Can Afghanistan Satisfy Tech Industries' Insatiable Appetite For Rare Earths?
Afghanistan is rich! The world's "poorest country" is known to have trillions of dollars worth of rare earths and other minerals buried underground. Rare earths are essential for the global supply chain of the technology industry. They are considered a "critical resource" for US national security.
|Afghan Mineral Resources. Source: Aljazeera|
A US Defense Department report has described Afghanistan as "Saudi Arabia of Lithium". Pakistan, too, is believed to be rich in rare earths. Peace and security are key to unlocking the potential mineral riches in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is where both nations need to focus for a brighter future for their peoples.
|Uses of Rare Earth Elements. Source: Natural Resources of Canada|
Rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of 15 elements referred to as the lanthanide series in the periodic table of elements. Scandium and yttrium, while not true REEs, are also included in this categorization because they exhibit similar properties to the lanthanides and are found in the same ore bodies. REEs are key components in many electronic devices that we use in our daily lives, as well as in a variety of industrial applications, according to the Natural Resources of Canada website.
|Rare Elements in the Periodic Table|
Rare earth elements go into a variety of industrial applications, including electronics, clean energy, aerospace, automotive and defense. Permanent magnets alone account for 38% of total forecasted demand for rare earths. Rapid growth in Lithium-Ion batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) represents another major opportunity for Afghanistan. The Chinese appear ready to invest billions of US dollars in Afghanistan to extract this wealth. The extension of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure into Afghanistan can facilitate the export of these minerals through Pakistani ports in Gwadar and Karachi.
The Afghan mineral wealth was first discovered and mapped by Russian geologists during the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. These maps were used by American geologists from the US Geological Survey in 2010 to conduct aerial surveys using P-3 Orion naval patrol aircrafts equipped with sensors. A US Defense Department report written soon after this discovery called Afghanistan "Saudi Arabia of Lithium".
With the Taliban request to join China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China appears to be the leading candidate to win mining rights for rare earths in Afghanistan. Already, China has acquired rights to develop copper mining at Aynak Copper Field in Afghanistan. Back in 2007, China Metallurgical Group agreed to invest billions of dollars in the project and related infrastructure development -- including the construction of a coal-fired electrical power plant and what would be Afghanistan's first freight railway, according to a Radio Free Europe report. Geologists estimate that Aynak is the world's largest undeveloped copper field.
Pakistan's Balochistan province, too, is believed to be rich in rare earth elements. Here is how an expert who asked not to be named explained the mining potential in Balochistan:
"The Pegmatite rock that covers much of Balochistan (and other parts of Pakistan as well) has several different gems, in it which have been mined for a long time. These are easy to visualize as they differ in color from the rest of the rock, and can be removed with a small geologist's hammer. Pegmatite, though, also contains uranium which can be separated using a Geiger Counter, and rare metals and rare earths. Some of these like Lithium can be separated relatively easily. Others like Samarium and Dysprosium are vastly more difficult to separate because you need X-Ray equipment to help identify them. Also, their presence is very small - that is why they are classed as "rare." The presence of many of these metals was not known to science until recently and until the Japanese began to use them in electronics, hardly any effort was made to mine them. Now, of course, they are all the rage because they have been found especially useful in the latest "green" generation equipment as well as in defense and other applications. Indeed, until China banned their sale to Japan, no one really even bothered about them - it suited the Japanese to remain quiet as they were getting very good prices for these resources from an unaware Chinese, and the same thing is now happening in other parts of the world, in Pakistan in this case. Much of the testing that is involved here is difficult and requires very advanced technical equipment, and even methods like gas spectrometry etc may not help identify materials that exist in extremely small percentages in soil or rock. In India for example, some of these metal reserves were not known until the USGS first and then the Russians helped analyze soil and rocks across the country. If nothing else, the Indians formed a government owned company called Indian Rare earths Limited which comes under the Atomic Energy Commission and is directly under the Prime Minister of India. They do seem to have handled the conservation and exploitation of these reserves far better than is being done in Pakistan."
Peace and security are key to unlocking the potential mineral riches in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is where both nations need to focus on for a brighter future for their peoples.
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"Acting in good faith," he (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) added, "we can make a difference in creating necessary external conditions for the Afghans to get their destiny in their own hands, without any threats emanating from the Afghan territory in regards to terrorism, drug trafficking, and without any risks and challenges created from the territory of Afghanistan to its neighbors."
