Afghanistan’s Lithium Riches — More Mirage Than Windfall


March 2023

Recent reports on lithium mining in Afghanistan led to claims that there will be a lithium rush in Afghanistan with significant consequences for the world-wide supply chain of the rare metal ever more sought after for its use in batteries. However, a closer look by the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) raises serious doubts about such prospects, amongst others as there are manifold hurdles that qualify, if not question, the economical viability of lithium extraction from Afghan rocks.

Taliban with allegedly lithium-bearing stones in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, January 2023 (source: Bakhtar News (https://bakhtarnews.af/په-ننګرهار-او-کونړ-کې-د-۱۰۰۰-ټنو-لېتیم-ل/))

Proof of Lithium Extraction

On 21st of January 2023, the Islamist Taliban, who took over control of Afghanistan in August 2021, announced to have prevented the smuggling of 1,000 tonnes of «lithium» mined in Afghanistan by seizing it and arresting the people behind it, three Afghans and two Chinese. This was noteworthy as it was a rare, if not the first occasion in which a report about lithium extraction in Afghanistan was actually backed by apparent physical evidence and not only vague rumours.


Subsequent commentaries and analyses displayed this alleged lithium seizure and the arrest of Chinese citizens then as evidence of China taking over lucrative lithium extraction in Afghanistan, amongst others claiming that «the Chinese are digging deep into Afghanistan» and that the Chinese «are more involved than ever and have been trying hard to legally or illegally extract Afghanistan’s minerals and transport them out of the country».


What such reports failed to do though was to scrutinise the history of the potential for lithium mining in Afghanistan and the manifold issues that raise questions about the alleged scenario of China moving into Afghanistan to extract vast amounts of lithium.

New Old Dreams of Lithium Riches

Grand claims that lithium slumbering in Afghanistan’s soil will not only have a major impact on the course of the war-ravaged country at the Hindu Kush but also the world market of lithium carbonate and hydroxide, the compounds in which lithium are traded and that are ever more sought after for lithium’s critical role in batteries powering anything from smartphones to electrical cars, are anything but new.


For example, in 2010, i.e. well over a decade ago, The New York Times cited an internal memorandum of the U.S. Department of Defense stating «that Afghanistan could become the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’».  The same article quoted U.S. officials as saying that the lithium-containing deposits in Afghanistan are so vast that they could «fundamentally alter the Afghan economy» and that «Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centres in the world».


While the mentioned article by The New York Times made this sound like a game-changing new development, a closer look shows that it rather rang a distant bell. A detailed paper written by a U.S. geologist and published in 1983 — i.e. 27 years (!) before the referenced article in The New York Times — cited information from Soviet geological explorations listing lithium as one of several «strategic minerals» occurring in Afghanistan that were described as «potentially attractive». The same report also stated in general that the then Soviet Union «recommend[ed] intensive mining operations» in Afghanistan, which echoes similar claims made about China nowadays.


Needless to say that neither these nor other similar predictions from past decades ever materialised.

Old Soviet Data and Recent Chinese Explorations

That said, recently skyrocketing lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices as well as the fact that Afghanistan, although not at peace, for the first time in decades does currently not witness a country-wide war, did create more favourable circumstances for lithium extraction. However, the situation is not as simple as that.


To begin with, while Afghanistan has lithium deposits, no one really knows much about them. Even nowadays, most of the information on lithium and other mineral deposits in Afghanistan is based on information from Soviet explorations conducted in the 1970s and 80s, which, although extensive, did not amount to a comprehensive geological prospecting of Afghanistan.


This is crucial as the fact that lithium exists somewhere does not necessarily mean that it can be extracted in an economically viable way. Or like the CEO of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence Simon Moores flippantly put it in August 2021, one of the many times when reports about Afghanistan’s lithium potential once again surfaced: «Afghanistan has occurrences of lithium. But so does my back garden.»


To assess the potential of profitable lithium extraction, it is necessary to identify in what form exactly lithium occurs and how it can be extracted from such a source, including figuring in all costs along the way from the mines to the market. The former is all the more crucial as Dr. Corby Anderson, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and an expert in the fields of extractive metallurgy and mineral processing, stated that «every single source of lithium — be it hard rocks, brines, or sedimentary rocks — is different; every source has a different lithium concentration and also an array of other factors vary from source to source.»


