In a move that had the world watching their television screens and seeing the horror unfold, scores of Afghans were seen running alongside a US Air Force jet as it prepared to make the flight out of Kabul, a city that had been taken over by the Taliban. As the heart-wrenching video highlighted the desperation of the people who felt the sky is now safer than the ground, there were other horrors that had to be dealt with too. The Taliban may have captured the region of Kabul and are extending their control into other areas of the country, but a more worrying concern that is plaguing the minds of world leaders is that the militant group may be sitting on one of the world’s biggest lithium deposits and this is not good news.
How will the Taliban benefit from the lithium deposits?
In order to understand the amount of lithium we are speaking of in this case, Afghanistan was referred to as ‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium’ by an internal US Department of Defense memo in 2010. That is the magnanimous amount of reserves of this element that is present in the country! The statement was made following American geologists discovering this massive wealth of lithium that was valued at a whopping $1 trillion.
The Taliban is well aware of this, as is the entire world, causing ripples of fear and anxiety as to what will unfold. Rod Schoonover, head of the ecological security program at the Council on Strategic Risks said in a statement that “The Taliban is now sitting on some of the most important strategic minerals in the world. Whether they can/will utilize them will be an important question going forward.”
What is lithium and where is it used?
To understand the potential of the element that is being spoken of, let’s take a detour to the periodic table. The element has an atomic number of 3 and was discovered from a mineral in contrast to its other block elements that were discovered from plant matter. At first glance, the metal has a silvery hue and is soft to touch. Reacting vigorously with water and being of the lowest density among all the metals, these are the properties that make lithium a favourable option for a variety of products and industries.
The areas where this element is used are:
- Mobile phones and the rechargeable batteries in them. These batteries are also used in laptops, cameras etc.
- Medical devices such as pacemakers
- Games and toys
- Lithium contributes an important property when combined with other metals - lightness. This property is used for armour plating when it is combined with magnesium
- Aluminium-lithium alloys are used in aircraft and the aviation industry
- Lithium chloride is used in air conditioning systems and industrial drying systems
- Lithium carbonate has medical applications in cases such as depression and mental illnesses
And now, the Taliban are looking at these deposits that if put to the right use have the power to be massive industries with skyrocketing applications.
Countries are eyeing these resources as the Taliban establish control
"Taliban control comes at a time when there is a supply crunch for these minerals for the foreseeable future and China needs them," Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. He added, "China is already in a position in Afghanistan to mine these minerals."
Countries such as China, Pakistan have expressed their support in multiple ways to the militant group and showed interest in doing business with them. Thus, it is no surprise that these have vested interests in the large deposits of minerals and the storehouse that Afghanistan is. The Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) which is one of Asia’s largest mining giants has a 30-year lease to mine copper in Afghanistan's Logar.
But what analysts are questioning is whether the militant group would be interested in the country’s economy and building it up. "These resources were in the ground in the 90s too and they [the Taliban] weren't able to extract them," pointed out Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director at the Counter Extremism Project. "One has to remain very sceptical of their ability to grow the Afghan economy or even their interest in doing so."
Taliban officials did express a possible business future when they met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin. Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar said he hoped China would "play a bigger role in [Afghanistan's] future reconstruction and economic development." China too expressed the same interest when they said they were ready for "friendly and cooperative relations".
Will the Taliban actually reap the benefits of lithium mineral deposits?
"If the Taliban can provide China stable operating conditions, then the copper operations alone potentially could produce tens of billions of dollars of revenue, spurring the development of mining operations for other minerals in the country," said Tanchum. He added that “Pakistan has a vested interest as the materials could potentially be transported along the commercial transit route from Pakistan to China.”
While the world is worried about Taliban mining and exploiting these mineral deposits, will they?
Establishing a mining system in a state that has experienced a humanitarian crisis and has failed, is nearly impossible, say experts. What is predicted is that the Afghan economy may rely on foreign aid for the foreseeable future, even thought they have deposits worth a trillion dollars.
"One of the main problems was that you were unable to get the resources out of the country without a private army to secure them against the Taliban. Now, that threat has gone, but the infrastructure … is still not there, so they will need large-scale investment,” points out Hans-Jakob Schindler.
It remains to be seen what path the militant group adopts and how this wealth of deposits will be used.