Natural Resources and Conflict in Afghanistan: Conclusions from Seven Cases in Ten Provinces

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Teaser Image Caption
Gas well of Shakarak, Jawzjan

In Afghanistan, natural resources and conflict have a intimate and complex relationship. In conflict assessment surveys, access to natural resources have been consistently reported as the cause for more than half of local level conflict incidents in Afghanistan. In particular, access to land and access to water are regularly cited by communities across Afghanistan as two top two causes of conflict.

At the same time, as western donor aid to the Afghan central government has declined, natural resources, especially in the extractive industries sector, have been tabbed as the top prospect for maintaining state revenues. The central government has worked hard to contract out mineral deposits to international investors, especially from China and India, in the hope that these arrangements will ensure a consistent stream of royalty payments. However, in the scramble to rapidly develop a tax base for the Afghan state, underlying rivalries and disagreements regarding the shape of the government have begun to drive conflict in the sector.

Thus far, detailed and publicly available research on the linkages between natural resources and conflict across sectors, a major issue for the short and long term stability of Afghanistan, has not been done. The opportunities in the natural resource sector, whether for hydroelectric dam construction, improved irrigation schemes, gemstones for export, industrial minerals extraction and timber production, have been lauded by the international community and Afghanistan's leadership, but the risks in the sector have not been sufficiently examined. In order for natural resources to produce sustainable benefits for the country, they must be exploited in a way that does not generate violent conflict.

This study aims to draw out the major conflict trends in the natural resource sector in Afghanistan by examining seven emblematic case studies. The cases (summarized on the following page) are drawn from all over the country, representing diverse geographic, ethnic, social and resource settings.

Drawing from the seven cases, the penultimate chapter, entitled "Observations and analysis", examines the six main trends for natural resource conflicts in Afghanistan. The final chapter, "Some conclusions and recommendations" aims to boil down the information contained in the cases and analysis for a more programming-oriented audience. The recommendations are targeted towards individuals working on the transition process over the next 5-10 years.

Case studies included in the research

Case Study 1: Irrigation water in Samangan and Balkh provinces

In a dispute between warlords in northern Afghanistan, water was repeatedly used as a weapon of war, with the upstream commander Ahmad Khan, attempting to put pressure on downstream communities allied with his opponent Ustad Atta.

Case Study 2: Hydro-electric dam in Herat province

Salma Dam, a major hydroelectric dam being constructed in Herat province by the Indian government, will significantly reduce the flow of the Harirod River into Iran. Local Taliban commanders have been armed and funded by Iranian intelligence and Qods force in order to stop this.

Case Study 3: Rangeland in Maidan Wardak and Ghazni provinces

For nearly a decade ethnic Hazara settlers and ethnic Pashtun nomads have fought over grazing land in Wardak and Ghazni provinces. The conflict has since taken on a pronounced political dimension as notables on both sides have sought to extract advantages from the central government in exchange for peace. 

Case Study 4: Land for urban construction in Nangarhar province

A land conflict between two sub-tribes of the Shinwari Pashtuns escalated when US military forces provided arms, money and training to one side (in the name of anti-Taliban militia mobilization). This resulted in more than two years of trench warfare.

Case Study 5: Gemstones in Badakhshan province

Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious gemstone found almost exclusively in Badakhshan province Afghanistan, has been a source of conflict between rival commanders for three decades. Recently, commanders linked to the Karzai administration have used hitmen and militias to control the trade.

Case Study 6: Industrial iron mining in Bamiyan province

India's winning of the government tender for Hajigak iron mine in Bamiyan province has set off Pakistan concerns of 'encirclement', along with disputes between regional power brokers and the central government regarding ownership of mining resources.

Case Study 7: Timber for export in Kunar province

Mujahideen commanders and the Taliban fought for half a decade for control of Kunar's valuable illegal trade in Deodar cedar, which is demanded globally. In the end, Malik Zarin, the top timber baron and close ally of President Karzai, was killed by a suicide bomber  in 2011.
To view and download the report from Afghanistan Watch website please check the link below:

About the Author
Renard Sexton is an expert on conflict, natural resources and international affairs across the developing world, including South Asia, Latin America and West and Central Africa.  He has undertaken fieldwork on three continents, including spending significant time in Ecuador and Afghanistan, and shorter stints in Sierra Leone, India  and Haiti.

Before coming to Afghanistan, he worked for Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano in Quito, Ecuador and before that the U.N. Environment Programme’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, focused on West and Central Africa.  He has also been a contributor to the New York Times' blog FiveThirtyEight, the Guardian, the Independent, Foreign Policy, and URD's Humanitaires en mouvement. He can be contacted at