Recent predictions of an alleged lithium rush in Afghanistan focus on lithium-bearing hard rock minerals mined in the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan and Kunar, from where also the stones seized by the Taliban in January 2023 originated. (That said, there are also reports on lithium-containing brines in other places in Afghanistan. However, as these brines were not mentioned in latest assertions and there are even more uncertainties surrounding them, they are not further explored hereinafter.)


The rocks with potentially interesting lithium-bearing mineral content in the Hindu Kush are pegmatites. Spodumene and petalite are the primary lithium-containing minerals in most of Afghanistan’s pegmatites, but lithium-rich minerals like lepidolite, trilithionite, montebrasite, and several others have been reported in high concentration in a few pegmatites, as Dr. Christopher Wnuk, a mining consultant with experience in Afghanistan, explained. Besides being rich in lithium-bearing minerals, Afghanistan’s pegmatites often host major gemstone deposits, such as kunzite (actually a transparent pink spodumene), beryls like heliodore, aquamarine, morganite, pezzottaite, and goshenite, many varieties of tourmaline, and a range of other gemstones, he added.


These gemstones have been mined for millennia with Afghan miners inevitably also having dug and still digging through lithium-bearing rocks. «We call these stones takhtapad or namak sang,» an Afghan who has a small mining operation in western Nuristan, told SIGA. «Until a year or so ago, miners used to throw these stones away, as they could not be sold to anyone. Then, some Chinese arrived and were flabbergasted that Afghan miners were throwing [lithium-bearing] valuable rocks away and were instead looking for small, in their view uninteresting gemstones,» the man elaborated with a chuckle.


This was an apparent reference to the arrival of representatives of at least five Chinese companies in Afghanistan in November 2021 to conduct on-site inspections of potential lithium mines in Afghanistan, as the Global Times, a media outlet affiliated with the Chinese government, reported back then. SIGA could not find any further information on these five companies. The Global Times article mentions, however, that the China Arab Economic and Trade Promotion Committee in the Afghan capital Kabul was coordinating their visit.


Whilst this visit of Chinese then led to the selling and buying of previously discarded pegmatite minerals in Afghanistan, it is important to note that this never took off and these transactions apparently remained mostly speculatively stockpiling of such rocks in case there should be a viable market for them in the future.

Still from a video of mined, allegedly lithium-bearing rocks in Afghanistan to proof the existence of offered goods for an intended trade (unknown date, courtesy of an Afghan miner)

Lithium Export Ban

One reason for this is that the internationally not recognised Taliban government banned the export of lithium-bearing minerals out of Afghanistan. Asked about this ban, Hamayoun Afghan, the spokesman of the Taliban’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, told SIGA that the ban was ordered shortly after the Taliban came to power in August 2021. Regarding the reason to prohibit the export of lithium-bearing rocks, Hamayoun Afghan elaborated that «lithium is very valuable and can play an important role in the economic development of Afghanistan; accordingly, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [Taliban] decided to ban the export of lithium until it can award a contract to a company that is able to explore, extract, and also process the lithium inside Afghanistan.» The Taliban spokesman even mentioned the possibility to use the lithium to produce batteries inside Afghanistan and export them.


Such a prospect appears far-fetched though. «Afghanistan has all the raw materials necessary to produce lithium-based batteries,» Dr. Wnuk told SIGA. «But the country lacks the infrastructure and expertise to actually extract lithium-containing minerals from hard rock, not to speak of producing batteries,» Dr. Wnuk added, «and creating the conditions to make this possible would cost hundreds and hundreds of millions, if not several billions of U.S.$ that no one will invest under the current circumstances.»


That Chinese companies might be going to do so is — despite numerous media reports highlighting alleged considerable Chinese business interests in Afghanistan — more than unlikely, as Chinese companies have to date not made any significant investments in Afghanistan. In September 2022, Bloomberg cited Khan Jan Alokozay, the Vice President of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Investment, as saying that, at that time, «there has not even been a penny of investment [in Afghanistan] by China (…); Many of their companies came, met with us, conducted research and then left and vanished».


