A longer version of this article was originally published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
Afghanistan’s crags and valleys hold at least a trillion dollars’ worth of minerals, first mapped by Soviet geologists in the 1970s. Local warlords and foreign powers have plundered these deposits ever since.
The Taliban and other armed groups have battled both the central government and each other for control of the mines, using them to fund their insurgencies. Even former U.S. President Donald Trump coveted Afghanistan’s gold, lithium, uranium, and other mineral riches. In 2017, Trump was persuaded to keep troops in the country by its president, Ashraf Ghani, who dangled the prospect of mining contracts for American companies.
American troops remained in Afghanistan — and Ghani has delivered. In late 2019, SOS International (SOSi), a Virginia-based company with links to the U.S. military and intelligence organizations, obtained exclusive access to various mines across Afghanistan. As part of the deal, Ghani’s family got a little something on the side. Ghani granted a SOSi subsidiary, Southern Development, also known as SODEVCO, rights to buy artisanally mined ore. An OCCRP investigation found that the president’s brother, Hashmat Ghani, owns a significant stake in Southern Development, which operates a mineral processing plant on the outskirts of Kabul. The concession presents a conflict for both the Afghan leader and the U.S. government.
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Southern Development’s roots in mining trace back a decade, to an initiative pushed by U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. In 2011, American Special Forces operators introduced an eastern Kunar paramilitary commander, Noor Mohammed, to a small Pentagon business development office called the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations.
The commandos asked the Task Force to help the local warlord, who was illegally dealing in chromite, a valuable anti-corrosion additive used in stainless steel and aircraft paint. Afghan chromite is prized for its exceptional purity. With a crusher provided by the Pentagon – equipment worth $3.8 million – Mohammed began to process the ore at Combat Outpost Penich, a small NATO base in eastern Kunar.
The whole project was, of course, illegal in Afghanistan. Moreover, “there’s no conceivable way extraction or export could be done without the collusion of the insurgent groups” which the U.S. and Afghanistan have been fighting for decades, said Jim Wasserstrom, an anti-corruption expert who has worked for several U.S. agencies in Afghanistan.
After a couple of years of operation, the Kunar scheme was exposed by an anti-corruption NGO, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, and the crushing operation was shut down by then-President Hamid Karzai’s administration in 2013. But the Task Force’s Kunar project would later reopen under new, private management: Southern Development — the subsidiary of Virginia’s SOSi in which President Ghani’s brother had invested.
Wasserstrom, the anti-corruption expert, said: “Intelligence and Special Forces do what it takes to achieve their mission. Their military mission may have ended, but these guys may have thought they could make a ton of money and advance our national security at the same time.”
As a U.S. government insider, Emily Scott King, the former director of the Task Force’s natural resource group, was a key player in privatizing the Pentagon’s defunct chromite project. After numerous internal blow-ups, she left the government in 2013. By then, she had made exploitation of conflict minerals her niche. A geology major and self-proclaimed “mining futurist,” she co-founded a Florida-based private company, Global Venture Consulting, with her husband, Army Special Forces reservist Mark King. The couple had first met in Afghanistan, where he was a security contractor for Task Force geologists.
Global Venture offers mining and mineral exploration services geared to “emerging and frontier markets” that require a Special Forces-style edge. Advertising its experience in executing special operations missions, Global Venture’s website is replete with photos of its founders working in harsh environments. One page shows the smiling couple in the desert, fronting a herd of camels. Scott King wears a brown jacket and white headscarf; King cradles an assault rifle.
In the private sector, cowboy outfits like Global Venture found themselves in demand. Before long, Global Venture was working for Southern Development. Scott King brought the Kunar project playbook with her and in 2018 hired Bob Wilson, a former Special Forces commander who had helped start the initial Kunar chromite crushing operation that had been shut down a few years earlier.
“Those [Task Force] chromite projects grew into a $4 million investment from an American company to build a chromite processing facility outside of Kabul,” Scott King boasted at a 2019 special operations policy forum in Washington, D.C. “None of that would be the case if it weren’t for the support and the vision of the SoF [Special Forces] community.”
