According to a recent Pentagon report, the Islamic State’s (IS) activities in Afghanistan remain exploratory, with limited recruiting efforts. Although the capabilities of the Islamic State’s recently minted Khorasan Province may be limited, the group is clearly attempting to gain a toehold in Afghanistan. IS has dominated headlines in Afghan media for the past several weeks, with multiple reports of the group clashing with Taliban fighters in Nangarhar and a Taliban letter warning IS to stay out of Afghanistan. There is speculation that the Afghan government is exaggerating the IS threat to draw increased foreign aid, but the group’s presence is undeniable, and the worsening security situation could pave the way for IS to enhance its operations
The Islamic State’s motives in Afghanistan remain ambiguous, and it is unclear if the group is capable of holding swaths of territory while battling Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban. However, it is entirely possible that IS will seek to tap the country’s poorly monitored mining industry to fund their primary operations in Iraq and Syria. Afghanistan sits atop an estimated $3 trillion worth of mineral resources, ranging from copper and emeralds to rare earth metals. The majority of the country’s deposits are undeveloped, abandoned awaiting new contracts, or mined by local community members.
On June 8, Minister of Mines and Petroleum Daud Shah Saba told Afghan Members of Parliament that the Islamic State poses a “grave threat” to Afghanistan’s burgeoning mining sector. Saba stated that security challenges continue to prevent the government from monitoring 100 of 339 mining contracts. Meanwhile, international investors have backed out of several contracts or raised concerns over insecurity. Endemic corruption and a lack of coordination between various ministries and the Afghan National Security Forces continue to leave Afghanistan’s mines open to illegal activity.
Insecurity in remote provinces, particularly Nangarhar, has already caused a significant spike in illegal mining in recent months. Officials in Nangarhar told Pajhwok News Agency in January that they fear all of the province’s mines will be looted if the insecurity persists. This year’s Taliban spring offensive is the most potent since 2011, and IS activity is seemingly highest in Nangarhar. As such, the situation in Nangarhar will likely continue to deteriorate in the next several months.
While it is unlikely that IS will seize control of large government and corporate mines, as they did with oil fields in Iraq and Syria, illegal community-mined mineral deposits are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. IS has a noted proclivity for tapping into local resource markets not typically exploited by terrorist organizations. For instance, IS seized control of the Akashat Phosphate Mine in Iraq’s Al-Anbar province and cement plants in Iraq and Syria. The illicit trade of gems such as emeralds and rubies or industrial minerals such as copper and chromite is big business with decades-old smuggling routes from all corners of Afghanistan. According to a report released in April by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, illegal mining has cost Afghanistan at least $300 million annually since the fall of the Taliban regime. Historically, Pakistan has been the largest recipient of illegally mined Afghan minerals. Pakistan has no real incentive to stymie the illicit trade of minerals such as chromite, as it ultimately benefits the country’s construction and manufacturing industries.
Khorasan Province’s leadership is predominantly comprised of former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan members such as Hafez Saeed Khan and Hafiz Dolat Khan. As such, they have longstanding ties to militants and smugglers on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, which would allow them to transfer illicit minerals across the porous border to vital shipping outlets.
Although there is no clear evidence to indicate that IS has begun exploiting the country’s lucrative mining industry, conditions are becoming more favorable as the security landscape continues to deteriorate. Illegal mining has long been a source of income for militant groups across the country. Given IS’s propensity for exploiting natural resources and their expanding presence, it is easy to conceive that Afghanistan may be the next frontier for funding their operations elsewhere. With no clear strategy in place, it is unlikely that Afghanistan could prevent such financing activities in its more remote provinces. Either way, Afghanistan’s mining industry and economy will suffer with any expansion of IS operations.
Brian M. Perkins is a South and Central Asia Analyst for a political risk consultancy and a freelance journalist specializing in militancy, terrorism, and international development.