This still holds true despite the fact that the Taliban, on 5th of January 2023, signed a multi-million U.S.$ agreement with the Chinese state-owned company Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co (CAPEIC) regarding oil exploration in the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan, as the alleged content of this contract is highly questionable and Chinese companies have in the past concluded similar contracts with the previous Afghan government, also making grand pledges that then never materialised. [1]


Confronted with the low, if at all existing possibility of extraction and processing of lithium from hard rock inside Afghanistan, let alone the establishment of a battery production factory, Hamayoun Afghan told SIGA that the Taliban are not in a hurry. «If we cannot achieve this, then our next generation can. We do not have to, at any price, extract our lithium now,» he stated.


That said, it appears possible that the Taliban might, if companies promise to invest at least parts of their profits in Afghanistan, eventually grant certain companies the right to export lithium-bearing minerals from Afghanistan.


However, even in such a scenario the prospect of major lithium extraction would still remain doubtful.

High Costs

The reason for this is that the costs and practical difficulties of extracting lithium from hard rocks in the Hindu Kush considerably qualifies the often cited figure of Afghanistan’s estimated 1 trillion U.S.$ mineral riches.


For starters, it has to be noted that lithium extraction from hard rock is, even under the best of circumstances, considerably more costly than lithium extraction from brines. «That is why extraction from brines is preferred: because it is cheaper,» Dr. Anderson told SIGA. «The lithium content in brines is only a fraction of that in hard rocks, but overall it is cheaper to extract lithium from brines which also does not require nearly as much up-front investments as mining for lithium-bearing hard rocks.»


High mining costs for hard rocks are even more a problem in Afghanistan. The areas where mines with pegmatite are located in Nuristan and parts of Kunar are, just as other places with potential pegmatite mines in northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, hardly, if at all developed. Motorable roads do exist to more remote areas than often assumed (the SIGA fellow has himself been in and seen vehicles driving from and to some of the most remote side valleys in Nuristan). However, where roads exist, they are unpaved and — amongst others due to the difficult terrain as well as erosion, floods, and landslides — often in such bad shape that only small lorries can drive along them and regularly only at literally crawling pace. That said, entrances to mines themselves are frequently even harder to reach. At least for some mines there is not only no road, but not even a decent footpath leading to their entrance, with miners having to climb across steep rock cliffs to reach tunnels. In view of this, costs to mine in such areas in Afghanistan are considerably higher than in other places where mining and transport can be done much more easily and cost-effectively.

The way to a mine with pegmatites in western Nuristan marked by a metal rod installed by miners to give support when going along the rock cliff seen in the background (unknown date, courtesy of an Afghan miner)

Whether the high extraction costs are worth mining for lithium-bearing hard rock obviously also depends on the specific lithium content of the mined minerals that varies greatly from occurrence to occurrence. With respect to the 1’000 tonnes of rocks seized by the Taliban in January 2023, a Taliban official asserted that they would contain 7% to 30% of lithium — which is simply impossible. According to scientific papers and although exact figures vary somewhat, the principally mined lithium-bearing mineral spodumene has a theoretical lithium oxide (Li2O) content of about 8.1%. Some rare lithium-bearing minerals like Zabuyelite may contain as much as 18.75% lithium oxide, but Dr. Wnuk added that no mineable deposits of this mineral are known. As indicated, these are theoretical maximum contents and Dr. Wnuk further explained that «spodumene, for example, is not always the same, but comes in many different grades, most of them worthless». Confronted with this, the spokesman for the Taliban’s Ministry of Mines acknowledged that the lithium content previously indicated by the Taliban was not exact and that the stones contained 7% to 15% percent of lithium. He did not elaborate what mineral exactly the seized rocks were.


That said and much more credibly than the Taliban, an Afghan businessman trying to establish trade with lithium from Afghanistan stated that he and his two Chinese partners have tested samples of rocks from Afghanistan abroad and that their best pegmatite specimen have a lithium oxide content of about 5%. «We also did the whole calculation, in case our efforts to lift the current export ban should be fruitful. Buying the stones from miners — we don’t involve ourselves in the mining itself — and shipping them via Pakistan to China would, including all taxes and other fees, cost us about 2’500 U.S.$ per tonne,» he elaborated. «We also have a potential buyer, a Chinese company in Guangzhou, which would pay us between 3’000 and 3’200 U.S.$ per tonne of rocks with 5% lithium oxide content,» he continued. This would result in a, for the mining industry, modest, but given the difficult circumstances in Afghanistan reasonable, profit of 500 to 700 U.S.$ per tonne.


