Is lithium Afghanistan’s ace in the hole?
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government is trying to grab the attention of President Donald Trump and gain greater U.S. support by dangling its massive and untouched wealth of minerals, including lithium, the silvery metal used in mobile phone and computer batteries that is considered essential to modern life.
But tapping into that wealth, which also includes coal, copper, rare earths and far more that estimates say could be worth from $1 trillion to $3 trillion, is likely a long way off.
Security has worsened in Afghanistan the past year, with Taliban insurgents seizing territory and inflicting increasing casualties on Afghan forces. The regions with the greatest lithium deposits, for example, are currently too dangerous to enter.
A mystery: So far, Trump’s policy on Afghanistan remains unknown.
He has said little about America’s longest-running war, beyond saying on the campaign trail that he wishes the United States were not involved in Afghanistan. Last month, the top U.S. military commander called for an increase in American forces to help bring security, a call Kabul enthusiastically backed. But the White House has not said which direction it will go — toward beefing up the American role, drawing it down further or something else entirely. There are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops in the country, involved in training Afghan forces and in counter-terrorism operations.
Kabul clearly hopes the promise of mineral wealth will entice Trump into making a greater commitment.
“Afghanistan can be an appropriate place for U.S. industry, and specifically the mining sector, to look at opportunities for investment” because so few potential deposits have been mined, said Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi, chief adviser to Afghan president on infrastructure, human capital and technology.
“Afghanistan has always been interested in the U.S. investing in many areas, specifically the mining area. Within mining, there are some areas that are strategic materials such as lithium,” Qayoumi told The Associated Press.
Interest: President Ashraf Ghani spoke with Trump in December, and they discussed the mineral wealth. “There was a quite good matter of interest from President Trump’s administration,” Qayoumi said. The two leaders spoke again in February for the first time since the inauguration in talks that focused on the security situation.
A White House official said the U.S. sees sustainable economic development as “essential” to Afghanistan’s stability, including in the mining sector. He said the U.S. will work with Afghan businessmen and officials on reforms that “enhance private sector development” and contribute to development. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Mineral resources have been touted as potentially transformative for Afghanistan, a key to lifting it out of poverty and bringing major wealth for development.
Interest was particularly spiked by a 2007 report by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Afghan government that found the country’s deposits of a wide variety of minerals were much larger than had been known from surveys decades earlier by the Soviets.
Untouched: The mountainous, land-locked nation has huge, largely untouched reserves of copper, iron ore, chromite, mercury, zinc, gems, including rubies and emeralds, as well as gold and silver. Particularly alluring is its lithium, crucial to laptop and cellphone batteries.
But getting those minerals out of the ground — and doing it in a way that actually benefits the country as a whole — has been elusive.
The war has scared away investors. Also, corruption is rife, and many of the mines that do exist are controlled by local warlords who reap the profits. The Taliban are believed to earn millions from illegal mining.
In 2016, anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness warned that the mining sector was fueling the war. It pointed to lapis lazuli — a blue stone found almost exclusively in Afghanistan — saying local strongmen, lawmakers and Taliban insurgents were all in a violent competition over control of the mines, earning $20 million a year from illegal mining and in the process destabilizing northeastern Badakhshan province.
Integrity Watch Afghanistan said in a 2015 report that the great majority of more than 300 mining contracts awarded so far “may have been exploited by local strongmen under the protection of warlords.” It examined five mines and estimated the government was losing tens of millions of dollars from those mines alone because of corruption that means taxes, rents and royalties are not collected.
The main lithium deposits are in three regions — Ghazni province in the east and Herat and Nimroz provinces in the west. Herat and Nimroz are the scene of regular fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban, and the areas of Ghazni where the lithium is located have a strong Taliban presence.
Regulation: The government’s mines and petroleum ministry has also been in disarray. The minister’s post has been empty for nearly a year since the resignation of Daud Shah Saba, who often complained of “powerbrokers” controlling the mineral resources. Finally, last week, the government named Nargis Nehan, a prominent rights and anti-corruption campaigner, as acting minister.
Introducing her, Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh vowed action to reform the sector, “sever the hands of traitors” controlling minerals and bring “balanced development.”
Wahidullah Shahrani, who served as mines and petroleum minister from 2010 to 2013, said that at that time there was a major push by the government and international partners to lay a path for developing the sector. They worked out a clear timeline and strategy. Lithium was identified as a priority.
But since then, the security situation has dramatically worsened as U.S. troops — numbering more than 100,000 in 2011 — began to withdraw and hand over the fight against the Taliban to Afghan forces. Multiple areas that were once considered safe have fallen into turmoil.
Shahrani said the priority now is for the ministry to clean up management of the mineral sector and draw up a plan going forward.
The U.S. can play a major role in helping that.
“The government of Afghanistan right now doesn’t have either the financial or the technical resources,” he said.