What’s next for Afghanistan’s vast rare earths supply after US pullout?

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Green, Supply & Demand

While the world looks on with growing concern at the political play unfolding in Afghanistan with the takeover of the Taliban, another sidebar to this developing story that is slowly creeping into public consciousness is the vast treasure-trove of minerals in that country, and how the Taliban government will exploit it.

One estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) given years ago had pegged the worth of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral resources at U.S. $1 trillion. Some Afghan officials have said the actual figure could be three times more.

Afghanistan on a map

Zerophoto/Adobe Stock

Afghanistan’s mountains contain a wide range of critical resources, including: copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earths, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble.

However, even before the U.S. entered its borders 20 years ago, Afghanistan had struggled to tap those reserves.

Two decades later, the situation is not very different.

During its time in the country, the U.S. did not get into the mining of these metals and minerals because of the high risks.

Now, with the Taliban in control, it remains to be seen how it will use these resources to its advantage. What makes these resources especially attractive to countries like China and Russia is the fact that some of the minerals could power the transition to renewable energies in the future.

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Afghanistan rare earths

For example, lithium is a crucial element to make electric car batteries, solar panels and wind farms.  The International Energy Agency forecast global lithium demand will grow by over 40 times by 2040.

In a 2010 memo the U.S. Department of Defense described Afghanistan as “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” Reuters reported. As such, the country could be as important for the global supply of the battery metal as the Middle Eastern country is for crude oil.

As of the time of the comparison, lithium batteries were already widely used for electronic devices. However, it had not yet become apparent how much lithium would be needed for electric vehicle (EV) batteries and the transition to lower carbon emissions across industries.

A USGS 2017/18 report noted that Afghanistan had deposits of spodumene, a lithium-bearing mineral, but failed to provide estimates of its tonnage. The 2019 Afghanistan report made no mention of lithium at all.

But records show that Afghanistan does, however, hold 1.4 million tons of rare earth minerals, a class of 17 elements widely used in consumer electronics and military equipment.

Copper

Copper is another commodity that is in Afghanistan. Despite the recent drop in prices, with prices soaring to more than $10,000 per metric ton earlier this year, that’s another attractive proposition for the new rulers.

Chinese companies signed contracts to mine one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits in Afghanistan about 10 years ago, in a sparsely populated area of Logar province, about 40 kilometers southeast of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.

In 2007, China Metallurgical Group Corporation had leased the giant Mes Aynak copper ore deposit for 30 years, taking out 11.5 million tons of copper from it. Mes Aynak, meaning “small copper deposit” in Dari, is a large deposit with an estimated value of $50 billion (317 billion yuan) based on earlier estimates. However, not much came out of these efforts.

Taliban and China

Although the Taliban’s takeover may deter foreign investors, China and Russia could be willing to do business with them.

Following the Taliban’s entry into Kabul, China said it was ready to have friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.

As part of its efforts to dominate clean energy manufacturing, China has become a major buyer of minerals. It is also leading the world in separating and refining them to make them useful for batteries and other technologies. China has also invested in mining projects abroad, including cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Francis Fannon, who served as assistant secretary of state for energy resources during the Trump administration, warned it might be a matter of time before the Taliban began cooperating with China, which already dominates the vital minerals supply chain.

Jane Nakano, a senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was quoted as saying that Afghanistan had a wealth of mineral resources that was more likely to be developed under Chinese-Taliban cooperation than under the Western engagement there in the past.

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