This margin is, however, a potential problem. While skyrocketing lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices might, at their apex in November 2022, made the above outlined business deal profitable for all involved parties, things have changed since then. From mid-November 2022 onwards, lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices have been falling to a level that, as of 31st of March 2023, would, according to a rough calculation, mean that the Chinese company’s potential profit would have shrunk so much that it would be questionable whether they would nowadays still buy a tonne of rock with 5% lithium oxide content for 3’000 to 3’200 U.S.$. And given the costs of 2’500 U.S.$ to buy and transport a tonne of lithium-bearing rocks from Afghanistan to China, this means that Afghan sellers would not be able to sell it for much less. [2]

Feasible Solutions?

Possible ways to make extraction of lithium-bearing rocks in Afghanistan despite again falling lithium carbonate and hydroxide prices still economically viable would be to mine rocks with higher lithium content and/or at least rudimentary process mined stone in Afghanistan before shipping. But neither is easy.


Finding minerals with higher lithium content is, even under the best of circumstances, difficult, as the theoretical lithium oxide content of the minerals that can be mined in large quantities in Afghanistan — spodumene and petalite — is at best only a few percent above the aforementioned example of 5% lithium oxide content. That said, even if more viable mineral deposits exist, the lack of trained geologists and necessary technical equipment in Afghanistan would further complicate identifying them. In this regard, the geologist Peter Berg stated that local miners, even if they are uneducated, could comparatively quickly be taught the basics of what they have to look for. However, Dr. Wnuk cautioned that the effectiveness of teaching locals to do this has its limits.


Another prospect would be to at least pre-process and pre-sort lithium-containing rocks in Afghanistan before shipping them abroad which would lower transport costs, as much less waste rock would be shipped. «In case trade with lithium from Afghanistan starts properly, we contemplate to set up a small factory to crush and pre-sort lithium-containing rocks,» the mentioned Afghan businessman said. «Combing through mined stones by hand to find the lithium-containing rocks would also be an option,» Mr Berg mentioned, adding that similar things have been done in Sweden as late as the 1940s. Such steps might also at least partly satisfy the demands of the Taliban for processing inside Afghanistan.


Even if anything of the above should be feasible and/or lithium prices should again rise, everything would still hinge on the Taliban lifting the lithium export ban. And in this regard there is apparently yet another problem. «The Taliban banned the export of lithium-bearing minerals because they wrongly think they are being tricked. They see that one tonne of lithium carbonate or hydroxide sells for tens of thousands of U.S.$ on the world market and believe that a tonne of stones that they seized is also worth a fortune, failing to understand how costly it is to extract the very few percent of lithium such rocks contain,» the Afghan businessman who tries to develop the trade with Afghan lithium told SIGA.


As of the time of writing, the Afghan businessman’s efforts to explain the matter and the transport and extraction costs to the Taliban did not yield any significant results and remained an uphill battle. To be fair, similar problems also existed with the previous Republican government in Afghanistan, as Dr. Wnuk pointed out.

No Big Deal for Global Market — But Opportunity For Locals

Given all the above, the often purported notion that Afghanistan might become an El Dorado of lithium are — for the foreseeable future — far-fetched to say the very least and all cited experts as well as a detailed analysis published by the Brookings Institute in August 2022 agree that lithium mining in Afghanistan is not the big business as which it is often displayed. This is all the more the case as there are safer and more predictable options for extraction of lithium from yet undeveloped sources in places like Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, as the report of the Brookings Institute pointed out.


This does not mean though that lithium mining in Afghanistan has to be a complete pipe dream. «Small-scale mining is, even if profits are for global business standards negligible, very important for locals in places like Nuristan where there are few if any other income opportunities,» Mr. Berg pointed out. «This also applies to lithium. If Afghans can sell some tonnes of lithium-containing minerals for a modest profit, this would — even if middlemen get the lion’s share of the profit — be a huge opportunity for Nuristanis and could significantly improve their livelihood for decades to come.»


