The West is leaving, China is there: the Taliban are sitting on huge lithium deposits

After the fall of Kabul, the Taliban controlled one of the world’s largest lithium deposits. This gives them access to one of the most sought-after raw materials, which is also crucial for electromobility. China has already kept an eye on the occurrence.

Afghanistan has a particularly precious treasure: lithium. After taking power, the Taliban now have the opportunity to raise it – and thus access to a coveted raw material, without which there would be neither rechargeable batteries for smartphones and laptops nor batteries for e-cars.

The global lithium deposits are concentrated in a few deposits. Chile has the largest proven reserves overall, with the Salar de Uyuni salt lake, Bolivia has the largest single lithium deposit. And according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the reserves in Afghanistan are said to be roughly as extensive as in Bolivia. The US Department of Defense therefore celebrated Afghanistan as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”.

The USGS study was published back in 2010, but no lithium has been mined in Afghanistan since then. And this despite the fact that the demand for the metal is increasing sharply and, according to the International Energy Agency, will literally explode by 2040. But struggles, widespread corruption, a lack of state structures and a lack of infrastructure have prevented funding so far.

The question is whether the Taliban can do what the Afghan governments have not done for eleven years. The task is challenging. The new rulers must create a stable environment that enables and protects foreign investments – and that is quite ambitious in a country ruled by fundamentalist holy warriors, ruled by tribal conflicts and riddled with corruption.

The raw material curse looms

What is certain is that it will take a long time before lithium is actually extracted from the earth. It takes years to build the relevant industry and infrastructure. This will not work without foreign technology and without foreign capital. It is extremely unlikely that western companies can be attracted. But China is in the starting blocks – and other countries are also interested in mining raw materials in Afghanistan.

China has been active in the raw materials sector in Afghanistan for many years and has signaled to the Taliban to step up its commitment. At the same time, however, the example of China shows how problematic investing is in Afghanistan. In 2007, the People’s Republic invested almost three billion dollars in a production license for the world’s largest untouched copper deposit, which is 40 kilometers away from Kabul. So far, however, nothing has been funded. The reason: a tense security situation and a lack of infrastructure.

Another problem is likely to be the so-called raw material curse that afflicts developing countries – in the form of corruption and violence. Only a few benefit from the wealth of raw materials, the majority of the population does not benefit from it. And in Afghanistan, which has been torn by power struggles for years, the dispute over shares in the raw material pie is likely to become intense.

This is also because the Taliban are not a homogeneous group. They are very different tribesmen from rural areas of Afghanistan. The Taliban are mainly Pashtuns, who in turn are divided into tribes. In the multi-ethnic state there are also, for example, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens. Some of the ethnic groups and tribes of Afghanistan are enemies with one another.

The problems grow

That doesn’t make investing in Afghanistan low-risk. But the potential gains are obviously high enough to be able to take at least a few risks. China has already followed the path.

For the People’s Republic there is possibly another reason besides the profits to promote rare earths and lithium in Afghanistan, for example: China wants to shut down mining in its own country. The environmental damage caused by the funding would then no longer be caused in China, but elsewhere, quotes the US medium “Quartz” Nick Crawford from the think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The destruction adds to the environmental problems Afghanistan is already suffering from – water shortages, air pollution and extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change. The worst problem, however, is the rule of the Taliban.


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