Mineral-rich Afghanistan, dubbed the “the Saudi Arabia of rare minerals” in a 2010 Pentagon memo is back in the spotlight after the Taliban reasserted control over capital Kabul earlier last week, effectively ending the 20-year-old US occupation of the country.
Afghanistan is believed to be sitting on one of the richest troves of minerals in the world with extensive natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, silver, gold, cobalt, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, rare earth elements (REEs), and precious and semiprecious stone deposits.
In an article published by the news magazine The Diplomat in February 2020, Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, said minerals and REEs in Afghanistan are estimated to be worth between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.
However, extracting these resources has been difficult due to unending instability in certain parts of the country. The inadequate infrastructure and transportation network also complicates matters in accessing distant and mountainous terrain.
“The abundance of rare and important mineral resources in Afghanistan is nothing new. In fact, it was discussed even when the US first invaded the country,” Fereydoun Barkeshli, chairman of the Vienna Energy Research Group (VERG), told Anadolu Agency.
Now that military aircraft have gained access to otherwise inaccessible regions of Afghanistan, like the area known as 'the rooftop of the world', its strategic significance has now elevated, Barkeshli noted, adding that its mineral-rich resources are sufficient to attract any country to the region.
“The US has now left but other emerging powers such as China, Russia, Turkey and India may be serious contenders to fill the vacuum,” he said.
The country's major power shift has sparked interest from energy firms and businesses worldwide, especially Chinese companies that hope to resume large-scale projects that have been stalled for years due to instability and security concerns.
In 2007, China signed a multibillion-dollar deal with the Afghan government to get exclusive access to the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar. The project also included building a railway network to transport mined copper to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, then on to Beijing via an existing rail network in Uzbekistan.
Only hours after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Beijing would play a positive role in bringing “peace and reconstruction” to the country.
-Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline
Back in the early 1990’s Afghanistan was a serious candidate to transit Turkmenistan gas to India through a proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (TAPI), Barkeshli said.
“All feasibility studies were made by the Asian Development Bank. The bank also agreed to pay for parts of the initial investment costs. The gas pipeline was designed to move 33 billion cubic meters of gas per year along 1,814 kilometers through the 56-inch diameter pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and then to Pakistan and India,” he said.
As the pipeline was poised to eventually transit oil from Kazakhstan to the Indian market, Barkeshli described the project as “a golden opportunity” that would have enabled Afghanistan to elevate its status as a poor country to one of some significance in the region.
By October 1998, despite all four countries signing the final agreement for the project, it never materialized.
Another dramatic turning point for Afghanistan emerged when the US invaded Afghanistan and with the downturn in relations between India and Pakistan that eradicated any possibility of developing the pipeline project.
However, now that the Taliban are back again in Kabul, he said there could be a possibility of revitalizing the TAPI in the medium to longer term although they would have to resolve lots of difficulties with the country’s neighbors to move forward with the project.
“British scholars once wrote that the world belongs to whoever owns Afghanistan,” Barkesli recalled, explaining that the Taliban is now retaking a better Afghanistan than twenty years ago.
He referred to the World Bank’s report on August 13, last year, which cited some staggering statistics between the periods between 2000 and 2017.
“Per capita income rose from $1,190 to $2,034, access to electricity from 22% to 98%, life expectancy rose from 56 to 65, access to the internet from zero to 11.5%, and the literacy rate from 23% to 48%,” he noted.
By Sibel Morrow