«While the circumstances make it illusionary that big investors would be interested in lithium mining in Afghanistan, some guys jumping in this niche and trying — and maybe succeeding — to make some money in a small operation is possible,» Dr. Wnuk agreed. The allegedly lithium-containing rocks that the Taliban seized in January 2023 and the efforts of the cited Afghan businessman and his partners are arguably a sign of such undertakings that Dr. Wnuk described as «very, very marginal operations set up by a number of middlemen, looking for some profit».


The arrests in connexion with the seized rocks in January 2023 should also be seen as a warning though as the circumstances in Afghanistan usually, although not exclusively, attract shady types of businessmen, which would draw many deals into question.


In view of all this, lithium extraction in Afghanistan would — even in a, given the manifold problems, unlikely best case scenario — only become relevant for a comparatively small group of involved people and, at the very least for the foreseeable future, not be a big business changing the global lithium market.

Franz J. Marty

[1] Aspects of the cited contract (the apparently only available information on it comes from the Taliban) that are highly questionable are, for example:

• that the Amu Darya basin is more interesting for its gas — not oil — reserves;

• that CAPEIC is, as far as it could be determined, not in the business of developing a whole oil extraction operation with their own investment; and

• that the costs of a refinery that CAPEIC allegedly promised to build in Afghanistan would seemingly be considerably higher than the investments pledged in the contract.

(For more details on the mentioned points see here and here.)

Furthermore, it should be noted that another Chinese state-owned company linked to CAPEIC had already signed a contract with the then Afghan Republic for the same oil field in 2011 — and nothing of significance ever happened.

Similar things apply to another major contract for the exploitation of the copper deposit in Mes Aynak just south of the Afghan capital Kabul that was, in 2008, concluded between the then Afghan Republic and a Chinese consortium and is now reportedly under renegotiation with the Taliban. Also in this contract, the Chinese side promised, amongst others, to build infrastructure on a scale that seriously questioned the economical viability of the Chinese pledges and, thus, the whole contract. Also in the case of the exploitation of copper in Mes Aynak, nothing significant ever happened.


[2] From roughly January 2021, lithium carbonate prices rose exponentially from 7.15 U.S.$ per kg of lithium carbonate on 1st of January 2021 to an apex of 84.39 U.S.$ on 16th of November 2022 — i.e. almost 12 times as much as on 1st of January 2021. Since then, lithium carbonate prices steadily and steeply dropped again though to only 34.40 U.S.$ on 31st of March 2023.

Assuming a 100% extraction rate of all the lithium from hard rock with a 5% lithium oxide content, one tonne of rock would yield 50 kg of lithium oxide (Li2O) (the actual extraction is, according to a scientific paper and depending on the mineral and extraction method, regularly 90% and more and can reach 98.9%). Lithium oxide is not a tradeable compound though and these 50 kg of lithium oxide would, in practice, be extracted in the form of 123.65 kg lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) (for the conversion rate between lithium oxide and lithium carbonate of 2.473 see here).

If the Chinese company had extracted and sold 123.65 kg lithium carbonate at the apex price on 16th of November 2022, it would have generated a revenue of 10’434.58 U.S.$. This could have covered the indicated buying price of 3’000 to 3’200 U.S.$ per tonne of lithium-bearing rocks as well as the costs of extracting the lithium carbonate from the mined rock and leave a good profit for the company. (Extracting costs and, thus, the potential profit, could not be determined, as the costs of extraction depend on the chosen method and an array of other factors that are, given all outlined uncertainties, not known. While experts described the extraction as complicated and expensive, Dr. Wnuk importantly noted that Chinese companies are in a perfect position to extract at low costs as some Chinese processors do not always adhere to best practices to prevent negative ecological effects of the extraction process which he described as «very dirty».)

That said, if the Chinese company had extracted and sold 123.65 kg of lithium carbonate on 31st of March 2023, it would, due to the falling prices, only have generated a revenue of 4’253.56 U.S.$ — about 60% (!) less than on 16th of November 2022. Whether this could still cover the indicated offered buying price of at least 3’000 U.S.$ per tonne of lithium-bearing rock as well as the extraction costs, could not be determined. However, it would certainly and even in the best case have made the deal multiple times less profitable, seriously questioning whether it would nowadays happen for the indicated prices.

Such problems would also apply, if the Chinese company should extract and sell the lithium as lithium hydroxide, as the development of lithium hydroxide prices has been similar to the prices of lithium carbonate.

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