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Talc terror trail

Many of Afghanistan's talc mines are under the control of the Taliban Many of Afghanistan's talc mines are under the control of the Taliban Global Witness
07 Aug
An investigation reveals how the illegal export of talc, used in numerous household products, is providing significant funds to insurgents in Afghanistan

Could baby power be funding terrorism? Potentially yes, according to investigative campaigning organisation Global Witness, which recently probed the talc mining industry in Afghanistan and concluded that talc forms a significant source of income for terror groups such as the Taliban and ISKP (the Afghan wing of the so-called Islamic State). Access to the profitable mineral has led to frequent conflict between these groups, as well as rampant corruption within the local mining industry.

Talc (also known as hydrated magnesium silicate) is used in a diverse range of household products, from plastics and baby powder to cosmetics and paints. One region of the world where the mineral can be found in large quantities, along with chromite and marble, is the Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan. Yet instead of being used to bring wealth into the country and help fund essential development – Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with only $1,900 per capita annual income – the industry has been cornered by terror groups.

The Taliban alone makes an estimated $300million annually thanks to the talc trade, despite the introduction in 2015 of a weakly-enforced ban on exporting these unprocessed minerals. The industry now functions by illegally transporting the mined material – in excess of 560,000 tons in 2016 – across the border to Pakistan by truck, where it can be mixed with legitimate Pakistani talc, then exported to the global market. The United States imported more than 128,000 tons of talc from Pakistan in 2016, making it the country’s primary destination for talc exports, while more than 110,000 tons went to the EU and smaller quantities to South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan.

‘It is difficult to calculate the exact revenue of ISKP mining in Afghanistan, for a number of reasons,’ explains Nick Donovan, campaign director at Global Witness. ‘The sector is shrouded in secrecy and it is extremely difficult to access these mining areas. On top of this, control of different mining areas frequently changes hands between the different actors vying for control of Afghanistan and its lucrative mineral wealth. What did come out strongly from our investigations is that it is a key strategic priority for them going forward to take control of these areas, and as their control in other parts of the Middle East wanes, it is an important one to watch, as well as a worrying wake-up call for Afghanistan’s key international partners.’

Global Witness has laid out a series of suggested actions to prevent the purchasing of talc-based products resulting in money being funnelled back to these groups, including giving local communities a vested interest in the success of legitimate talc mining, strengthening border controls between the two countries, and making the supply chain more transparent so that legitimate Pakistani talc can be distinguished from imported talc from Afghanistan. ‘It is difficult to clean up the supply chains while all talc mines – so far as we could identify – are under the control of the Taliban, or other illegal armed groups such as ISKP,’ continues Donovan. ‘There is certainly, however, a role for international companies to help better regulate and carry out due diligence on the minerals they source. In particular, companies in the middle of supply chains who are buying raw minerals and selling them on for final products could do more to ensure they are carrying out the proper checks and asking the right questions.’ 

This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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