Most Western consumers don’t know that the talcum powder they use primarily comes from mines in Afghanistan. According to a detailed report from Global Witness, the Taliban and Islamic State are engaged in a struggle for control of the highly profitable talc mines in eastern Afghanistan, which means Western consumers may be unknowingly helping to fund terrorism, extremism, and conflict.
Talcum powder is the main ingredient in baby powder, but talc it’s also used in dozens of other products including makeup, plastic, and car parts. The mineral is mined in eastern Afghanistan, where ISIS and the Taliban are locked in a bitter struggle for supremacy. The mining of minerals like talc and chromite is one of the primary ways these terrorist organizations are able to fund themselves.
Exploiting Resources to Fund Terrorism
The Islamic State in particular, has been adept at exploiting the natural resources of the region in order to fund terrorism, making them one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in history. Now, they’ve turned to talc mining. Nick Donovan, campaign director for Global Witness, compared talcum powder to blood diamonds, calling talc a “blood mineral.”
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“This report shows the insidious way in which insurgents have become involved in talc mining and the threat of groups like ISIS becoming more involved,” he said.
Donovan also pointed out that the mining scheme is part of the Islamic State’s strategy, allowing them to fund their terrorist network, “The Islamic State appears to have a significant strategic interest in Afghanistan’s minerals and controls some major mining areas,” he said. “Given its track record of exploiting natural resources in Iraq and Syria, this should be a wake-up call for both the Afghan government and the Trump administration.
“They must strengthen control over the trade in places like Nangarhar, but just as importantly put in place desperately needed transparency and oversight reforms so that legitimate mining has a chance to provide a viable alternative.”
Donovan explained that the Taliban has long been profiting from talc mining and talcum powder exports. Now with the Islamic State encroaching on Taliban territory, they are beginning to mine Afghan minerals as well. ISIS has been skilled in exploiting the natural resources of seized territory to fund their insurgency. In Iraq and Syria, they have engaged in a highly profitable crude oil refining scheme. At one point, ISIS was making $3 million per day from crude oil.
Global Witness claims the Islamic State is now in control of talc, marble, and chromite mines in eastern Afghanistan. Sources who spoke to Global Witness claim ISIS has undertaken significant mining efforts and battled with the Taliban over mines with even richer deposits, since gaining a stronghold in the region. Underscoring the strategic importance of these mines, one ISIS commander told Global Witness, “At any price we will take the mines.”
Global Witness believes the Taliban is earning millions a year from mining talc in Afghanistan. Overall, mining minerals across Afghanistan is estimated to bring in $300 million annually for the Taliban.
How Does Talcum Powder Get to the US?
But how do these terrorist organizations get their minerals to Western consumers? A talc ban was placed on Afghanistan in 2015. Not only has it been poorly enforced, but terrorists have found a way around it.
Most of the talc mined in Afghanistan is exported to Pakistan where it is mixed with Pakistani talc and exported to the West, making up roughly 60% of Pakistani exports. One source even claimed that ISIS has been constructing a road to Pakistan to make exporting the minerals even easier.
Pakistan then exports the majority of the talc to the United States and the European Union where it is processed and used is cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and more. A third of all US talc imports come from Pakistan. According to Global Witness, a large portion of this talc could be supporting global terrorism.
“Unwitting American and European consumers are inadvertently helping fund extremist groups in Afghanistan,” Donovan said.
What Can We Do?
Global Witness makes a number of recommendations on how to stop talc mining from funding terrorist activities. They recommend greater security and oversight of mining locations. Global Witness believes that Afghanistan’s mineral riches should be used to help rebuild the country and fund government resources. To do so, they recommend giving communities an interest in all legal mining in their area. They also put forth community ownership of mines as an option.
Global Witness has insisted that the issue cannot be resolved without working with trade partners. They believe that greater restrictions should be placed on the transportation of minerals between Afghanistan and Pakistan to prevent the blood minerals from reaching Western consumers. Global Witness also recommend working with consumer countries to place stricter regulations on importing minerals from conflict affected regions. They believe these changes could help consumers avoid unknowingly spending their money to fund terrorism.
Blood minerals, also known as conflict minerals, are mineral extracted from conflict affected areas that help to fund terrorism or conflict. Mining of these minerals are often operated by armed groups utilizing local slave labor, including child labor. The mining of conflict minerals not only funds militants, it also destroys the natural environment and further weakens already struggling states.
Countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic are rich in natural resources. But instead of providing wealth, stability, and employment for local populations, these minerals keep militant groups in power, leading to the death of millions.
The most commonly exported conflict minerals are tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, known as 3TGs. These minerals are primarily mined in the DRC before being exported to the West where they are used to make electronics, including laptops, smartphones, and pacemakers. Millions of dollars in turn go towards funding the conflict in the DRC, which is considered one of the deadliest in the world, characterized by mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and the forced recruitment of child soldiers.
Diamonds and oil are other conflict commodities that commonly appear on Western markets.