Not Gone for Good: Why the U.S. May Be Forced to Return to Afghanistan

The U.S. completely withdrew from Afghanistan on August 30.[1] The weeks leading up to the withdrawal did not go as planned; the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, 2021, completing the group’s takeover of the country.[2] While the new Taliban regime may not be able to access the funds Afghanistan’s central bank holds in reserves abroad[3] ($7 billion in U.S. financial institutions alone[4]), the Taliban has control over Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth. Of particular importance are Afghanistan’s lithium and rare earths, both of which are essential in clean energy production.[5] China is poised to invest in and develop Afghanistan’s mineral industry, which may become increasingly valuable as the demand for clean energy rises. To gain access to vital natural resources and prevent China from dominating the minerals market, the U.S. may be forced to return to Afghanistan. 

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world (an estimated 90% of residents lived below the poverty line in 2020[6]), Afghanistan is mineral-rich. In 2010, U.S. geologists estimated the country’s minerals were worth around $1 trillion.[7]  Also in 2010, Afghanistan’s former Mines Minister put that number as high as $3 trillion.[8]  The two minerals that will arguably shape investment in Afghanistan’s mineral industry are lithium and rare earths.[9] Both are vital components of clean energy production. A mere “[t]hree countries—China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Australia—currently account for 75% of the global output of lithium . . . and rare earths.”[10] First, lithium is used in rechargeable batteries.[11] As demand for more environmentally friendly technologies increases, the U.S. may face shortages of the resources, like lithium, necessary to make them.[12] According to an International Energy Agency report, global demand for lithium may be forty times 2020 levels by 2040.[13] Next, rare earths are a group of 17 elements[14] “essential for permanent magnets that are vital for wind turbines and EV [electric vehicle] motors,” for which there will be increased demand in coming years.[15] China dominates the rare earths market, while the U.S. has one developed deposit, near Las Vegas, which supplies approximately 16% of the world’s rare earths.[16] If the U.S., China, or another foreign power gains substantial access to Afghanistan’s lithium and rare earths, that country will unquestionably have a market edge and be able to advance its own clean energy development.

Despite having known about these valuable minerals for decades, Afghanistan has failed to capitalize on its mineral wealth.[17] Three chief reasons why these resources remain undeveloped are instability and corruption, lack of infrastructure, and difficulty extracting minerals. First, regarding instability and corruption, even before the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, the World Bank described Afghanistan’s economy as “shaped by fragility and aid dependence . . . .”[18] Specifically, the Afghan government struggled to physically secure mining sites,[19] and some mine owners reported having to pay taxes twice: first to the government and second to the local “authorities” (frequently the Taliban).[20] In addition, corruption has been a major concern. A May 2021 report put the amount embezzled out of the country each day at $8 million.[21] Second, regarding the lack of infrastructure, put plainly, “[y]ears of conflict have left the country’s physical infrastructure—roads, power plants, railways—in tatters.”[22] It is hard to operate a mining site without electricity and reliable means to transport minerals from the site. Finally, compounding these issues is the reality that “exploiting lithium and rare earth minerals requires much greater investment and technical know-how, as well as time. The IEA [International Energy Agency] estimates that it takes 16 years on average . . . for a mine to start production.”[23] It seems unlikely that these underlying reasons for Afghanistan’s inability to develop its mineral industry will change under Taliban rule

The Taliban regime confronts the same challenges that faced the U.S.-backed regime. However, some aspects of Afghanistan’s mineral industry may change for the better under Taliban rule. For one, so long as the Taliban retains control of mining sites, mine owners will not have to pay taxes twice as they sometimes did in the past.[24] Next, the Taliban has experience developing a (previously illegal) mining industry. In 2020 a director in “the Taliban’s shadow ministry of mines . . . said the group is currently earning about $400 million a year from mining—a figure confirmed by independent researchers . . . .”[25] Finally, the Taliban may be able to ensure the security of mines more effectively than the Afghan government could. A 2020 report by the United Nations Development Programme Afghanistan stated, “ordinary Afghans and mining companies believe that the Taliban are better able to provide security and ensure ‘law and order,’ albeit according to their own rules. Onyx mining companies have reported better security from contracts issued by the Taliban than from the Government.”[26] Despite these possible improvements to Afghanistan’s mining industry, many challenges face the Taliban—namely, lack of international recognition, which China can provide.