Friends in High Places
SOSi, the parent company of Southern Development, was the perfect firm to revive the Task Force project. Its headquarters are located in Reston, Virginia, close to its clients at the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon. In Afghanistan, the company offers a variety of services, including provision of cultural advisers, intelligence analysis, and producing communications for Resolute Support, the U.S.-led NATO mission.
SOSi’s transition to a military contracting powerhouse came through its connections to the office of retired Army General David Petraeus, the former CIA director and a major backer of the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations while serving as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush administration Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the Iraq invasion, and other U.S. defense officials also joined the SOSi board.
“It’s an open secret that SOSi is essentially a front for the DoD,” said a high-ranking Afghan official who has recently dealt with the company, using an acronym for the U.S. Department of Defense. Its dealings in Afghanistan have thus far flown under the radar, but SOSi operations in Iraq are under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Southern Development’s Ghost Boss
Beyond its powerful American connections, SOSi was well-positioned for growth because it wasn’t afraid to get dirty. Southern Development is a complex mishmash of entities that stretch from Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates, but at its core, the company is a joint venture between SOSi and the Afghan President’s brother, Hashmat Ghani.
A 2005 Kabul business directory and other archival documents reveal that Hashmat Ghani was the original owner of Southern Development. A Southern Development document on file in the Ras al-Khaimah Offshore Free Zone, the secretive United Arab Emirates jurisdiction where its full ownership records are held, confirms that on June 17, 2014 — three days after Ashraf Ghani was elected president — SOSi owned 80 percent of the company, with Hashmat Ghani owning the remainder.
His name was removed from Afghan corporate documents to avoid embarrassing Ashraf Ghani during his presidential campaign, according to a former SOSi employee who asked to remain anonymous because they continue to work in the field.
All the President’s Mines
Buying chromite from unlicensed local mines remains illegal in Afghanistan, but Ashraf Ghani’s election in 2015 opened a rich new vein of opportunity. Until 2019, Afghanistan’s Minister of Mines reviewed mining proposals and licenses. Now, all such documents are approved directly by the president, his cabinet or the High Economic Council, which he also heads. “The ministry just has a figurative role,” said a longtime civil servant with extensive experience of the process, who did not wish to be named for safety reasons. “Nothing goes through without the president’s green light.”
A document leaked to OCCRP reveals that on December 26, 2019, the High Economic Council, in a process overseen by the president, authorized Southern Development to take on a project far larger than the original task force project in Kunar. The company received a mineral processing permit and permission to purchase artisanal chromite in six Afghan provinces.
This chromite, which according to the document “was mined by local villagers over many years using rudimentary tools,” must be processed in Kabul’s District 12 neighborhood, where the Southern Development plant is located. The Ministry of Mines was instructed to oversee the entire process, and Afghan security forces and highway police were ordered to “cooperate” in securing “the transfer of the chromite ore.”
Southern Development was also given permission to obtain 20,730 tons of locally mined chromite already under the control of the Afghan government, according to leaked correspondence between the company and the Ministry of Mines. Southern Development, it turns out, had long been preparing for a greatly expanded workload.
In the spring of 2018, more than a year before Afghanistan’s High Economic Council signed over the rights to the chromite, Southern Development’s Kabul office had imported new crushing equipment from South Africa for its Afghan operation.
In fact, Global Venture and its consultants, according to Scott King, had since 2013 been “advising private sector investors” with mining interests in Afghanistan about how to “quietly” restart initiatives like the Kunar chromite project. At the same 2019 Special Operations forum, she highlighted a mysterious $10 million investment into what she claimed were “legal” Afghan chromite mines.
Mining takes time to generate profits and it’s unclear if SOSi has started to see a return on its investments yet, but the price of chromite ore hovers around $200 per ton and with a worldwide market for stainless steel, Southern Development could become highly profitable. Meanwhile, its success is already spawning copycats…
Margaux Benn is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Paris. She has been working in Afghanistan for the past three years, including 2.5 years as a Kabul-based correspondent. Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org
Zack Kopplin is an investigator at the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower support NGO. Contact: ZackK@Whistleblower.org