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Afghanistan: Mineral-Rich, Conflict Torn Electronics Treasure Trove

In June, I had the good fortune to walk in the Wakhan Valley, a mountainous Central Asian region dividing Tajikistan and Afghanistan. As my partner and I wound our way alongside the river separating relatives and countries, we couldn't help but wonder, “Why does everyone want control of Afghanistan?” The British, the Russians, the Americans, the Taliban—over the last few decades this war-torn “Stan” has become a pit of bad news, with headlines screaming about its religious-based extremism, geopolitical instability and opium drug running.

Staring at the Hindu Kush mountains and hearing stories about the gold and valuable minerals buried in neighboring Kyrgyzstan's majestic peaks, we suspected there was much more to the underlining problems in Afghanistan (and specifically in the Badakhshan region we could see across the way) than a difference of religious opinions and cultural views.

Of course there is. A quick Internet search pulled up these eye-popping statements:

“Maps showing Afghanistan's largest known gold deposit and other gold, copper, mercury and iron sites in the region and near Herat have been resurrected and remade by the U.S. Geological Survey. The new USGS maps were modified and interpreted from a collection of unpublished Soviet maps dating back to 1967.” ~ USGS, 2015

“Could minerals reinvent Afghanistan's economy and make it one of the world's premier mining centers? U.S. officials think so. This summer [2010], they announced nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits—including cobalt, niobium, rare earth metals, copper, gold, and iron—had been found in Afghanistan.” ~ Fast Company, 2010

“The future of Silicon Valley's technological prowess may well lie in the war-scarred mountains and salt flats of Western Afghanistan.” ~ Venture Beat, 2014

And, there's more. Besides oil, gas, and minerals such as as gold, copper and tantalum, a 2010, New York Times   article cited an internal Pentagon memo stating that Afghanistan was poised to become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key element used in batteries for computers, smartphone, laptops, tablets, and electric cars, among other products.

Reading these documents and articles, it's not a stretch to assume how history could repeat itself. Money and human greed fuel all sorts of “entrepreneurial” trade, commercial activity, war, corruption and a laundry list of other things. Add a gigantic pot of precious minerals and natural resources–many of which have become basic elements for the devices that power our day-to-day lives–and you will likely have trouble, one way or another.

So a few days ago when I came across this August 2016 article in The Diplomat and clicked through to the cited Global Witness press release, it came as no surprise (at least to me) that illegal mining of centuries-old lapis lazuli is funding the Taliban's war chest. It's become a big enough deal that Global Witness is calling for lapis lazuli to be deemed a conflict mineral, stating it has found that the Taliban and other armed groups are earning up to US$20 million dollars per year from Afghanistan's lapis mines, the world's main source of the brilliant blue stone.

Right now, the focus is on lapis lazuli, which is used in jewelry, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together.

Isn't this a similar story to what played out in and around the eastern part of the African Congo, and what sparked a Securities Exchange Commission ruling mandating track-and-trace capabilities to identify the source of origin for four minerals, gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten? If Afghanistan has such known and yet-to-be discovered wealth in its mountains, salt flats and piece of Earth, won't it eventually become a source of supply for electronics parts, especially as other countries' reserves are depleted and the world continues to become a global community?

I wasn't able to find a good reference stating how much of the country's minerals may already be flowing into the electronics supply chain. But, since several decades of political instability has kept many mining companies on the outside looking in, I suspect the country currently falls somewhere lower on the list of raw material suppliers used in electronics manufacturing (I would appreciate if anyone has such a number that you share it in the comments section below, citing the source of the data).

So what's the electronics industry going to do with this information about a pot of gold waiting to be found and used (pun intended)? How will governments, stock exchanges and corporate social responsibility executives going to manage the trade of resources as conflict areas shift and political favor (and popular opinion) redefine who are heroes or terrorists? How do supply chain professionals factor this into their supplier selection process and maintain continuity of supply? And even though this particular EBN post centers on Afghanistan, it's not at all about Afghanistan; how many other countries will face such issues in the next five, 10, 15 years?

Hopefully, what this conversation will do is call into question how conflict minerals are labeled. 

Maybe it will get people thinking about how raw materials will be classified beyond the Democratic Republic of the Congo as other mineral-rich countries' politics ebb and flow and it's discovered that money raised from the sales of natural resources has been used to fund armed groups.

Perhaps, too, having lived through the first rounds of conflict mineral compliance, it will give the electronics supply chain a chance to flex its own strength and test its recently developed capacity and capability to identify and vet out questionable sources of supply; manage the risk associated with broader conflict minerals classifications, and better understand their supply chain beyond core first and second-tier suppliers and down to source of origin. 

Or maybe it will just be a seed of a thought that sits latent as the world speeds ahead.

Has this crossed your mind yet? What are you doing about it? Do you see this as a future supply chain risk?

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