Mere hours after the Taliban took Kabul, a Chinese “foreign ministry spokeswoman said Beijing was ready for ‘friendly cooperation with Afghanistan.’”[27] On the other hand, the U.S. is understandably not eager to recognize the Taliban regime. (Among Americans, the Taliban is perhaps best known for sheltering al-Qaeda and denying rights to women.[28]) Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made clear that the Taliban’s international legitimacy will depend “entirely on what it does, not just on what it says. And the trajectory of its relationship with us and with the rest of the world will depend on its actions.”[29] The Taliban made commitments, including cutting ties with al-Qaeda, when it signed an agreement with the Trump administration in 2020.[30] More recently, on August 30, 2021, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution[31] clarifying its current expectations of the Taliban, among which are not permitting Afghan territory to be used to “threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, or to plan or to finance terrorist acts”[32] and “[r]eaffirm[ing] the importance of upholding human rights including those of women, children and minorities.”[33] The more the Taliban does to satisfy these expectations, the greater the likelihood of international recognition.

China, facing its own allegations of human rights abuses (for example, the internment of Uighur Muslims[34]), may not be as scrupulous in its foreign investments as other countries. In addition to international recognition, China can offer Afghanistan the large-scale investment it needs—specifically, China can bring its Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan.[35] The Initiative envisions “creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward . . . and southward . . . .”[36] As Afghanistan and China share a (albeit small) physical border, China’s expansion of the Initiative into mineral-rich Afghanistan makes sense.

The U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of military involvement on August 30, 2021.[37] However, Afghanistan has immense mineral wealth, including lithium and rare earths vital to clean energy production, which the U.S. may need in the coming years to become greener and satisfy the benchmarks set forth in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.[38]As demand for these mineral resources increases, and the U.S. depletes its own supplies, the U.S. may be forced to import more minerals from abroad. If China successfully capitalizes on Afghanistan’s mineral resources, China will have a market edge, and the U.S. may be beholden to China to obtain the resources it needs. As the U.S. is “engaged in a serious competition”[39] with China, this is an outcome the U.S. certainly wants to avoid. To avoid this potentiality, the U.S. may be forced to return to Afghanistan to gain access to its mineral resources. How the U.S. would do this—through private investment or government intervention—remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the U.S. likely cannot permanently disentangle itself from Afghanistan. 

[1] Antony J. Blinken, Sec’y of State, U.S. Dep’t of State, Opening Remarks at Ministerial on Afghanistan (Sept. 8, 2020), https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-opening-remarks-at-ministerial-on-afghanistan/.

[2] Who are the Taliban?, BBC (Aug. 18, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11451718.

[3] John O’Donnell and Rupam Jain, EXCLUSIVE Afghan central bank drained dollar stockpile before Kabul fell – document, Reuters (October 1, 2021), https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-afghan-central-bank-drained-dollar-stockpile-before-kabul-fell-2021-09-29/.

[4] Miriam Berger, With the Taliban back in power, what funding can it access?, Washington Post (Sept. 2, 2021, 3:50 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/09/02/taliban-sanctions-united-states-united-nations-humanitarian-aid/.

[5] Julia Horowitz, The Taliban are sitting on $1 trillion worth of minerals the world desperately needs, CNN Business (Aug. 19, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/18/business/afghanistan-lithium-rare-earths-mining/index.html; The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, Report Extract, Executive Summary, IEA (2021), https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions/executive-summary.

[6] Horowitz, supra note 5.

[7] CNN Wire Staff, Minerals in Afghanistan worth $1 trillion, U.S. says, CNN (June 15, 2010), http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/06/14/afghanistan.minerals/index.html.

[8] Reuters Staff, Afghan mineral wealth put at $1-3 trillion-minister, Reuters (June 25, 2010), https://www.reuters.com/article/afghanistan-mining/afghan-mineral-wealth-put-at-1-3-trillion-minister-idUKLDE65O0FS20100625.

[9] See Factbox: What are Afghanistan’s untapped minerals and resources?, Reuters (Aug. 19, 2021), https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/what-are-afghanistans-untapped-minerals-resources-2021-08-19/.

[10] Horowitz, supra note 5.

[11] See id.

[12] Benjamin Purper, California’s ‘White Gold’ Rush: Lithium In Demand Amid Surge In Electric Vehicles, NPR: All Things Considered (Apr. 28, 2021, 5:00 AM) https://www.npr.org/2021/04/28/990867075/californias-white-gold-rush-lithium-in-demand-amid-surge-in-electric-vehicles.

