U.S. Departure from Afghanistan Complicates Rare Earth Minerals Market

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We offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of the 13 U.S. Marines currently identified as having lost their lives in deadly attacks in Kabul and offer our prayers for those Americans and others still awaiting evacuation from Afghanistan.

As Americans reel from the loss of at least 13 U.S. service members from attacks on Kabul International Airport, it is becoming clear that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t come without consequences. At least some of those consequences will be related to the manufacturing and energy sector, where the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan only deepens China’s domination of the rare earth mineral market.  

For almost ten years, we’ve written periodically about the lack of a U.S. domestic supply of critical rare earth minerals and the stranglehold that China generally has on the global supply of these minerals. We continue to pose the question: what collectively do these two issues mean for U.S. energy independence?  

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Afghanistan has up to 1.4 million metric tons of rare earth minerals, including vast deposits of lithium. Lithium is the world’s least dense metal and a critical component for tablets and laptops. But its most important future use will be for the lithium-ion battery packs required in electric vehicles. Some predict that up to 75% of all mined lithium will go into EVs by 2025. 

In one Afghanistan province alone, the USGS estimates that the lithium deposits are as large as those of Bolivia’s. For context, Bolivia currently has the world’s largest known deposits of this critical rare earth mineral.

We’ve written extensively about how China has cornered the rare earth mineral market. Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, this emerging superpower supplied around 80% of all the rare earth minerals imported by the U.S.  

Given the near absence of a credible U.S. domestic supply of rare earth minerals, that percentage will, if anything, only increase in the near future. Why? Afghanistan and China may only share a 47-mile border, but the influence that China has already projected over its much smaller neighbor to its west is palpable; it’s clearly laying the groundwork to be the new Taliban-led government’s most prominent benefactor by developing Afghanistan’s vast reserves of rare earth and other valuable minerals.   

This mineral alliance between the Taliban and China should not come as a surprise. In 2016, the Taliban agreed to protect the development of the $3 billion Chinese-backed Mes Aynak Copper mine situated in Logan Province in one of its controlled areas just outside Kabul. And if any doubt remained about the strategic alliance being formed between the Communist giant and Islamic caliphate, in July, the Chinese and Taliban foreign ministers met in Tianjin, China, to discuss the Taliban’s role in the new Afghanistan government. After the meeting, the Chinese foreign ministry acknowledged that the Taliban would play “an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction” of Afghanistan.

Earlier, we asked whether the U.S. departure from Afghanistan will only serve to increase China’s domination over the global rare earth mineral market. Based on the presented evidence, the answer is clearly yes. The Chinese have clearly established a relationship with the Taliban to develop Afghanistan’s mineral wealth in return for much-needed foreign income while the U.S. still lacks a viable domestic supply of rare earth minerals.  

As the U.S. exit from Afghanistan continues to unfold, policymakers should take note. Rare earth minerals like lithium will be an integral part of the new energy economy. Therefore, the U.S. must develop its own viable supply of these critical new energy economy minerals and seek strategic partnerships with other mineral-rich countries. A viable domestic supply and new partnerships will be the only way to secure its energy independence in the new global energy economy.