Back to black: What Afghanistan’s new focus on coal tells us

Taliban-ruled Afghanistan’s new golden age of coal reveals a country that is going back to old-fashioned ways

Afghanistan is increasingly reliant on the export of coal | Reuters/ Mohammad Ismail
An increase in coal-related truck activity can be seen from satellite images | Alcis. All rights reserved

In the year since the Americans left Kabul, giving way to the Taliban waiting at the gate, Afghanistan’s economy has headed in a distinctly old-fashioned direction.

The country is increasingly reliant on the export of coal, a non-renewable fossil fuel that is considered the dirtiest, most polluting way of producing energy — the complete antithesis of a green, sustainable strategy for a country’s future.

What’s more, Afghanistan’s coal mines are not up to modern safety “standards”, according to an Afghan official in Kabul who requested anonymity. Media reports from the northern Afghan province of Samangan describe conditions from a bygone age, with adolescent miners spending between 12 and 15 hours a day crouched in six-foot-wide tunnels, “ chipping away at the coal by hand “.

The Afghan official told openDemocracy that the country’s mines are “labour intensive, don’t use high technology and machinery and only provide risky work, without safeguards or insurance”. “But,” they added, explaining how such mines continue to find willing workers, “so many Afghans are starving, they don’t even care about their own life”.

In February, a coal mine collapsed in the northern province of Baghlan, leaving at least ten people dead.

As well as exporting coal, the Taliban are pushing it as a source of domestic energy. In April, Taliban deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar issued a statement instructing a slew of ministries to work “to generate electricity from coal in industrial parks, large cities and other such areas” and a spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum subsequently said that the private sector can invest in coal mines. This is a back-to-the-future approach for a country that has thus far supplied the bulk of its energy needs through imports.

But the Taliban are cash-strapped…

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Rashmee Roshan Lall, PhD, lived and worked in Afghanistan for a year. Her 2013 novel ‘The Pomegranate Peace’, on the absurdity of US efforts in Afghanistan, has newly been launched in India in paperback by Quercus. She is on Twitter @rashmeerl and blogs at



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Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall


PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university