Lawmakers intent on preventing the Taliban from taking advantage of a key, untapped resource in Afghanistan are launching a corporate responsibility campaign of sorts. It’s an unexpected conservative initiative that, rather than attacking big tech companies root and branch, aims to persuade major firms to pledge not to benefit from Taliban rule over Afghanistan.
Leading the charge: Freshman congressman Madison Cawthorn, making his first major foray into the congressional foreign-policy debate, and Representative Jim Banks, a rising congressional GOP player and chairman of the Republican Study Committee. In letters to the CEOs of Amazon, Microsoft, Tesla, and Apple the lawmakers sent earlier this month and obtained exclusively by National Review, the GOP lawmakers asked that the executives pledge not to use Taliban-harvested rare-earth minerals in their products.
The problem, Cawthorn said in a statement to NR, is the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan’s natural resources. “Following the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban now has control over one of the largest deposits of rare earth minerals in the world. These minerals are essential to the production of countless products, including vehicles, cell phones, and household items,” he said.
“Under the Taliban’s control, these are rare earth terror minerals. No company should use these minerals from Taliban-run Afghanistan in its products and allow this terrorist organization to profit off these resources.”
Afghanistan, reeling from decades of conflict and the Taliban’s recent return to power, is on the brink of economic collapse. The U.N. has estimated that some 23 million people are expected to face a hunger crisis of unfathomable proportions through the start of 2022. In this context, Washington earlier today let up on sanctions freezing Afghan government assets so they can now be tapped by Taliban leadership. U.S. diplomats also supported a U.N. Security Council resolution similarly easing the international stranglehold on Kabul’s access to funds.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan sits on approximately $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, including lithium and rare earths that can be used in everything from electric car batteries to consumer mobile devices — precisely the kinds of products that Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Andy Jassy, and Satya Nadella sell to people across the world.
Cawthorn, who has followed the Afghan rare-earths issue for months, and Banks noted in their letters to the tech execs that Afghan mineral deposits include the rare earths lanthanum, cerium, and neodymium, in addition to other materials, such as copper, gold, and lithium. And they pointed to specific products manufactured by the companies they contacted that could benefit from these reserves, including Airpods, Tesla motors, and touchscreens.
For now, Taliban mining efforts are a hypothetical concern, but it might not remain so, if Beijing gets its way. As the lawmakers note, just five days after the collapse of Kabul to the Taliban in August, a former People’s Liberation Army officer wrote a New York Times essay arguing that China should encourage friendship with the new Afghan leadership by offering economic investment; this, the officer wrote, could include access to Afghanistan’s untapped mineral deposits.
The GOP letters to the tech companies issued a stark warning about that possibility: “Rare earth terror minerals sold by the Taliban are no different than blood diamonds in Africa, both empower bad actors who exploit misery for profit. Using minerals sources from Afghanistan will not only help finance the Taliban’s terror operations, but also help fund their human rights abuses, and strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s economic and strategic influence in south Asia.”
Although the Taliban is sanctioned as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group by the U.S., it’s not clear that existing U.S. sanctions would prohibit firms from using Taliban-harvested components in their devices.
Whether the companies will engage remains to be seen. National Review’s requests for comment to Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon all went unanswered. Tesla, meanwhile, disbanded its public relations department last year and does not take questions from journalists.
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