Afghanistan can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium
Afghanistan has had a reputation over the centuries as the  “graveyard of empires”. The country has played a special role historically, alternating between geo-strategic insignificance and being a global geopolitical hotspot.
Afghanistan can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium

Afghanistan can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium

The Great Mosque of Herat (Photo: iStock)
Sándor Köles 20/03/2023 16:00

„There are certain places in the world whose existence is strange and fatal for mankind, since they have to be traversed by conquering armies. In these places, victories are decisive and defeats indicate the completion of national destruction. These places are the gates through which nations come and go. Sometimes they come under the triumphal arches of victory, sometimes they leave through the narrow exits through which these nations, like men, pass, never to return. Herat is a place like that, Kabul is another”. (Homer Lea)

Afghanistan has had a reputation over the centuries as the “graveyard of empires”. The above quote from Homer Lea, who participated in shaping American geopolitics in the early 20th century, refers partly to the conquests of Alexander the Great, but especially to Britain’s disastrous defeat in 1842. The first Anglo-Afghan war lasted from 1838 to 1842. This was the first major conflict between the British and Russian empires in the context of power struggle for gaining control over Central Asia. This struggle became known as the Great Game.

Attempted invasions

Afghanistan had the misfortune to be located between Russia, expanding to the south, and India, which was under British control. In order to secure their Asian conquest, in 1838 the British invaded Afghanistan, which was ruled by Sardar Dust Muhammad, who was close to the Russian court. They replaced him with a puppet ruler, Shah Shujah Durrani. After the victory, most of the British troops retreated to India, leaving a contingent of only 5,000 men behind to defend Sujhah’s power. Two years after the invasion an uprising against British occupation broke out. The commander of the British army in Afghanistan attempted to leave the country peacefully for India. However, in January 1842 an Afghan insurgent force massacred the entire army and the 12,000 civilians who were travelling with it. Only a Scottish surgeon, Dr William Brydon, managed to escape the country on horseback, though he was half dead when he arrived.

The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan for geopolitical and ideological reasons between 1979 and 1989. The contemporary press declared thatthe war proved to be a “bear trap” for the Russians. The Soviet invasion caused huge human and material losses on both sides and ended in a humiliating withdrawal for the Soviets. The victory was largely thanks to the mujahideen forces, who were backed by the USA both tactically and financially. Later the Taliban forces emerged from this group. The Afghan fiasco was also a prelude to the dissolution of the Soviet empire and its loss of ideological and political space on the global stage.
The most recent war in Afghanistan was that waged by the United States and its allies starting in 2001. In 2001 the US-led coalition forces invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Islamist government of the Taliban (which had formerly been local allies of the US). The grounds for war were the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York and the associated terrorist threat emerging from the region, as well as a desire to eliminate Al-Qaeda in particular and to intervene in the Afghan civil war. The international coalition was stationed in the country for 20 years. The civilian and military casualties of the intervention are estimated to be in the tens of thousands and the war cost roughly USD 2.3 trillion.

Afghanistan has played a special role historically, alternating between geo-strategic insignificance and being a global geopolitical hotspot. Because of its geographical location between the Iranian plateau and the Hindu Kush mountains of the western Himalayan region, Afghanistan has always been the crossing point of various empires over the centuries, none of which have been able to occupy the country permanently. Mountainous regions with decentralized power bases of different clans, tribes and ethnic groups have been very difficult to control centrally, which has been proven over and over and again. 

In the 1980s, when Soviet troops withdrew from the country, the US backed mujahideen seemed to have fulfilled their mission. In retrospect, however, the sudden withdrawal from the civil war-ravaged country in the 1990s allowed the Taliban (initially considered a kind of peace-keeping force) and also Osama bin Laden to dig in in the Hindu Kush.

It can be argued that the US-led intervention in fact unified the Taliban and may have marked the beginning of an attempt at large-scale nation-building. However, this is conditional on a compromise between the Taliban and other historically and territorially strong Afghan clans and tribes, the complexity of which the western world is not fully aware.
Kabul (Photo: Wakil Kohsar)

Fast-filling vacuum

Afghanistan today represents an anarchy of overlapping and competing security, political and economic interests of regional and international powers. Since the withdrawal of coalition forces it has become clear that the vacuum of security and power in the Hindu Kush is filling rapidly. Afghanistan is at the geo-strategic crossroads of different spheres of influence again, and its internal conflicts and power-political rivalries will have an impact on the neighboring countries and vice versa. For example, China’s warming relations the Taliban regime have already made it clear that the changed power relations are triggering regional movements and changes. It is also evident that, unlike in the 1990s, the new Kabul regime is interested in achieving international recognition.

