KABUL, Afghanistan — The local people called the militia’s takeover of the giant lapis mine in northeastern Badakhshan Province a white coup — easy and bloodless. Perhaps, but the seizure has become a lesson in how the lack of accountability and rule of law in Afghanistan can turn bounty into ruin.
Riding waves of excitement after a 2010 report by the United States military that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth could be worth as much as $1 trillion, the Lajwardeen Mining Company won a 15-year contract in 2013 to extract lapis lazuli in Badakhshan. For thousands of years, Afghanistan has been one of the chief sources of lapis lazuli, a prized blue gemstone associated with love and purity and admired by poets as well as jewelers.
Valued at about $125 million a year in 2014, the lapis trade had the potential to be worth at least double that, and Lajwardeen, owned by an Afghan family in the import-export business for three generations, saw a great opportunity. Yet within 21 days of officially beginning its work, the company lost the mine to a local militia supported by the Afghan political elite.
In the two years since, according to interviews with company employees, Afghan officials and militia commanders, the government has done little to restore the mine to the company. Lapis is still being mined, with the rent split between the militia and the Taliban, who have established a strong foothold in a province long resistant to them.
With the plunge in global commodity prices deflating some of the enthusiasm for Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, the initial excitement has faded into broader — and, among Afghans, all-too-familiar — concerns over mismanagement, impunity and corruption.
The country has failed to make even the most basic legal and regulatory changes, and even President Ashraf Ghani recently expressed fear that “we are faced with the curse of natural resources.”
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