As Afghanistan battles economic crisis Islamists increase exports to generate revenue with the help of child labour
Dozens of men and boys, covered head to toe in coal dust, stream in and out of the mine shafts bored deep into a mountain in northern Afghanistan. In the mines below Nahrain in Baghlan province, children as young as 8 work as labourers, loading the fossil fuel on to donkeys who carry it to trucks bound for Kabul. They work with no machinery or safety gear. Thanks to the global surge in commodity prices amid the Ukraine war and coronavirus-related disruption, business is booming at Afghanistan’s coal mines.
This gives the Taliban a crucial revenue stream as the militant group — after seizing control a year ago — seeks to revive an economy shattered by international isolation and sanctions. “It was good luck for the Taliban that the price of coal immediately went up after they came,” said Malang, a 60-year-old man helping carry coal to waiting trucks. Since the departure of Nato forces and the Taliban’s ousting of the western-backed government, Afghanistan has suffered a dramatic economic collapse. The economy contracted at least 20 per cent last year as the international aid that made up three-quarters of the previous government’s budget was halted and $9bn in foreign reserves was frozen.
To reboot the economy, the Taliban have aggressively increased coal exports, brushing aside environmental and ethical concerns in a bid to boost, control and tax trade in the commodity as well as other resources from minerals to fruit. Much of the coal makes its way along precarious mountain roads to Kabul and on to Pakistan, from where some is sent to China. David Mansfield, author of a report on cross-border trade under the Taliban, estimates that coal exports to Pakistan have doubled to around 4mn tonnes a year since the group took power. The previous government had begun work on a green transition, but the Taliban have embraced fossil fuels, according to Abdallah al-Dardari, the UN Development Programme’s Afghanistan chief. After the Taliban took over, the plans to green the economy “fell apart . . . People went ahead and started exploiting the coal mines [and] coal started booming”, he said.
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