Afghanistan’s desolate Ghazni Province may hold the world’s largest deposits of lithium. (Image: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Just days after the Afghan War became the longest war in US history – 104 months, surpassing the 103-month American engagement in Vietnam – the New York Times, quoting top US government officials, reported the discovery of near $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan.
In addition to huge finds of iron, copper, cobalt and gold, Afghanistan could potentially rival Bolivia as the world’s largest source of lithium, a key material for green technologies, including batteries for electric vehicles. In fact, the NYT cites an internal Pentagon memo stating that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
The report quotes US officials who claim that these mineral deposits have the potential to “fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself ,” but also notes that “the Obama administration is hungry for some positive news to come out of Afghanistan.”
‘Rinse and repeat spin’
Treehugger.com is unimpressed by the NYT report: “Does the timing of this news have some significance born out of desperation?” it asks. The large-scale mineral reserves were originally discovered by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and were “rediscovered” in recent years by US according to Treehugger, which dismisses the NYT report as “mostly rinse and repeat spin.”
Another green-related website, Inhabit.com, is less cynical: “When the story broke yesterday that Afghanistan has $1 trillion in untouched mineral deposits, you could almost hear the course of history changing.”
While expressing concerns about whether the mining will be conducted in an environmentally responsible way, Inhabit.com is largely upbeat about the news: “Whether the country’s newfound wealth will bring it prosperity or the resource curse remains to be seen, but the rugged land just abruptly entered modernity.” In particular, “it will almost certainly be good news for electric vehicle makers and buyers” as a greater supply of lithium should drive prices down.
Not a game-changer
Two experts interviewed by The Media Line express some reserved optimism, but cautioned that it will take some time before Afghanistan can profit from its mineral wealth. According to Jorrit Kamminga of the International Council on Security and Development: “In general, one should not have high hopes. There cannot be any quick fix. In the long term, there is a good possibility it would be a big part of the Afghan economy. But it will not be a game-changer or the backbone of the economy.”
Similarly, Anjalika Bardalai of the Economist Intelligence Unit told The Media Line: “Of course the mineral reserves, if they prove as vast as reported, have the potential to transform the Afghan economy.
“However, this is at best a medium-to-long-term prospect, as a lack of infrastructure and investment means that the country is many, many years away from being able to exploit such reserves on a large scale.”
Perhaps the situation was best summarized by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command in an interview on Saturday: “There is stunning potential here. There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
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