Lithium in Afghanistan for electric cars: a blessing and a curse

A U.S. soldier on guard in Afganistan

Lithium in Afghanistan, as well as rich deposits of other precious minerals, could further complicate U.S. goals in the Afghanistan war. Flickr photo.

Lithium has been discovered in Afghanistan, in vast quantities. Lithium, an alkali metal found in salt flats and clay deposits, is the energy source of the future that will make widespread use of electric cars possible. Batteries for electric cars, smartphones and laptops could make lithium the crude oil of the 21st century. Much like most of the world’s oil, vast deposits of lithium are found in remote, backward countries hostile to the United States. Countries with confirmed mother lodes of lithium like Argentina, Boliva and now Afghanistan are being referred to as the “Saudi Arabias” of Lithium.

Lithium: fuel for Afghan corruption

Rich lithium deposits in Afghanistan were announced Monday by American government officials. The New York Times reports that Afghanistan has deposits of lithium and huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt and gold worth nearly $1 trillion. The previously undiscovered minerals, existing in quantities far beyond known reserves elsewhere, could be both good news and bad news for the U.S.-Afghanistan war. Vast mineral wealth could lift the Afghan government out from generations of war and bring about peace. Or the known presence of lithium and other precious metals could increase Taliban resolve to control the country and intensify the Afghanistan war. Either way  lithium will be a new and irresistible temptation for Afghan corruption.

Lithium and the Afghanistan war

Afghanistan lithium, iron, copper, cobalt and gold have the potential to make the country the international focus of mining. But Afghanistan’s economy, currently based on opium cultivation, has none of the heavy industry required to capitalize on its mineral wealth. To exploit Afghanistan lithium, China may have an edge, despite heavy U.S. investment of billions in treasure and barrels of blood in the Afghanistan war. Blogger Aziz Poonawalla points out that China will compete aggressively with the U.S. for strategic control of Afghanistan’s minerals. Analysts speculate that Obama will postpone plans to withdraw troops from the Afghanistan war, while a corrupt Hamid Karzai will cozy up to China and demand that U.S. forces clear out sooner.

Bolivian lithium tempers Afghan expectations

Lithium in Afghanistan is big news because now the incredibly backward country could become the leading supplier of the rare-earth metal used in the lithium ion batteries that power hundreds of millions of smart phones and laptops. Automakers are ready to bet their future on lithium’s incredibly light weight and energy return for electric cars. As reported in the New Yorker, nearly half the world’s known lithium resources are buried beneath vast salt flats in Bolivia. Yet experts doubt that Bolivian will benefit from its lithium treasure. Boliva’s socialist government is hostile to the U.S., and its infrastructure is little more developed than Afghanistan’s. Before Bolivia can hope to exploit Bolivian lithium as a twenty-first-century fuel, it must first develop the rudiments of a twentieth-century economy.

Or become the venue of the next 21st century war.

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