Rashid Mohammadi, a little-known veteran of former Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud's inner circle, has led Afghanistan's emerald trade for a decade and now serves the post-Taliban government. From Dubai, Mohammadi hopes to restore Afghanistan's trading role within the region and its status as an emerald hub.
Now serving as diplomatic representative for Afghanistan in The United Arab Emirates, Mohammadi recalls that when he was 12, during the resistance to the Soviet occupation, he carried food for Massoud, who was known as the Lion of the Panjshir. Some of Massoud's Panjshiri Tajik followers currently occupy key posts in Hamid Karzai's interim Afghan government.
After the Taliban came to power, Mohammadi claims he figured out a way to finance the arms purchases including helicopters that kept Northern Alliance forces combat ready. The main source of Mohammadi's financial dealings were emeralds, which are abundant in Afghanistan. He revealed the secrets of the emerald-for-arms deals during a tour of Afghanistan's gem mines in the northern Hindu Kush region.
Mohammadi, 32, says he is used to helping behind the scenes. He grew up in a family that through marriage was tightly linked to the militant Massouds. His sister married Massoud in 1988. "I couldn't shoot any one," he says. "I helped at the front but I am no soldier." His contribution, he says, was to reform Afghanistan's emerald trade. Afghan emeralds used to appear in the international gemstone market as Colombian stones, reflecting the influence of Colombian traders in stones' appraisal.
Rashid Mohammadi examines some of the emeralds he hopes will be part of Afghanistan's economic recovery.
Beyond this market disadvantage, Mohammadi says, Afghans mined emeralds in a disastrous way by blasting them out of the mountains- destroying much of what cutters and jewelers in Europe would have bought. Massoud, recognizing the potential value in the stones, assembled a team to develop a sales strategy. Mohammadi, his brother-in-law, became the lead businessman. He had left Afghanistan to study Arab literature in Kuwait, then moved on to Saudi Arabia for further study in the early 1990s. But after fighting in Afghanistan intensified after 1992, he quit the books and plunged into the emerald business.
"I am in love with this stone," he told EurasiaNet as we traveled into the mountains. With a Northern Alliance intelligence official and a governor of Panjshir, Mohammadi formed a trading network. He spoke three languages fluently, had traveled throughout the world, and now crisscrossed Europe with a black suitcase full of Panjshiri emeralds. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a Northern Alliance leader who is now Afghanistan's Foreign Minister, estimated that Massoud's troops collected as much as $5 million from Mohammadi's efforts.
The Northern Alliance provided the only resistance to the Taliban during the radical Islamic movement's tenure in power. Just as the current Afghan government must find a way to centralize tax and trade revenues, Mohammadi says, the Northern Alliance faced a challenge in trying to make emeralds a dependable commercial product. "Before we organized the market, it was a big mess," he told EurasiaNet. "Individual miners were selling pieces to Pakistan, to local merchants and they cheated them most of the time." Massoud raised the Northern Alliance's offering price, so that freelance merchants could not outbid them. "It was clear sailing from then on," Mohammadi says now. . Even though Afghanistan was functioning without a government or a banking system, emeralds found their way into the world marketplace. ``Our biggest regular customer was a company in Poland called Intercommerce www.intercommerce.com.pl," says Mohammadi. "We never knew exactly what this Polish company did with our emeralds. I don't think they were ever sold as Afghan emeralds. But what could we do? We needed the money." Mohammadi says Colombian traders "offered the Polish a lot of money for hushing up the fact that our emeralds were the fabulous Afghan emeralds, and keeping silent on their superior quality." The Polish company is still in business, though it is unclear what their relationship is to Mohammadi or the new Afghan government.
Meanwhile, the internal emerald market in Afghanistan reflects longstanding tradition that may or may not mesh with President Hamid Karzai's economic strategy. The emerald prices are set by a group called the Boury which is made up of Afghan merchants and representatives of the local government. Buyers pay 10 percent of the sales price as a tax to the province government. And until they pay the tax, the stone cannot be removed from the local government office. Local prospectors like to sell to Northern Alliance veterans. ``We prefer to sell to Mr. Rashid [Mohammadi]," said Farid, a local miner. "He has a great reputation." Mohammadi wants to enhance that reputation; in summer 2003, he plans to host the first ever Afghan jewelry exhibition in Kabul. He expects dealers from around the world to come see the yield from the Hindu Kush mountains.
While Mohammadi nurtures these hopes, emerald prospecting is hardly a secure business. The prospector who blasts loose the stone has to surrender 7 percent of his sale to a driver and 12 percent to a man who feeds and bankrolls the miners, not to mention paying people to do the onerous work of mining. (Laborers in mines usually get one percent of a sale.) Panjshir has 80 to 100 emerald mines and usually the people who live in nearby villages work there. The work is unglamorous and unpredictable, but Mohammadi is optimistic. "Between 1997 to 2000 three emerald experts from the United States, France and Poland, visited our emerald mines," he claims. "They told us the Panjshiri emerald is of better quality and color than the Colombian emerald."
So how can emeralds become part of a new Afghan economy? Mohammadi says visiting experts discovered stones on a side of the mountains that locals had never mined. He says foreign companies, in particular Russian gem concerns, have begun to show an interest in investing in the new mines since the Taliban's ouster.
As Mohammadi walked among the Hindu Kush Mountains he expressed hope for the future. "I believe emeralds in Afghanistan have a spiritual connection with the country. When Russians occupied our country, we found a lot of stones and sold them in Pakistan. Then, mining pretty much came to a halt as prospectors looked harder and harder but found less and less. But when the Taliban occupied Afghanistan, the mining picked up and I was able to sell emeralds for weapons. Insha-allah this time I am selling emeralds for reconstruction."
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist specializing in Afghan and Iranian affairs.