While it is one of the poorest countries in the world – in 2016, more than half of the population was below the poverty line, according to World Bank data -, Afghanistan has extensive reserves of copper, lithium, cobalt, iron, gold, which remained relatively untouched in recent decades, a period in which the country was plunged into different armed conflicts.
Between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban ruled the nation, its main economic activity was the production of poppies for the extraction of opium, the raw material for the manufacture of heroin.
The country was considered an outcast in international and trade relations. Now, however, things can be different.
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Not because the Taliban, which is trying to sell a more moderate image to the world, has actually changed its status in global chess.
But because the conditions of exploration and especially the market for these minerals has changed drastically in recent years, driven by the world’s need to move towards a green economy.
Recently, a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that the effects of global warming have accelerated and that more needs to be done to prevent an environmental catastrophe that threatens human survival on Earth.
It will be necessary to change – and quickly – how we produce and how we consume.
And it is precisely by having the resources necessary for this change that the Islamic group can have a window of opportunity.
For Rod Schoonover, a scientist specializing in climate change and former US intelligence official, the Taliban “is not only sitting on valuable deposits of precious stones, but of ores central to world industrial production such as iron and, especially, part of the critical resources in the environmental economic transition process in the 21st century”.
After all, what’s in the Afghan underground?
For hundreds of years, it has been known that the region where Afghanistan is located is rich in minerals.
But it was the Soviets, in the 1960s and 1970s, who first mapped the geological composition of Afghanistan, the result of a series of collisions between tectonic plates that released parts of the planet’s mantle and magma to the Earth’s surface.
Between 2000 and 2010, the US Geological Survey Center and the Afghan Center for Geological Survey took up Soviet soil analyzes and embarked on an extensive inventory of nearly a thousand mines and mineral deposits across the country.
To carry out the survey, the researchers not only had the help of NASA satellites, but they had to be taken to the regions surveyed aboard Black Hawks, the American military helicopters, and make their excavations and collections dressed in Marine costumes and under the surveillance of armed soldiers.
Basically, all the work was done in war zones.
This explains why, despite the quality of these studies, much of the knowledge about Afghan mineral wealth is still limited to estimates and the reality on the ground can be even more impressive.
At the time of the study, American scientist Robert Tucker, who led the expedition to Afghanistan, told Scientific American that his projections for quantities of the metals were “conservative”.
The effort generated a map with more than 800 million pixels of data – where there would be potential ore reservoirs – which corresponds to an area of 440 thousand square kilometers, around 70% of the country.
Calculations by Tucker and his team indicate, for example, that the country could produce 60 million tons of copper.
In 2021, the shortage of the metal caused the price to rise more than 40% compared to the 2020 value and heavily affected the automotive industry, for example, which could not produce due to a lack of parts made of copper.
Copper is also critical in the production of sunlight plates and other sustainable solutions.
There are also an estimated 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, which in 2010 were worth around US$420 billion, and are the main raw material for steel. In addition to nearly a hundred different gold and silver mines.
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But analysis of volcanic rocks in the dangerous Afghan desert also showed the existence of 1.4 million tons of a group of 17 chemical elements known as rare earths, such as lanthanum and neodymium, which have unusual catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear properties. , electrical, magnetic and luminescent.
And lithium deposits in such significant quantities that an internal US Department of Defense document called Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”.
According to estimates by US authorities, only in Ghazni province, in the southeastern portion of the country, would there be lithium reserves equivalent in size to those in Bolivia, where the largest known deposit of this metal in the world is located.
“But there could be a lot more to it than that, but it wasn’t possible to analyze it, given the insecurity on the ground,” explains Schoonover.
Both rare earths and lithium are critical in the development of high-tech green products.
They are used in cell phones, televisions, hybrid engines, computers, lasers and batteries of all kinds, including those in electric cars.
Among the rare earths, there are still some fundamental ones for making superconductors, alloys that conduct energy with minimal losses present in different industries.