In a readout released following their discussions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that "approaches were compared on issues of facilitating establishment of peace, stability and security in Afghanistan, while the necessity to establish national reconciliation in the country was stressed."
The Iranian Foreign Ministry also reported positive results.
"At the meeting, the top diplomats supported the formation of an inclusive government with the participation of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan," the Iranian side said in its own account of the four-way talks. "An Afghanistan free of terrorism, free of drugs and free of threats against its neighbors was another topic on the agenda."
The meeting is the latest platform among involving regional countries to address the situation in Afghanistan, where the international country at large remains concerned about the Taliban's ability to stabilize the war-torn nation and curb the spread of militant groups known to operate there.
The security climate across Afghanistan and its periphery also dominated a meeting held Thursday by member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a post-Soviet, Russia-led alliance that also includes Armenia and Belarus as well as the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"The situation in the CSTO's zone of responsibility and on the external borders of its member states remains unstable and spells new and truly acute challenges and risks for the security of our countries," Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
Putin was slated to stage another appearance at Friday's Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders' summit also taking place in Dushanbe. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also count themselves as members of the SCO, as do China, India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Iran, like Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia, is an SCO observer state. But the Islamic Republic is expected to receive full membership as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi traveled to Tajikistan to appear in person alongside Pakistani Foreign Minister Imran Khan and other leaders, while Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were scheduled to speak virtually.
While these differences continue to exist, the situation in Afghanistan has presented a path for Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and Islamabad to overcome their differences and coalesce. It was also an opportunity to present to the world an alternative order to that advertised by the United States.
The U.S. has accused both China and Russia of pursuing destabilizing moves across the globe, and has instituted tough sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have also strained due to the former's warming relationship with India and the latter's long-cultivated ties to the Taliban.
The emerging dynamic reverses Cold War-era interactions that saw the U.S. and Pakistan on one side of the decades-long geopolitical dispute, and the Soviet Union and India on the other. India and Russia still maintain warm relations, but the SCO has sought to bring all regional parties together, leaving the U.S. on the sidelines.
Afghanistan is believed to hold more than $1 trillion worth of mineral resources and metals but faces many challenges in untapping it.
Afghanistan has an estimated 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth minerals including lithium (used in batteries), uranium (used for nuclear fuel) and many others. One of the largest deposits of rare earth minerals can be found at Khanneshin in Helmand province.
The country also has an estimated 152 million tonnes of barite, a colourless mineral commonly used by the oil and gas industry in drilling.
Deep beneath the ground in one of the world’s poorest countries sits at least $1 trillion of untapped mineral resources, according to a report published by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum [PDF]. The South Asian country of 38 million people is estimated to hold more than 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore, 1.3 billion tonnes of marble and 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth minerals.
According to Scott Montgomery, a geologist who has studied the extent of Afghanistan’s resources, the country requires a minimum of seven to 10 years to develop large-scale mining to become a major source of revenue.
Poor security, weak legislation and corruption have prevented the development of the mining sector.
What lies beneath the ground?
During the 1960s and 1970s the USSR and its Eastern European allies conducted extensive surveys of the country’s geological resources. However, decades of war meant that most resources remained buried.
In 2010, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) together with Afghanistan Geological Survey (AGS) conducted the most comprehensive geological survey of the country identifying 24 specific areas of interest (AOI) across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The areas of interest are colour-coded on the map below. They include: valuable metal reserves (green), building material reserves (yellow), industrial mineral reserves (purple) and areas with oil and gas (red).
Iron is the most abundant of Afghanistan’s valuable metals. The total iron ore reserve is estimated to be 2.2 billion metric tonnes, placing Afghanistan among the top 10 countries in extractable iron.
The Hajigak mine located in the mountainous Bamyan province, 130km (80 miles) west of Kabul, has the largest iron ore deposit in the region with 1.7 billion tonnes of high-grade ore at 63-69 percent iron.
To put that in context, 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore could be used to construct at least 200,000 replicas of Paris’s Eiffel Tower – the iconic monument which stands at 324m (1,063 feet) and was constructed from 7,300 tonnes of iron in 1889.
The country is also estimated to have 183 million tonnes of aluminum deposits found mainly in Badakhshan and Kandahar provinces. The lightweight metal is the second most used metal globally, behind only iron.
