The Pentagon dubbed Afghanistan ‘the Saudi Arabia of lithium.’ Now, it is American rivals that are angling to exploit those coveted reserves.
CHAPA DARA, Afghanistan — Sayed Wali Sajid spent years fighting American soldiers in the barren hills and fertile fields of the Pech River Valley, one of the deadliest theaters of the 20-year insurgency. But nothing confounded the Taliban commander, he said, like the new wave of foreigners who began showing up, one after another, in late 2021.
Once, Sajid spotted a foreigner hiking alone along a path where Islamic State extremists were known to kidnap outsiders. Another time, five men and women evaded Sajid’s soldiers in the dark to scour the mountain. The newcomers, Sajid recalled, were giddy, persistent, almost single-minded in their quest for something few locals believed held any value at all.
“The Chinese were unbelievable,” Sajid said, chuckling at the memory. “At first, they didn’t tell us what they wanted. But then I saw the excitement in their eyes and their eagerness, and that’s when I understood the word ‘lithium.’”
A decade earlier, the U.S. Defense Department, guided by the surveys of American government geologists, concluded that the vast wealth of lithium and other minerals buried in Afghanistan might be worth $1 trillion, more than enough to prop up the country’s fragile government. In a 2010 memo, the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which examined Afghanistan’s development potential, dubbed the country the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
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