Afghanistan’s important neighbors are Iran to the west and Pakistan to the south-east, which has a particularly close relationship with its neighbor as a strategic reserve position in relation to India. In the north, three of the five Central Asian states share a border with Afghanistan and China shares an almost 350 km long border corridor with its neighbor. Russia and Turkey have no direct border with Afghanistan, but they also strive to exert influence in the region.

All these players are interested in establishing a solid Afghan state that does not provide a platform for Islamism, does not threaten a new Afghan civil war, and does not trigger a new wave of refugees. They intend to exert influence on the political-economic processes taking place in the country and support those Afghan forces that they feel will help promote their interests. Nonetheless, these interactions interfere with the careful balance among the various forces and interests within the country. Consequently it is certain that Afghanistan will remain a security and geo-strategic hotspot for a long time.
Mountains of the Hindu Kush (Photo: iStock)

Attracted by the new silk road

We need to have a more detailed insight into the interests of regional players in relation to Afghanistan to understand the situation and possible future of this hotspot. In light of the close historical and cultural ties between the two countries, Turkey, with a fundamental interest in creating stability in Afghanistan, intends to be involved in the Afghan reconstruction process, These endeavors are in harmony with Turkey’s Central Asian strategy and its ambition to be a key regional power.

Pakistan’s engagement in Afghanistan is determined by security concerns due to the worries related to terrorism and the resulting instability in particular. At the same time, many aspects of Pakistan’s Afghanistan-policy are determined by its relations with India. Pakistan benefits from a good relationship with a weak and malleable Kabul, which allows it to maintain “strategic depth” against a perceived invasion by India and provide safe asylum for the Islamist groups it supports. One of Pakistan’s main strategic objectives is to prevent Delhi from expanding its power in South Asia.

China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road giga-project (also known as the New Silk Road) runs through Central Asia, and its success partly depends on the stability of Afghanistan and its entire environment. China intends to protect its investments in the region, especially in respect of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Accordingly, China has increased its presence in Afghanistan in recent years, which has resulted in military deployments as well. One of China’s major concerns is that Afghanistan under the Taliban could be a safe haven for Uighur separatists and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETM). China maintains that these groups seek to undermine China’s territorial integrity in the Xinjiang region.

The prerequisite for a viable, stable future in Afghanistan is to establish international cooperation that does not treat the country as a “gateway”.

At the same time, Afghanistan can also play a key role in transnational economic projects managed by China. Indeed, there are several reasons why the treatment of Afghanistan as a geo-economic partner would be logical for Beijing’s interests. Access to Afghanistan’s vast mineral and energy resources would increase the competitiveness of leading companies in China’s strategic industrial sectors. Afghanistan could also be integrated into the process of consolidating ties with Iran and Central Asia through infrastructure projects.
As we saw earlier, Russia had traditionally considered Afghanistan as part of its sphere of influence in Central Asia. The majority of Russia’s objectives in Afghanistan support China and Pakistan. A possible Russian-Chinese understanding on South Asia in which Pakistan appears to be an important partner, however, excludes the political empowerment of India.

India has already invested nearly three billion dollars in Afghanistan in the form of aid and investments over the past two decades. It was in India’s interest for the coalition forces led by the US to stay in the country and it now faces many challenges as a result of their withdrawal. Indians and their assets came under several attacks in Afghanistan during the Taliban offensive. An example of this was when the Salma Dam on the Hari River in Herat province, also known as the “Afghan-Indian Friendship Dam”, was struck by Taliban forces.
A China-Pakistan-Taliban alliance could become a serious national security challenge for India, especially if China is able to integrate Afghanistan into the One Belt, One Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and manages to exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources. If this were to happen, India’s influence in the region would decrease.

Afghan Litmus test

The broader consequences of the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan for the United States and its allies are still unclear. But subsequent to the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the rise of Islamism in Libya and Syria, the fall of Kabul could mean the stranding of Western efforts to establish an institutionalized world order.

