Afghanistan’s rapid fall to Taliban fighters, two decades after the US invaded the country, has sparked a political and humanitarian crisis. Security experts are also wondering what will happen to the country’s vast untapped mineral wealth.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries. However, US military officials and geologists revealed in 2010 that the country, which is located at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, was sitting on mineral deposits worth nearly $1 trillion, which could drastically alter its economic prospects.
Mineral resources, such as iron, copper, and gold, are dispersed across provinces. There are also rare earth minerals and, perhaps most importantly, one of the world’s largest lithium deposits — an essential but scarce component in rechargeable batteries and other technologies critical to addressing the climate crisis.
“Afghanistan is certainly one of the regions richest in traditional precious metals, but 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.
In the past, security concerns, a lack of infrastructure, and severe droughts have hampered the extraction of the majority of valuable minerals. Under Taliban control, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Despite the chaos, there is interest from countries such as China, Pakistan, and India, which may try to engage.
Schoonover said, “It’s a big question mark.”
The country’s economic prospects were bleak even before President Joe Biden announced that US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan earlier this year, paving the way for Taliban control to return.
According to a report published in June by the US Congressional Research Service, an estimated 90% of Afghans were living below the government-defined poverty line of $2 per day in 2020. According to the World Bank’s most recent country profile, the economy is still “shaped by fragility and aid dependence.”
“Private sector development and diversification is constrained by insecurity, political instability, weak institutions, inadequate infrastructure, widespread corruption, and a difficult business environment,” it said in March.
Many countries with weak governments suffer from the “resource curse,” which occurs when efforts to exploit natural resources fail to benefit local people and the domestic economy. Despite this, recent revelations about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which were based on Soviet Union surveys, have held a lot of promise.
As countries try to switch to electric cars and other clean technologies to reduce carbon emissions, demand for metals like lithium and cobalt, as well as rare earth elements like neodymium, is soaring.
In May, the International Energy Agency warned that unless global supplies of lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements increased dramatically, the world’s efforts to address the climate crisis would fail. China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Australia currently produce 75 percent of the world’s lithium, cobalt, and rare earth metals.
According to the International Energy Agency, an electric car requires six times the amount of minerals as a conventional car. Batteries require lithium, nickel, and cobalt. Rare earth elements are used in the magnets that make wind turbines work, and electricity networks require a lot of copper and aluminum.
According to reports, the US government believes that lithium deposits in Afghanistan could be comparable to those in Bolivia, which has the world’s largest known reserves.
“If Afghanistan has a few years of calm, allowing the development of its mineral resources, it could become one of the richest countries in the area within a decade,” Said Mirzad of the US Geological Survey told Science magazine in 2010.