Beautiful gems help alliance pay for 5-year war

KABUL, Afghanistan — As the Northern Alliance campaign advances, soldiers can thank the U.S. bombing that has paved the way. They can also thank an unusual source of funding: gemstones.

The alliance's five-year war against the ruling Taliban has been aided by income from emeralds, rubies, aquamarines and royal-blue lapis lazuli mined in the 10 percent of Afghanistan they controlled until their recent conquests.

The jewels are smuggled from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Tajikistan and then on to fetch hard currency to buy guns, ammunition, rocket launchers and secondhand helicopters, alliance officials and gemstone experts said. One hitch: The war has made it harder to extract the gems.

"Many miners are involved in the war effort. War has first priority and buyers are scarce" inside the country, said Gary Bowersox, president of GeoVision, a Honolulu-based gem importer.

Opium also helps buy Northern Alliance weapons and equipment, according to the United Nations, which says the raw material for heroin grown in the areas of Afghanistan controlled by the alliance more than doubled in the past year.

Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains have long been a source of precious stones. Afghan lapis decorates the death masks of Egypt's pharaohs and was powdered to make the blue paint Michelangelo used to paint the Sistine Chapel.

"We have to buy our weapons and logistics supplies," said Ahmad Wali Masood, brother of the slain Ahmad Shah Masood, military leader of the Northern Alliance. "We finance this through minerals that we extract, emeralds, lapis lazuli, other things."

Estimates of the value of Afghan stones vary. GeoVision puts the trade at about $2 million a year. The Northern Alliance won't give a figure, though Masood said it is "maybe more than that."

Whatever the total, it's tiny compared with the global trade in all gemstones, which the United Nations International Trade Center values at about $2 billion a year.

Still, revenue from precious stones has been vital to the Northern Alliance, helping pay for weapons and other military hardware.

Extracting the gems and turning them into the cash to buy weapons isn't easy. Gem experts such as Bowersox say miners — who get 1 or 2 percent of the value of the gems — blast holes in the rock with explosives and then hack away using pickaxes, a technique that damages many jewels.

It's not just the conflict in Afghanistan that poses a potential threat to the rebels' trade. After a diamond-funded civil war in Sierra Leone, the United Nations mounted an international campaign to control the traffic of "blood diamonds," jewels claimed in war zones and used to fund military groups.

While such human-rights groups as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Northern Alliance forces have attacked civilians and been guilty of torture and rape, the U.N. hasn't included Afghan gems in the campaign.

And not all Afghans accept that the war against the Taliban justifies the rebels' gem trading. "Ahmad Shah Masood was my top favorite commander, but he stole from the country," said Zabih Popalzai, coordinator of the Society of Afghan Residents in the United Kingdom. "Those emeralds ... belong to the Afghan people."