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Taliban wage war over coal in Northern Afghanistan

The Battle For Cash Pits The Kabul Extremists Against Hazara Locals.

Men in Kabul’s Deh Sabz district work on the back of a coal truck on June 29. Most of the coal will be exported to Pakistan.STEFANIE GLINSKI PHOTOS FOR FOREIGN POLICY

YAKAWLANG, Afghanistan—Fighting has been ongoing in the remote Balkhab district of Afghanistan’s northern Sar-e-Pol province over the past several weeks, part of a showdown between a cash-strapped central government run by the Taliban and locals who are trying to keep their own cut of the district’s riches. At the heart of the dispute is a battle over coal mines, and who gets to profit from them, trapping local residents in the middle.

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last August, which subsequently resulted in international sanctions and the freezing of funds, the group has been in desperate need of money, and resources in Balkhab are providing just that. The district is home to five operational coal mines, according to Ministry of Mines and Petroleum spokesperson Mufti Esmatullah Burhan, as well as to one of the world’s largest copper reserves.

Coal extraction had long been ongoing but started spiking three months ago, with dozens of heavily loaded trucks navigating the rough mountain terrain to Kabul every day before heading east to Pakistan, where most of the coal is sold. Afghan coal exports to its neighbor have surged since Indonesia, a big exporter of the type of thermal coal used in power plants, imposed an export ban earlier this year due to a domestic supply crunch. Even after Indonesia lessened its export restrictions, Afghan coal has been attractive for Pakistan due to sky-high fuel prices and long distances from other potential suppliers.

In the past, local power brokers had found it easier to siphon off income from informal taxes from the coal trade, but the Taliban’s government in Kabul has made an effort to consolidate revenues, with all potential tax income heading straight to Kabul—much to the dismay of men like Mawlawi Mehdi.

A long-term troublemaker in the district, Mehdi joined the Taliban in 2019 after falling out with the previous government’s local leaders. He was appointed as Balkhab’s shadow governor in 2020, even before the Taliban took control of the district or the rest of the country, making headlines as an ethnic Hazara leader in a movement dominated by Pashtuns. At the time, he was deemed a traitor among his own community; Balkhab has a large population of Hazaras, who suffered mightily the first time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and who have continued to be on the receiving end of violence and abuse this time around. When the Taliban took over last year, he was essentially demoted to intelligence chief in neighboring Bamiyan province yet kept in close contact with people in his home district. He was fired in April, after several negotiation attempts, and has since returned home to Balkhab, where he gathered supporters who have, in the past several weeks, been fighting the Taliban.

Mehdi’s disputes with authorities aren’t new. Under the former government, and before joining the Taliban, he clashed with local authorities over coal reserves and money he tried to extort, said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“But now the Taliban is on an intense campaign to consolidate resources. As part of it, they removed taxation by local Taliban actors to centralize it. That’s where the issues with Mehdi began,” Bahiss said. “He wanted to continue operating under the insurgency model of taxing local resources.”

The Taliban have become hypersensitive to any threats, he said. “They focus on consolidating power by monopolizing resources, squashing perceived threats, and preempting future threats. When it comes to Balkhab, the group has made monopoly over resources a red line.”

Coal trucks from Balkhab, Afghanistan, enter Bamiyan province’s Yakawlang district on their way to Kabul on June 21.

What began as a dispute has spiraled out of control. The Taliban say they are in control of Balkhab. Locals say the Taliban have deployed troops to fight Mehdi and forces loyal to him, searching houses and sending scores of civilians fleeing into the mountains. They say Taliban fighters in Balkhab have little regard for the local Hazara population. Many displaced people have since been stuck without food, water, or shelter; local media reported that at least four children died from starvation and exposure, while others are on the brink. Mehdi’s forces have launched several attacks against the Taliban, and casualties have been recorded on both sides. Reports and videos emerging on social media also show the Taliban attacking and killing civilians.

“Reports of executions of some civilians in Balkhab are extremely worrying as they seem to be part of a pattern of the Taliban failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants or imposing collective punishments in areas where there has been armed resistance,” said Patricia Gossman, Human Rights Watch’s associate Asia director.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan tweeted on June 29 that it was “concerned by reports of civilian harm, displacement, allegations of serious human rights violations and property damage due to [the] recent outbreak of conflict in #Balkhab district.”

People living in villages in Bamiyan province said Taliban insurgents have started using local schools and houses as shelter for the night. Truck drivers on their way to pick up coal in Balkhab sit by the roadside and wait for the fighting to cease.

“The main road to Balkhab is closed, and the only way to move out is through the mountains, but many people trying to leave Balkhab have been arrested by the Taliban,” said one source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Coal truckers report that they have been able to move sporadically regardless. Some say they are afraid of the fighting; others brush it aside—violence isn’t new in Afghanistan.

In Kabul’s Deh Sabz district, exactly 20 men sit in the shade of two large trucks; all of them have just returned from Balkhab, saying there had been delays due to road closures, checkpoints, and slower-than-usual tax processing “due to the conflict.” The line of trucks carrying all kinds of goods is miles-long in Deh Sabz, but few have arrived from Balkhab in recent days.

“For each [metric ton] of coal we had to pay 1,500 afghani [$17] to Mehdi’s people, on top of the 3,600 afghani [$40] in taxes that the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum takes,” said coal trader Mohammed Yasin, 42, holding up a stamped tax slip he received from the local tax office in Balkhab. He didn’t have a separate receipt for the expenses paid to Mehdi, since those “were a bribe.”

“Mehdi wanted to profit from the coal,” said Yasin, who arrived in Kabul with 42 metric tons of coal in his truck, all headed to Pakistan.

The Taliban’s Finance Ministry charges an export duty of 30 percent on each metric ton exported and increased coal prices from $90 a metric ton to $200 last week, though Afghan coal is still comparatively cheap at about half the international market value due to fewer export opportunities and, at times, lower quality.

“Out of Afghanistan’s 80 coal mines, 17 are currently in use, and five of these are in Balkhab, where coal is easily accessible at about half a meter under the ground,” said Burhan, the Taliban spokesperson. He added that Afghanistan was currently supplying 10 percent of Pakistan’s daily need for coal, or 10,000 metric tons. “Much of our money is frozen in U.S. accounts, so we use our mines to make an income.”

But Afghanistan’s mines haven’t just added to the Taliban’s income and become a source of violent friction with regional power brokers. The mines also provide a livelihood to many people in Balkhab, as well as in neighboring Bamiyan province. That’s one reason the conflict in recent weeks is so worrisome for people who are already suffering a catastrophic economic and humanitarian breakdown across the country.

Mohammed Ali, a 55-year-old farmer who lives in Bamiyan’s Khoja Bidak village—high up in the mountains and severely affected by water shortages—said that with recent failed harvests, he has been surviving on his son’s income. “For the past six weeks, he has been working in Balkhab, making 450 afghani ($5) a day extracting coal,” Ali said.

But he’s worried. He talks to his 28-year-old son infrequently; the village has no electricity besides a few old solar panels. “I heard about the fighting, and I hope he’s fine.”