Afghanistan also holds an estimated 2,698kg of gold deposits along two main gold belts: Badakhshan southwest to Takhar and Ghazni southwest to Zabul. This amount of gold can mint at least 300,000 gold pound coins each weighing eight grams.
Afghanistan is the eighth most mountainous country in the world making many parts difficult to access. The Hindu Kush Himalayas span the northeast of the landlocked country and contain various minerals and stones including marble, limestone and sandstone which are used widely in construction.
Marble is a versatile rock commonly used in architecture and sculpture. The country yields an impressive 1.3 billion tonnes of the beautiful building stone which is enough marble to build 13,000 Washington Monuments – standing at 169m (555 ft) tall and 17m (55 feet) wide. Nangarhar province which borders Pakistan is known for its pink onyx marble which is among the most sought-after in the region.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project provides an avenue for energy connectivity between Afghanistan and Pakistan, an envoy said
The CPEC is a central part of the Belt and Road Initiative, under which Beijing has pledged more than US$60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan
Pakistan has discussed Taliban-led Afghanistan joining the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project, the Pakistani ambassador to the country said on Monday.
“Regional connectivity is an important element of our discussion with Afghan leadership and our way forward for our economic interaction with Afghanistan,” said Mansoor Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s envoy to Kabul, in an interview with Reuters.
“This important project – the China Pakistan Economic Corridor … provides good opportunities, good potential for providing infrastructure and energy connectivity between Afghanistan and Pakistan … (and) also connecting South Asia to the Central Asian region,” he said.
CPEC is a central part of the Belt and Road Initiative, under which Beijing has pledged more than US$60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan, much of it in the form of loans.
Khan said that discussions had been held with the Taliban-led administration on this and other ways to develop the country’s economy.
“I think there has been deep interest in terms of developing economic connectivity of Afghanistan with Pakistan through CPEC and with other neighbouring countries including Iran, China, Central Asian countries,” he said.
In recent days, representatives from Pakistan, China and Russia have held meetings with Taliban officials. Khan said security and economic development were the two main topics under discussion and that these countries expected to continue to consult as a group and meet the Taliban.
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan on August 15, the country has been plunged into economic crisis as the nation’s international assistance has been largely cut off.
Billions of dollars in central bank assets held abroad have also been frozen, which has put pressure on the banking system and prevented most transactions involving US dollars, which Khan said was also hampering trade.
Khan said that Islamabad was also trying to work with the international community to ease international restrictions on the banking system and several executives from Pakistani financial institutions with a presence in Afghanistan had visited Kabul in recent days to see if the situation could be improved should international limits end.
The United States and other Western nations are reluctant to provide the Taliban with funds until the Islamist militant movement provides assurances that it will uphold human rights, and in particular the rights of women.
Pakistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan and hosts millions of Afghan refugees from decades of conflict, is concerned about the economic crisis hitting its neighbour.
Its prime minister, Imran Khan, and other officials have urged the international community not to isolate the Taliban administration, saying aid should be provided to prevent economic collapse and a wave of refugees.
Pakistan has had deep ties with the Taliban and has been accused of supporting the group as it battled the US-backed government in Kabul for 20 years – charges denied by Islamabad.
However, Pakistan has not yet formally recognised the Taliban-led administration and Khan, the Pakistani ambassador, told Reuters that “the issues of formal recognition will come later as Pakistan is part of the international community”.
On Monday, the UN General Assembly drew to a close without speeches by Afghanistan after world powers intervened in disputes over who would represent the two countries.
"We should positively view the timely development of bilateral and multilateral dialogues and cooperation with Afghanistan on fighting terrorism," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in comments carried by official Iranian media outlets and Russia's state-run Tass Russian News Agency.
He called upon those present to act through two platforms, the United Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a coalition of countries in which all present, save for neutral Turkmenistan, are members.
China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and others in the region surrounding Afghanistan have set out to establish unity in confronting the crises enveloping the nation since the U.S. military withdrawal.
In their second such meeting, the senior diplomats from Afghanistan's six neighboring countries and Russia gathered virtually and in person for a conference in the Iranian capital of Tehran on Wednesday in an effort to further align their views.
