The Taliban now control a trillion-dollar trove of minerals, including some that could power the world’s transition to renewable energy, but Afghanistan has long struggled to access its vast deposits.
The Taliban have already run into financial difficulties since resuming power 20 years after their ouster, as major aid donors have withdrawn their support for Afghanistan.
Endless wars and a lack of infrastructure have prevented the country from obtaining the metals that could improve its economic fortunes.
According to a January report by the US Geological Survey, the resources include bauxite, copper, iron ore, lithium, and rare earths (USGS). This year, copper, which is used to make power cables, became a hot commodity, with prices reaching more than $10,000 per tonne.
Lithium is a critical component in the production of electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, and wind farms.
According to the International Energy Agency, global demand for lithium is expected to more than quadruple by 2040.
And Afghanistan “sits on a huge reserve of lithium that has yet to be tapped,” according to Guillaume Pitron, author of “The Rare Metals War.”
Afghanistan is also a source of rare earths used in the clean energy sector, such as neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. The USGS has estimated the country’s untapped mineral riches at $1 trillion, though Afghan officials have put the figure three times higher.
Afghanistan has done a better job of mining for precious stones like emeralds and rubies, as well as semi-precious tourmaline and lapis lazuli, but the industry is plagued by illegal smuggling to Pakistan.
Talc, marble, coal, and iron are also mined in the country.
While the Taliban’s takeover may deter foreign investors, China appears to be willing to do business with them.
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the world’s second-largest economy said it was ready to have “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan. In 2007, the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation won a 30-year lease on the massive Mes Aynak copper ore deposit, with the right to extract 11.5 million tonnes of the commodity.
According to the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times, the project to exploit the world’s second-largest unexploited copper deposit has yet to begin operations “due to safety concerns.”
However, a source within the group told Global Times that it would “consider reopening it once the situation has stabilized and international recognition – including the Chinese government’s recognition of the Taliban regime – takes place.”
While Chinese leaders are “unenthusiastic” about the Taliban takeover, “they will not allow principle to get in the way of pragmatism,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank, in a blog post.
“Beijing’s lack of progress at its major investment in the Mes Aynak copper mine demonstrates its willingness to exercise patience in pursuit of a return on investment,” he wrote.
According to French expert Pitron, “the Chinese do not base their business deals on democratic principles.”
He cautioned that there is no guarantee that Afghanistan will become a mineral Eldorado.
“You need a very stable political climate for that,” Pitron said. According to him, it can take up to 20 years between the discovery of a mineral deposit and the start of mining operations.
“No company will want to invest if the political and legal systems are unstable,” he said.