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Could Afghanistan Become a 'Saudi Arabia' for EVs?

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The Pentagon and the government of Afghanistan are trumpeting the discovery of vast, untapped mineral deposits that could provide an economic backbone for the impoverished, war-torn country.

Dry salt lakes in western Afghanistan may also be home to one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium, a key component of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles as well as cell phones and laptops.

The mineral wealth — discovered in 2007 by the U.S. Geological Survey after using old estimates from Soviet geologists — includes massive veins of iron, copper, cobalt and gold valued at nearly $1 trillion.

As the first mass-market electric vehicles hit showrooms in the United States, experts have wondered where all the lithium will come from for the batteries if these vehicles truly take off in a way many (including the current president) hope they will. Before this week, Bolivia had the largest known reserves, but an initial analysis of one deposit in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan showed that the country may have deposits just as large.

This prompted one Pentagon official to call Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” meaning the country could become as important to EVs as Saudi Arabia is to the gas-powered cars and trucks we drive now.

Like the Jay-Z album, this could be both a gift and a curse. Vast mineral deposits, especially those that relate to energy, can transform a country — whose greatest export is heroin — in the form of investment, jobs and eventually education. Lithium could do all this while providing an important rare-earth material to the West that can help us kick our oil dependency and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet they don’t call it a “resource curse” for nothing. Ask a country like Nigeria, where the discovery of oil has made a few corrupt government officials and oil barons very rich while turning the rest of the country into a war zone.

Afghanistan is widely considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and just last year American officials accused the minister of mines of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop a copper mine.

It’s just as likely that local tribes and provincial interests will do battle with the central government over the reserves in question, not to mention draw attention from Taliban forces hoping to wrest control of the country from the American-backed government.

It’s a strange world where even as we try to end our oil dependence, an important material to our automotive future could lie in the same deeply troubled region.

U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan (The New York Times)

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