They come together at a time when Afghanistan is facing imminent humanitarian, economic and security crises. Representatives were on hand from China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Among the most concerning developments for these countries has been the rise of militant groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) that have issued threats beyond Afghanistan's borders.
"It is necessary to create a unified front against terrorism by means of such multilateral platforms as the U.N. and the SCO," Wang said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed this call in his remarks, and additionally offered the assistance of the Collective Treaty Security Organization, a Moscow-led alliance that also included Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
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He said his nation was preparing to send assistance to Afghanistan, and also issued an appeal to prevent the U.S. and its allies from redeploying forces elsewhere in the region after having withdrawn from a two-decade conflict in Afghanistan.
"We once again call on the countries neighboring Afghanistan to prevent the U.S. and NATO from establishing a military presence in their territory, given their plans to move there after pulling out of Afghanistan," Lavrov said.
Afghanistan, neighbors, Russia, meet, Tehran, Iran
Russian ambassador to Iran Levan Dzhagaryan, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and China's special envoy for Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong pose for a picture at the second Meeting of Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan's Neighboring Countries in Tehran, Iran on October 27.
IRANIAN MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Beijing and Moscow have sought to ensure that regional countries were the ones to take the lead on the developing situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban quickly seized power from a U.S.-backed government after the pullout. No country in the world has yet recognized the newly established Islamic Emirate. But China, Russian, Iran, Pakistan and others have already begun to engage with the nascent administration in hopes of avoiding further instability.
As turmoil arises in the shape of ISIS attacks, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian highlighted his country's experience both in battling jihadis in Iraq and Syria and in suffering from U.S. military action in confronting the new challenge in Afghanistan.
Pakistan should hire experts, finance rare earth metal projects through budget
REMs constitute a group of 17 elements that occur together in the periodic table, including yttrium and 15 lanthanides. The use of REMs within industrial sectors is both high stakes and high wager.
These sectors include defence, electronics, medicinal, industrial, automotive, etc and they are used in specialised applications such as aircraft engines, nuclear batteries, lasers, magnets, optic fibres, high-strength alloys, superconductors, storage disks, signal amplifiers, to name a few.
REMs deposits in Pakistan have been discovered in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (Koga, Tarbela, Jawar), Gilgit-Baltistan (Gilgit, Skardu), and Balochistan (Reko Diq, Chagai, Saindak).
Initial geochemical analysis showed that 12 out of 17 REMs had been found with varying potential. Still, the exact size is yet to be determined and required an in-depth exploration study. REMs are the most precious commodities today and Pakistan needs to place maximum bets on it to cash in on the opportunities. Realistically, Pakistan is not a manufacturing or a processing country, hence, it should earmark the commerce potential with both revenue from sales and barter trade.
Due to REMs strategic importance, an organisational setup should be put in place, under the prime minister, and in close collaboration with supporting arms of armed forces and Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.
The entire exercise can be done in stages with exploration, extraction, ramp-up production and global marketing with mass production over a five-year timeline.
Experts should be freshly hired or may be brought from different government departments (Geological Survey of Pakistan, Survey of Pakistan, Khan Laboratories, etc), including geologists, radiometric surveyors, drilling/smelting specialists, and security experts.
The project financing should come from the national budget under the ambit of “special strategic projects”. The global REMs market is valued at $10 billion with an 8-10% CAGR and production of 170,000 tons per annum by 2022. If Pakistan secures 2-5% of this market share – with annual output of 3,500-8,500 tons, it can inject $1-2 billion per year into the national pocket over the next five to seven years.
This could change Pakistan’s international status as a high-value player at a high stakes table in the global arena.
The writer is a PhD in Engineering from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. He currently serves as Vice President of Core Group in Pakistan
By Yasir Masood | Gwadar ProDec 12, 2022
Pakistan possesses substantial lithium reserves. According to the Metal Mining Agency of Japan, these reserves may fulfil global demand for nearly 500 years. With China and India, two of Pakistan's major trading partners, investing extensively in electric vehicles (EVs), Pakistan has a significant chance of becoming a bigsupplier and a major consumer of this essential commodity.
“Given the existence of favorable geological environments in Pakistan which are found elsewhere for the occurrence of Lithium on a global level, Balochistan, KPK, and GB Provinces have been identified as target areas for finding this commodity in substantial quantities”, said Mr. Muhammad Yaqoob Shah, ex-General Manager (Geology) Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation Islamabad.