By seizing political power in Afghanistan after the departure of the United States, the radical Islamic group Taliban also took control of mineral wealth estimated at between 1,000 and 3 trillion dollars.
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 significant reserves of copper, lithium, cobalt, iron, gold, which have remained relatively untouched over the past decades, a period during which the country was plunged into various armed conflicts.
Between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban ruled the country, their main economic activity was the production of poppy 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 may be different.
Not because the Taliban, who are trying to sell a more moderate image to the world, have actually changed their status in global chess.
But because the conditions of exploration and especially the market for these minerals have changed radically in recent years, driven by the need for the world 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 more needs to be done to prevent an environmental catastrophe that threatens human survival on Earth.
We will have to change – and quickly – how we produce and how we consume.
And it is precisely by having the necessary resources for this change that the Islamic group can have a window of opportunity.
For Rod Schoonover, a climate change scientist and former US intelligence official, the Taliban “are not only sitting on precious deposits of precious stones, but on minerals central to global industrial production like iron and, above all, a part of the critical resources in the process of environmental economic transition in the 21st century ”.
AFTER ALL, WHAT IS UNDERGROUND AFGHAN?
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 makeup of Afghanistan, the result of a series of tectonic plate collisions that freed parts of the planet’s mantle and magma to Earth’s surface.
Between 2000 and 2010, the US Geological Survey Center and the Afghan Center for Geological Survey resumed Soviet soil analyzes and embarked on a vast inventory of nearly a thousand mines and mineral deposits across the country.
To carry out the investigation, the researchers not only had the help of NASA satellites, but they had to be taken to the areas surveyed on board the Black Hawks, the American military helicopters, and do their excavations and collections. dressed in navy costumes and under the surveillance of armed soldiers.
Basically all the work has been 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, US scientist Robert Tucker, who led the expedition to Afghanistan, told Scientific American his projections for the amounts of metals were “conservative.”
The effort generated a map with more than 800 million pixels of data – where potential mineral reservoirs would be located – corresponding to an area of 440,000 square kilometers, or about 70% of the country.
Calculations by Tucker and his team indicate, for example, that the country could produce 60 million tonnes of copper.
In 2021, the shortage of the metal pushed the price up by more than 40% from the 2020 value and severely affected the auto industry, for example, which was unable to produce due to lack of copper parts.
Copper is also essential in the production of solar panels and other sustainable solutions.
There are also around 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore, which in 2010 was worth around US $ 420 billion, and is the main raw material for steel. In addition to nearly a hundred different gold and silver mines.
But analysis of volcanic rocks in the dangerous Afghan desert also showed the existence of 1.4 million tonnes of a group of 17 chemical elements called rare earths, such as lanthanum and neodymium, which have catalytic properties. unusual metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic. and luminescent.
And lithium is deposited in such large amounts that an internal US Department of Defense document called Afghanistan “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
According to the estimates of the American authorities, there would be only in the province of Ghazni, in the south-eastern part of the country, reserves of lithium equivalent to those of Bolivia, where is the largest known deposit of this metal. in the world.
“But there could be a lot more than that, but it was not possible to analyze it, given the insecurity on the ground,” says Schoonover.
A BOILING MARKET
Both rare earths and lithium are essential for the development of high-tech green products.
They are used in cell phones, televisions, hybrid motors, computers, lasers, and batteries of all kinds, including those in electric cars.
Among the rare earths, there are still some fundamental for the manufacture of superconductors, energy-conducting alloys with minimal losses present in different industries.
These minerals are so essential to today’s economy that the US Congress has called them “critical to national security.”
“The growing demand for copper, lithium and cobalt, in particular, is due in large part to the transition to green energy. »Middle East in Washington DC
By 2030, the United States plans to have half of its car fleet made up of electric vehicles (today about 2%). And by 2035, the European Union hopes to eliminate all cars with combustion engines.
In their manufacture and operation, electric cars require on average six times more minerals, such as lithium and cobalt, than conventional cars.
So, it is easy to see why, over the next nine years, the global demand for lithium is expected to increase by 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 increase dramatically or the world will miss its chance to fight global warming.
The entry of Afghanistan into the market would also represent a welcome diversification of suppliers.
Currently, only 3 countries – China, Congo and Australia – account for 75% of the world production of lithium, cobalt and rare earths.
THE CHINA FACTOR
“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 simple, the Americans themselves would have already started the exploration.
You can’t create industrial mining conditions while trying to dodge bullets, ”says Schoonover.
It is not only successive military conflicts that explain why Afghanistan’s mineral wealth has never been systematically exploited.
The country does not have paved roads or a railway network capable of transporting production.
In addition, mining requires a huge 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 poorly distributed in the country.
Under these conditions, little mining has so far been irregular and artisanal.
All of these problems existed before, but now without the United States there are new opportunities as well.
“Unlike when the Taliban first came to power in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s neighbor, China, is now a world-class manufacturing power. the supply of these minerals in the near future and China needs them, ”explains Michaël Tanchum.
According to Tanchum, if the Taliban offer the minimum Chinese security conditions for the operation, it is possible that China could cross the border – with machines, trained personnel and even inputs for road construction – and create the conditions. large-scale production. of ores.
Depending on the market, this would even be a cost effective solution.
And China is not known for its international relations based on sanctions on issues of human rights and individual freedoms, issues that often pose problems for the Beijing government.
“Apart from 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 distance. much closer, thus reducing the market share of lithium producers in Latin America “, explains the researcher. .
Although it does not generally operate in war zones, China itself already occupies a pioneering position in Afghanistan for mineral extraction.
In 2007, the China Metallurgical Corporation (MCC) acquired a 30-year lease to mine copper in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan for $ 3 billion, which 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 are changing dramatically.
“If there are stable operating conditions, then copper exploration alone can generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue, spurring the development of mining for lithium and other metals,” said Tanchum.
Other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, would certainly be interested, as production could be channeled through their trade routes to China, which would generate income for Pakistanis and increase their incentive to act for stability in the country. the region.
Pakistan is the main foreign ally of the Taliban, which has bases in the neighboring country.
The situation in Afghanistan after the capture of Kabul by radical Islamists remains uncertain.
Part of the population struggles to flee while the Taliban try to re-establish the government of the new emirate and establish the bases – legal and repressive – on which will rest its power.
There is, however, a feeling that the group’s rise to power is a given.
In 2010, US geologist Jack Medlin said the country’s newly discovered mineral reserves were “an asset that allowed Afghans to dream of a future they never knew”.
It is possible that the Taliban, now in charge of everything, have inherited the possibility of making this dream of more than a decade come true.