The Taliban Stand To Make a Fortune From Gatekeeping Afghanistan’s Natural Resources
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Afghanistan is sitting on an estimated $1 trillion in natural resources – including gold, oil, coal, copper, timber, precious gemstones, marble, onyx, and vast lithium deposits – a potentially lucrative cash cow that the international community can’t allow the country’s Taliban rulers to exclusively control.

Transparent and accountable growth of Afghanistan’s extractive industries could contribute to the economic development needed to aid the nearly 70% of Afghans who couldn't meet their basic needs in 2023. But instead, the Taliban have callously profited as gatekeepers to the country’s natural resource wealth since retaking control of the country in 2021.

As a series of new reports by the George W. Bush Institute shows, the world cannot afford to neglect the intense suffering of the Afghan people and the profound destabilizing impacts the Taliban’s brutal and corrupt regime has imposed, particularly given assessments that Afghanistan is again becoming a haven for terrorism.

Preventing the Taliban from abusing these resources and cutting off their access to other forms of corrupt and illicit financing is one of the biggest untapped pressure points the international community can target to improve the lives of Afghans – especially women and children – who are suffering under the Taliban’s brutal and misogynistic rule.

The United States, its allies, and the international community must target the sources of funding that the Taliban are using to line their own pockets and sustain their brutal rule in Afghanistan. That includes access to the wealth stemming from the country’s natural resources.

The Taliban have been on a quest to rebrand themselves as the legitimate authorities of Afghanistan to access the international funding they desperately want and need. Claiming they would root out the country’s historic corruption and posing as government bureaucrats effective at delivering services to the Afghan people are crucial to this effort.

But despite their claims, the Taliban have only perpetuated the country’s pervasive corruption and undercut the delivery of essential services. And they’re leveraging access to the country’s natural resources wealth as a lure to gain international recognition. So the world must not take the bait.

The Taliban tossed aside previous efforts to establish a more transparent and accountable regulatory framework for developing Afghanistan’s resources when they seized control of the country. At the same time, they appointed their own leaders to run Afghanistan’s government ministries and assumed the authority to issue government licenses and award extraction rights.

They have set up front companies, accepted bribes, pressured the private sector, and used their control of the ministries to direct revenue to themselves and their own networks of supporters. In many instances, these arrangements involve foreign actors all too eager to lock up long-term access to Afghanistan’s mineral and natural resource wealth.

For example, two separate oil extraction awards involving partnerships with Chinese firms appear to have been made to companies directly linked to Taliban leaders and their cronies.

First, in January 2023, the Taliban awarded oil extraction rights in the Amu Darya Basin to a partnership between China’s state-owned Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas (CAPEIC) and Afghanistan’s state-owned Afghanistan Oil and Gas Corporation. The Taliban replaced more than 400 technical and fiduciary employees at the Afghanistan company that were hired by the previous government. Taking their place were Taliban members and a network of individuals linked to Heydatullah Badri, the Taliban-appointed head of Afghanistan’s central bank, according to the independent Afghan media outlet Hasht-e-Subh.

Second, Bashir Noorzai, once Afghanistan’s top heroin trafficker and a longtime Taliban ally, is also said to have secured gold and oil extraction rights through his secret involvement in a joint venture between two Afghan and Chinese companies and thanks to his ties to the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, according to Foreign Policy.

Opacity around mining concessions and other government-issued licenses increases the likelihood that any development of natural resources in Afghanistan will primarily line the pockets of Taliban leadership, Taliban loyalists, and the foreign enablers who have agreed to partner with them.

This wealth is captured at the expense of funding crucial services, such as health care and education for the Afghan people – a cost disproportionately born by women and children, as well as other communities marginalized by the Taliban.

As an important first step, the United States and other countries that oppose the Taliban’s heinous rule should tighten, update, and improve enforcement of U.N. and state-level sanctions against individual Taliban leaders and institutions under their control.

The United States, along with the dozens of countries that have adopted Global Magnitsky sanctions, could also apply targeted sanctions to Taliban leaders in response to their institution of gender apartheid and gross human rights violations.

More action must be taken to curtail the Taliban’s mafia-like corruption and ensure the militant group lacks access to the resources they crave to entrench themselves deeper into power.

Jessica Ludwig is Director of Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute.