World

The Great Afghan Gem Heist: How the War Led to the Pillaging of Afghanistan's Precious Stones

In the last eight years, Afghanistan's precious stones and artifacts have been stolen at record levels.

KABUL , Dec 23 (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.

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.

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 destabilized 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. (END/2009)

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World