These minerals are so central to today’s economy that the US Congress has labeled them “critical to national security.”
“The growing demand for copper, lithium and cobalt, in particular, is being driven in large part by the transition to green energy.” Middle East in Washington DC
By 2030, the US plans to have half of its automotive fleet made up of electric vehicles (now around 2%). And by 2035, the European Union hopes to eliminate all combustion engine cars.
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In their manufacture and operation, electric cars require an average of six times more minerals, such as lithium and cobalt, than conventional ones.
Thus, it is easy to understand why, in the next nine years, the world demand for lithium is projected to increase about four times. The demand for rare earths is expected to almost triple by 2030.
In May, the International Energy Agency warned that production of lithium, copper, cobalt and rare earths must grow dramatically or the world would miss its chance to fight global warming.
Afghanistan’s entry into the market would also represent a welcome diversification of suppliers.
Currently, just 3 countries – China, Congo and Australia – account for 75% of global production of lithium, cobalt and rare earths.
“There is no doubt that the economic potential for the Afghans to explore this subsoil would be enormous and essential, but if it were that easy, the Americans themselves would have already started the exploration.
It’s impossible to create industrial mining conditions while trying to dodge bullets,” says Schoonover.
It is not just the successive military conflicts that explain why the Afghan mineral wealth has never been systematically exploited.
The country does not have paved roads or a railway network capable of transporting production.
In addition, the mining activity requires an enormous amount of electricity – a scarce resource in a country where only 35% of the population has access to electricity – and water, which is also limited and with poor distribution in the country.
Under these conditions, little mining until now has been irregular and artisanal.
All of these problems existed before, but now, without the US around, there are also new opportunities.
“In contrast to the first time the Taliban came to power in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s neighbor China is now a manufacturing power with a global reach. This changes the equation as Taliban control of Afghanistan now it comes at a time when there is a crisis in the supply of these minerals in the near future and China needs them,” says Michaël Tanchum.
According to Tanchum, if the Taliban offers the Chinese minimum security conditions for the operation, it is possible that China will be able to cross the border – with machinery, trained personnel and even inputs for the construction of roads – and create the conditions to a scaled production of ores.
Depending on the market, it would even be a profitable solution.
And China is not known for international relations based on sanctions on issues of human rights and individual freedoms, issues, by the way, that often pose problems for the Beijing government.
“Outside China itself, the biggest producers of these minerals are Australia, Chile and Argentina. Thus, Afghanistan could help China achieve greater security of supply from a much closer distance, reducing market share for producers of lithium in Latin America”, says the researcher.
Although it doesn’t usually operate in war zones, China itself already has a pioneering position in Afghanistan for extracting minerals.
In 2007, the China Metallurgical Corporation (MCC) acquired a 30-year lease to mine copper in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, for $3 billion, in what is considered the largest foreign investment in the country’s history.
MCC’s mining operations have been hit hard by instability in the country due to the conflict between the Taliban and the former Afghan government.
Now, with the fall of the Afghan government, conditions change significantly.
“If there are stable operating conditions, then copper explorations alone can generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue, spurring the development of lithium and other metals mining operations,” says Tanchum.
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Other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, would certainly be interested in this, as production could be transported via their trade routes to China, which would generate income for Pakistanis and increase incentives for them to act in favor of stability in the area.
Pakistan is the main foreign ally of the Taliban, which has bases in the neighboring country.
The situation in Afghanistan after the takeover of Kabul by Islamic radicals remains uncertain.
A part of the population struggles to flee as the Taliban tries to put the government of the new Emirate on its feet and establish the foundations – legal and repressive – on which its power will rest.
There is, however, a sense that the group’s rise to power is a given.
In 2010, American geologist Jack Medlin claimed that the country’s newly discovered mineral reserves were “a wealth that empowered Afghans to dream of a future they didn’t know about.”
It is possible that the Taliban, now in charge of everything, has inherited the possibility of fulfilling this dream of more than a decade.
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