According to the President of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger, the issues in Afghanistan “serve as a litmus test for the ability of the entire international community to resolve conflicts”. As he notes, the Hindu Kush “shows the current weakness of the West in geo-strategic terms”. Senior Advisor to the Munich Security Conference Elmar Brok also sees direct consequences for the western states. To quote him, “If no credible and rapid conclusions can be drawn from the Kabul disaster, the American century is over, together with the political, security and economic power of the West, as well as the values and fundamental rights included in the UN Charter” .

As a result, Afghanistan is still a geopolitical hotspot where a version of the game between Russia, China, India and Iran has already begun with the allied withdrawal. The outcome is not yet known, but it is certain that regional games will still be played according to the rules of the great powers on the longer run, and their dynamics will be determined by the rivalry and/or cooperation between the United States and China.

Saudi Arabia of lithium

Afghanistan’s harsh terrain and lack of navigable rivers are factors that hinder internal economic dynamism. Also, the fact that it is landlocked means it cannot easily take part in the international trade. However, Afghanistan’s geography is a blessing as well as a curse. The area of what is now present-day Afghanistan used to be an important land bridge along the legendary Silk Road, a corridor that facilitated the flow of goods, currencies, people, technologies, ideas, languages, arts, knowledge, religions and armies across the Eurasian mainland. It is far from being a historical curiosity of ancient times as it is still a card that Afghanistan can play to increase its regional influence. The prerequisite for a viable, stable future in Afghanistan is to establish international cooperation that does not treat the country as a “gateway”. Cooperation that enables local ethnic groups, most still following their pre-modern social traditions, not to be passive victims of the “big games” around and above them. At the same time, the country must become capable of participating in regional cooperation as an equal partner. Obviously, this also requires internal compromise and a strategy for Afghanistan to replace its current reliance on aid, which only reinforces dependency.

In a world struggling with a shortage of raw materials, one of the important economic ways out for Afghanistan would be if it could exploit its much-touted natural resources in a sustainable way. Based on US research and information as well as other sources, Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” in the near future. This metal is vital for both electronic devices and batteries for electric cars, for the delivery systems of nuclear weapons and for the manufacture of solar energy storage technologies. According to research conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Afghanistan’s mineral wealth includes 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth minerals, whose distribution is remarkably uneven globally. These minerals are essential for cutting-edge technology in civil and military innovations linked to the so-called “fourth industrial revolution”.
Afghanistan’s underground treasures also contain significant quantities of hydrocarbons including natural gas and oil, particularly in areas close to the border with Tajikistan. According to USGS estimations, Afghanistan’s natural gas reserves amount to 15.7 trillion cubic meters in total, while it has oil reserves of 3.6 billion barrels. It appears that Soviet geologists and politicians were aware of these these treasures in Afghan soil when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan – at a time when the irreversible economic decline of the communist superpower had already been well under way. But things are different today: China, India and the European Union are desperately trying to secure their own energy security, which requires a diversification of suppliers. Russia, Iran and certain states of the post-Soviet region (such as Turkmenistan and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan) are trying to use energy exports to assert their geo-strategic interests. Afghanistan can therefore act as an energy supplier to Eurasian economies dependent on external sources and as a key transit corridor via transnational networks.

It may seem almost utopian, but it is neither historically nor economically unjustified to think of the Afghanistan of the future as a geo-economic land bridge, provided that the present-day players in the “Great Game” do not forget about the following story:

British Indian forces returned to Afghanistan under General Pollock in August 1842. In revenge for their destruction a year earlier, the British column heavily defeated the Ghiljis3 and re-entered Kabul. They also captured Dust Mohammed Khan, one of Afghanistan’s most powerful (Ghilji) tribal leaders and the first commander of the Afghan army. He asked a question from his British captors: “I am astonished by the size of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but I do not understand why the rulers of such a vast and flourishing empire would cross the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.”

Dust Mohammed Khan must have intended his words to be ironic as his by no means insignificant country had and still has considerable mineral treasures. However, this story is also a recurrent episode in the Great Game that is being currently enacted in Afghanistan.

The author is a sociologist, cultural anthropologist, international analyst and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Carpathian Foundation

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.
Cooperation with China
Afghanistan’s mineral resources, particularly its lithium deposits can play a key role in the global energy transition to renewable resources. China is already in talks with the Afghan leadership to invest in the country's lithium sector. Furthermore, they recently signed and oil extraction contract with Chinese Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas (CAPEIC).
China’s then Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Afghanistan in March 2022 to meet the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi (Photo: AFP/Taliban Foreign Ministry)

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