As the Taliban stormed into Kabul, Afghanistan and seized control of the country, they took over access to enormous deposits of mineral wealth worth at least $3 trillion — triple the U.S. estimate — according to Afghan government data.
U.S. military officials and geologists originally reported that the country, which lies at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, is sitting on mineral deposits worth nearly $1 trillion.
The mineral wealth is scattered throughout Afghanistan including in the southeast along the border with Pakistan, where the Taliban-led revolution is the most intense.
These resources include critical industrial metals such as lithium, which is a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops, mobile phones and electric vehicles.
An internal Pentagon memo said Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” referring to a critical metal in electric vehicle batteries.
The mountainous war-torn Middle Eastern country also sits atop rare earth and other strategic metals including iron, cobalt, copper and gold.
The deposits of these industrial metals are so huge that they could transform the impoverished nation into one of the world’s important mining centers.
“Afghanistan is certainly one of the region’s richest in traditional metals, and also the metals needed for the emerging economy of the 21st century,” said Rod Schoonover, a scientist and security expert who founded the Ecological Futures Group.
But over the course of the 10 years since the discovery, Afghanistan’s stocks of lithium remain mostly untouched and untapped due to security challenges, a lack of infrastructure and severe droughts. That is unlikely to change soon under the Taliban control.
Still, there is interest from countries including China, Pakistan and India, which may try to engage despite the chaos.
“It’s a big question mark,” Schoonover said.
Even before President Joe Biden announced that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan earlier this year, setting the stage for the return of Taliban control, the country’s economic prospects were dim.
As of 2020, an estimated 90 percent of Afghans were living below the poverty level of $2 per day, according to a report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service published in June.
Many countries with weak governments suffer from what is known as a “resource curse,” whereby the efforts to exploit natural resources fail to provide benefits to the local people and the domestic economy.
However, revelations about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which built on earlier surveys conducted by the Soviet Union, have offered a huge promise.
Demand for metals like lithium and cobalt is soaring as countries try to switch to electric vehicles and other clean technologies to slash carbon emissions.
The International Energy Agency said in May that global supplies of lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth elements needed to increase immensely or the world would fail in its attempt to tackle climate crisis.
Three countries — China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Australia account for 75 percent of the global output of lithium, cobalt and rare earth.
The U.S. government estimates that lithium deposits in Afghanistan could rival those in Bolivia, home to the world’s largest known reserves.
“If Afghanistan has a few years of calm, allowing development of its mineral resources, it could become one of the richest countries in the area within a decade,” said Said Mirzad, an international science advisor with the U.S. Geological Survey in 2010.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has led to chaos that may pave way for China, which dominates the world market for rare earth minerals widely used in technology, to step in and develop the mineral reserves. Lithium is used in the manufacture of batteries.
“Chinese have their bags packed, and will arrive on the first flights after the airport opens,” said Byron King, a geologist and mining and energy writer for Agora Financial.
“People who understand exploration have long looked at Afghanistan with desire.”
The Taliban takeover will not bring more lithium, rare earth or much else in the way of minerals onto the world markets anytime soon, King predicted.
“Not in the next year or two. Perhaps some minor production in three to five years.”
Beyond five years, King said, “there is a likelihood that Afghanistan will become a mineral exporter, but even that is problematic, considering the chronic political and social turmoil in the region.”
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