[13]The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, Report Extract: Mineral Requirements for Clean Energy Transitions, IEA (2021), https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions/mineral-requirements-for-clean-energy-transitions; See also, Tim McDonnell, The Taliban now controls one of the world’s biggest lithium deposits, Quartz (Aug. 16, 2021), https://qz.com/2047785/under-the-taliban-what-will-happen-to-afghanistans-minerals/.

[14] Factbox: What are Afghanistan’s untapped minerals and resources?, supra note 9.

[15] The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, Report Extract, Executive Summary, supra note 5.

[16] Frank Holmes, Afghanistan Is Sitting On A Gold Mine. Literally., Forbes (Aug. 30, 2021, 4:16 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2021/08/30/afghanistan-is-sitting-on-a-gold-mine-literally/?sh=14f0665d7ca8.

[17] Horowitz, supra note 5.

[18] The World Bank In Afghanistan, World Bank, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/afghanistan/overview (last updated Mar. 30, 2021).

[19] Lynne O’Donnell & Mirwais Khan, The Taliban, at Least, Are Striking Gold in Afghanistan, Foreign Policy (Sept. 22, 2020), https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/22/taliban-afghanistan-mining-peace-talks/.

[20] Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Why is Afghanistan unable to extract its vast mineral wealth?, Al Jazeera (May 28, 2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2019/5/28/why-is-afghanistan-unable-to-extract-its-vast-mineral-wealth.

[21] Hanif Sufizada, Minerals, drugs and China: How the Taliban might finance their new Afghan government, The Conversation (Sept. 9, 2021, 8:27 AM), https://theconversation.com/minerals-drugs-and-china-how-the-taliban-might-finance-their-new-afghan-government-167169.

[22] McDonnell, supra note 13.

[23] Horowitz, supra note 5.

[24] Pikulicka-Wilczewska, supra note 20.

[25] O’Donnell & Khan, supra note 19.

[26] UNDP Afghanistan, Afghanistan Human Development Report 2020: Pitfalls and Promise, Minerals Extraction in Afghanistan 50-51 (Mar. 2020), https://www.af.undp.org/content/afghanistan/en/home/library/human_development/NHDR-2020.html.

[27] Weizhen Tan, China may align itself with Taliban and try to exploit Afghanistan’s rare earth metals, analyst warns, CNBC (Aug. 17, 2021, 1:58 AM), https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/17/taliban-in-afghanistan-china-may-exploit-rare-earth-metals-analyst-says.html.

[28] Who are the Taliban?, supra note 2; see also Afghanistan: The Rise of the Taliban, NPR: Throughline (Sept. 16, 2021, 12:01 AM), https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1037085221

[29] Antony J. Blinken, Sec’y of State, U.S. Dep’t of State, Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Lotfullah Najafizada of TOLO News (Sept. 7, 2021), https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-with-lotfullah-najafizada-of-tolo-news/.

[30] Mujib Mashal, Taliban and U.S. Strike Deal to Withdraw American Troops From Afghanistan, N.Y. Times (Feb. 29, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/world/asia/us-taliban-deal.html.

[31] S.C. Res. 2593 (Aug. 30, 2021), https://undocs.org/en/S/RES/2593(2021).

[32] Id. ¶ 2.

[33] Id. ¶ 4.

[34] Anna Schecter, New details of torture, cover-ups in China’s internment camps revealed in Amnesty International report, NBC News (June 10, 2021, 9:00 AM), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/new-details-torture-cover-ups-china-s-internment-camps-revealed-n1270014; It is unclear whether the Taliban, an openly Islamic organization, will call China out for its internment of a Muslim minority group.

[35] Andrew Chatzky & James McBride, China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative (last updated Jan. 28, 2020).

[36] Id.

[37] Opening Remarks at Ministerial on Afghanistan, supra note 1.

[38] H.J. Mai, U.S. Officially Rejoins Paris Agreement On Climate Change, NPR (Feb. 19, 2021, 10:29 AM), https://www.npr.org/2021/02/19/969387323/u-s-officially-rejoins-paris-agreement-on-climate-change.

[39] President Joseph Biden, Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan (Aug. 31, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/31/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-end-of-the-war-isn-afghanistan/.