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Rock and a hard place: Tribal troubles of sitting on a fortune

Zarwali Khoshnood
Khost province should be cashing in on its vast deposits of chromite, but locals say so far the wealth has only worsened tribal rivalries as the government struggles to exercise control.
10.04.2012  |  Khost
Plentiful and problematic: Khost's chromite reserves can create more conflict than stability. (Photo: Khoshnood). Story lead photo: A US Army truck passes through a hostile village in Khost, but commanders may not know if it is insurgents or angry tribesmen who shoot at them. (Photo: Allen)
Plentiful and problematic: Khost's chromite reserves can create more conflict than stability. (Photo: Khoshnood). Story lead photo: A US Army truck passes through a hostile village in Khost, but commanders may not know if it is insurgents or angry tribesmen who shoot at them. (Photo: Allen)

Ziarat Gul still remembers how Khost locals some 15 years ago first found the chromite deposits that many hoped would bring prosperity, but which so far only fuelled violence in the area. 

“We were breaking and excavating common stones for construction purposes when we accidentally came across this precious stone. Then we showed the stone to someone, who then showed it to the provincial officials of directorate of mines and industries,” he said.

“After the identification of the stone the officials pressed very hard to establish their control over this precious stone and the surrounding area. But there were acute problems among prominent local tribes over the rights to the commodity and when the mines and industries’ officials learnt about these problems they abandoned the mines and gave up trying to assert control over them.”

The mountains around Khost contain large reserves of chromite, a precious ore that is used to render steel harder, making it widely used in many industries, including the production of machinery. Like much of the country's largely untapped mineral bounty,  the chromite could play its part in plugging gaps in the state budget that will appear as foreign aid draws down. The government expects mining to make up for almost half of Afghanistan's economy in about 20 years.

But many fear that prevailing corruption, the lack of control over many areas by the central government and local tribal rivalries can all turn these precious resources into a curse if instead they fuel local conflicts over who gets to exploit them.

Khost as a case study

In Khost, locals who have no other job prospects have informally exploited the mineral, with age-old smuggler networks moving it across the nearby border to Pakistan.

But the deposits have also fueled violence between tribes trying to establish control over the area, at times overlapping with the Taliban-led insurgency against NATO troops.

“We are not allowed to take advantage of these precious stones, nor does the government seem to be doing anything to exploit this commodity.” Khost resident. 

Ever since, there has been fighting between tribes like the Tanai and Wazir, which in places span the border, Gul continued. “Following a series of conflicts, security posts were established in the area, and now both tribes are prevented from excavating the stone.”

Locals say that on the one hand they are content that the central government is trying to take charge of the precious reserves, as this curbs fighting between tribes over the resources. Two were killed and more than ten were injured in recent fighting over chromite deposits between the Tanai and Wazir tribes.

But they also say that unless the government starts development projects that provide jobs to communities, locals will hinder exploitation until they feel they sufficiently benefit from the minerals hidden in the mountains above their villages.

Who's shooting at who?

Meanwhile, international forces found themselves caught up in tensions and conflicts that were separate from insurgent activity across the region.

Police in the hills. State authorities claim to have brought the chromite mining under control, but critics say bribery secures safe passage for illegal shipments. (Photo: Allen)

“As the central government reaches for vast, untapped resources beneath the soil in order to bring economic and security stability to remote areas such as Khost, it inevitably clashes with a tribal system that honours only precedent land ownership and the current needs of its people“, said Gabriel Stultz, a former lieutenant with the US 101st Airborne Division who was stationed in Khost in 2008/09.

“During my first week on ground as an infantry platoon leader, I was caught in a literal crossfire that would force me for the next 12 months to ask at the outset of every subsequent fight: who is actually shooting at me? Unfortunately, the distinction between insurgents and disgruntled villagers was never evident.”

Local observers say that communities are driven by unemployment and poverty to work in small make-shift mines to provide for their families, even though they are aware that mines, mountains and deserts are the property of the state.

The government has awarded an Afghan company with exploiting the chromite, but work has been halted. However, a provincial official at the directorate of mines and industries said they still collect nearly three million dollars on a monthly basis and hand the money over to the central government's Ministry of Finance.

Compared to the past there is a considerable decrease in the degree of smuggling of these stones, said the official, who did not wish to be named as he was not authorized to talk to the media.

“Security officials will not allow anyone in the area to unprofessionally excavate or work in the mines, nor will they allow anyone to illegally transport or smuggle these mineral products to Pakistan and other countries,” he said.

Ahmad Khan Wafa, the head of Khost’s Tani district, told Afghanistan Today that the security forces were cooperating with local tribal councils to exercise full control of the area. 

“The security forces in our district have confiscated dozens of trucks along the border trying to smuggle chromite out of the country. Additionally we enabled local people to protect the area and mines against illegal mining and smuggling,” said Wafa, who claimed that the state now had the chromite situation in hand.

A different picture on the ground

Who will get the largest chunk of the chromite proceeds, the state, Khost's population, or the smugglers? (Photo: Khoshnood)

But others insist that corruption is rampant, rendering many government measures inefficient. Nazar Sharif Ojat, a former district chief, said that during his time in office a large number of rivals tried hard to be appointed in his place, as the bribes officials receive from smugglers made the position seen as being lucrative.

And despite the proud boasts of complete government control of the area, according to US analysts' estimates, the Afghan government still loses 20 thousand dollars a day from illegal chromite excavation in Khost, most of which bypasses the population.

Locals are increasingly frustrated that government efforts to exploit the wealth of their mountains have reached a dead end over conflicts with local tribes and communities.

“We are not allowed to take advantage of these precious stones, nor does the government seem to be doing anything to exploit this commodity,” said resident Ghafor Arghawan.