Afghan lithium bonanza bad break for Bolivia?

The blogosphere is abuzz with today’s front-page revelations in the New York Times of a vast bonanza of mineral wealth, estimated at some $1 trillion, recently “discovered” by the “United States” in Afghanistan, in the vague locution of the story’s lead line. The “previously unknown deposits” supposedly include iron, copper, cobalt, gold—and lithium, expected to be one of the most critical substances of the 21st century. The story quotes an “internal Pentagon memo” (no agency, title or date given) that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” the key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys (and, it is envisioned, electric cars). Gen. David Petraeus is quoted crowing about the “stunning potential” of the find. But the article is light on the specifics of where this information is actually emanating from…

The article cites “the Pentagon business development task force,” but this is rendered in the lower case (implying that is not its official name), and a Google search for that precise wording only brings up the Times article, and other blogs that have quoted it. The conspiracy theorists, and those who habitually get off on smirking at them, have both swooped in on the story.

In the latter category is Joseph Schuman on the conservative Politics Daily, who writes “Afghan Mineral Find Boosts Anti-US Conspiracy Theories.” He notes the chatter on “conspiracy-minded sites like,” where one commenter wrote: “Somehow this doesn’t surprise me. Outside of the poppy fields and oil pipeline routs there had to be something that was more valuable in the region. I’m surprised they released this info. I doubt that this is actually a new discovery. It was probably known for years.”

In the prior category is Laura Rozen on the liberal, who offers her own quotes from a conveniently anonymous “retired former senior US official based in Afghanistan.” Mr. Anonymous purportedly told Rozen: “The ‘discovery’ of Afghanistan’s minerals will sound pretty silly to old timers. When I was living in Kabul in the early 1970’s the [US government], the Russians, the World Bank, the UN and others were all highly focused on the wide range of Afghan mineral deposits. Cheap ways of moving the ore to ocean ports has always been the limiting factor.”

Why don’t any of these chatterboxes try actually reading the Times story? For all its annoying vagueness, the Times article does (if you read past the gushy opening paragraphs) make clear that there is really little new about this revelation:

In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

Armed with the old Russian charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 percent of the country.

The data from those flights was so promising that in 2007, the geologists returned for an even more sophisticated study, using an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface. It was the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.

The handful of American geologists who pored over the new data said the results were astonishing.

But the results gathered dust for two more years, ignored by officials in both the American and Afghan governments. In 2009, a Pentagon task force that had created business development programs in Iraq was transferred to Afghanistan, and came upon the geological data. Until then, no one besides the geologists had bothered to look at the information — and no one had sought to translate the technical data to measure the potential economic value of the mineral deposits.

Although the “mineral deposits are scattered throughout the country,” the critical lithium reserves seem to be in Ghazni province. The Times acknowledges that there seem to be political motives behind the timing of the revelation, writing that “American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan.” Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines, is quoted saying, “This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy.”

Even conservatives who support the war effort are openly hoping that the new mineral wealth will bring massive investment and stabilize the faltering Karzai regime. Jonah Goldberg in his blog on National Review states blatantly: “Man, it would be nice if this turned out to be true and became a game-changer. Because it sure sounds like we could use one.”

While the notion that the US went to war in Afghanistan to get the lithium is pretty far-fetched (although encirclement of the Caspian Basin oil was certainly a big factor, as we have long argued), having a motherload of this strategic resource under direct US military-corporate control is an added benefit of the occupation, and will become a war aim—the very existence of a “Pentagon business development task force” is pretty open acknowledgment of that. And even if the lithium revelations fail to be a “game-changer” in Afghanistan (NYT blogger Ross Douthat foresees a violent lithium scramble in a comment dubbed “Alas, Afghanistan”), it could well be a game-changer in the coming global struggle for control of lithium.

Few Internet chatterboxes have noted that the revelation comes just as Bolivia—a government on the outs with Washington, and which has already partly nationalized its hydrocarbon resources—is embarking on a massive lithium development project in the PotosĂ­ salt flats, which it hopes will both help pull the nation out of poverty and strengthen the emerging anti-imperialist bloc in Latin America. It seems likely that release of the bonanza revelation was aimed, at least partly, at driving down the global price of lithium and thereby undercutting Bolivia’s efforts. “An early estimate says that Afghanistan’s reserves of lithium may rival those of Bolivia, currently the world’s largest,” writes ScrippsNews.

Green News deftly rains on everyone’s parade in this story. It notes that while Bolivia “was recently discovered to contain an estimated 50% of the world’s supply of lithium,” in the Andean country “it is frequently mixed in with magnesium, which is very hard and expensive to evaporate and then separate.” “Cleantech analyst” Dallas Kachan of Kachan & Co. is quoted saying: “The importance of Bolivia’s reserves was overestimated. It has half the world’s lithium but it doesn’t make economic sense to mine it.” The account also notes that the Afghan find could paradoxically be a big win for the USA’s big regional rival: “The unnamed player here: China, owner of 97% of the rare earth element refining operations in the world.”

If we’re paranoid to think the Pentagon is involved in a global struggle for control of lithium, this paranoia is certainly shared by Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, who warned his armed forces last year that the US has military designs on his country’s hydrocarbon and mineral wealth—especially singling out lithium. Alas—in an echo of Ross Douthat’s “Alas, Afghanistan” prediction—the anticipated lithium boom has already set off inter-regional rivalries within Bolivia as to which jurisdictions will reap the anticipated lithium lucre.

Meanwhile, if the revelations were in fact aimed at bringing down mineral prices and thereby undermining Morales’ populist programs, the gambit has apparently been less than successful. Writes MarketWatch:

Nothing like a complete shrug from markets to contradict a sensationalistic headline on the front page of the New York Times… [A]s of last check, futures for metals such as copper, silver, platinum and palladium all traded higher at the New York Mercantile Exchange. Gold futures fell, but this had mostly to do with today’s more optimistic take on Europe and global growth, which reduced demand for the safe haven of the precious metal.

See our last posts on Afghanistan, Bolivia and the global lithium wars.

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  1. Next: Afghan oil bonanza?
    Perhaps worried that the lithium announcement didn’t make enough of a splash, it seems they are trying again—this time with a considerably less esoteric subsoil commodity. From Bloomberg, Aug. 15:

    Afghanistan Says It Locates 1.8 Billion-Barrel Oilfield in Nation’s North
    Afghanistan discovered an oilfield containing an estimated 1.8 billion barrels of crude in the north of the country, a Mines Ministry official said.

    If proven, the resource would be more than 10 times the size of the country’s oil reserves, assessed at more than 150 million barrels by the US Geological Survey. By comparison, Saudi Arabia had proven reserves of 264.6 billion barrels at the end of 2009, according to BP Plc data

    “A huge oil resource, which looks like a triangle, with an estimated 1.8 billion barrels of oil, has been discovered by Afghan geologists in cooperation with international geologists between Balkh and Sheberghan provinces,” Jawad Omar, a spokesman for the ministry, said in a phone interview today from the capital, Kabul.

    The field is a new discovery and was not among those found by Russian exploration companies, Omar said. Further research will be carried out in the next six months and the field will be tendered once all investigations are completed, he said.