to Bamyan province rather than going to Baghlan.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020