KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Economic malaise, political intrigue and ethnic tensions are all coming together in what could be an explosive combination. Political leaders drawn mainly from the Hazara ethnic minority are calling for as many as one million people to come together in a protest demonstration in the capital on Monday.
The immediate issue is a power line that brings electricity from Central Asia to South Asia, the “TUTAP” project(Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan). The fight is over whether the route for the power lines will cut through the Salang Pass, in the north, or through Bamyan Province, in central Afghanistan.
In a Cabinet meeting on April 30, 2016, the government picked Salang — and then the trouble started.
Central Asian countries have large energy resources and export a part of their electricity and gas to South Asian countries. Because of its geographical location, Afghanistan works as a hub, connecting the countries. The CASA-1000 project, which brings hydroelectric power from Kyrgyzstan through Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the TAPI natural gas pipeline(Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) have been in development for years.
The Afghan government, together with the Asian Development Bank, which is funding the project, hired Germany’s Fichtner, one of the most reputable engineering companies in the world, to create a masterplan for TUTAP. The company delivered the plan in April, 2013, citing technical, economic and security reasons for selecting the Bamyan route.
“The Bamyan route will avoid the narrow space
and difficulties along the Salang Pass, will allow connecting further generation by coal fired
power plants along the route and will secure power supply of Kabul and south Afghanistan by
using a separate route,” reads the report.
Political parties and the media first sat up and took notice in November, 2015, when the government sent a bid to to the National Procurement Commission routing the power lines through Salang.
In January, 2016, Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh protested against the change, citing the Fichtner report, which also highlights the danger of avalanche and power outages during the winter in Salang.
But in the April 30 Cabinet meeting, the government finalized the Salang route; work on it is due to begin shortly.
On May 3, 2016, the Administrative Office of the President explained the reason behind the change in the route of the TUTAP project as follows (translation by Paiwandgah):
“The Fichtner study, which was reflected in the power line masterplan of the country, was first conducted on the 500-kilowatt line from Pol-e-Khumri to Kabul from Bamyan. But according to the donors’ request (ADB, WB, USAID, IDB) with representatives from relevant ministries and Breshna Company, a meeting was held in February 2013 in Stuttgart, Germany.It was decided that Fichtner Company also conduct a study on the Salang route. According to Fichtner’s research, the Salang route was recognized as closer and less expensive, and implementing the project from this route is faster, so with the consent of the donors, the route changed.Therefore, Breshna Company prepared the bidding documents according to the decision made by ministry councils which was through the Salang route in late 1392 and sent for bidding.”
The government’s announcement aggravated rather than alleviated the situation, however. Breshna, the state power company, along with the Ministry of Energy and Water held a joint news conference, in which they defended the Cabinet’s decision, saying that it was donor pressure as well as Fichtner’s recommendation that convinced them to build the power lines through Salang.
Fichtner is keeping mum, telling media that they are not available for interviews on Afghanistan.
Last Friday Bamyan residents held a massive demonstration to protest the change in the route. They are insisting that the power lines, with the attendant jobs and investment that would follow, be routed through their economically depressed province.
The protesters said that the change of route is unjust, and a result of systematic discrimination against the people of the area, who are overwhelmingly from the Hazara ethnic group. They warned the government that they would continue their actions until the government heeded their demands.
The Bamyan demonstration unleashed a wave of protests throughout the country.
The rhetoric has been loud and ugly on both sides, with some using social media to spread ethnic tensions and reopen old wounds. The minority Hazara ethnic group has long felt persecuted in Afghanistan, and the scars from the brutal civil war in the 1990s still run deep.
“The Lighting Movement’s People High Council” was formed in Kabul to defend Fichtner’s decision to build TUTAP through Bamyan. In their gathering on Monday, May 09, 2016, this movement gave the government one week to reconsider its decision, otherwise, they said, they would start a massive protest that would bring a million people onto the streets.
This gathering was distinguished by the high level of the participants: In attendance were Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, Vice President of the Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqeq, former Vice President Karim Khalili, and dozens of other high-ranking politicians, many of them from the Hazara ethnic group.
One hour after this meeting, President Ashraf Ghani appeared on national television to announce that the decision to change to the Salang route was made during Karzai’s presidency, that he would start a commission to assess all the documents regarding this project and that the government would take a decision based on the new assessments.
But the protesters rejected the president’s suggestion, saying that a new commission is unnecessary. They are insisting on their original demands and have announced a demonstration for Monday, May 16.
They have support from some very powerful people, among them Atta Muhammad Nur, governor of Balkh province, Rahmatullah Nabil and Amrullah Saleh, former heads of the National Directorate of Security, Omar Daudzai, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Islamabad and former minister of interior, along with dozens of other politicians and Parliamentarians.
On the other hand, hundreds of people came onto the streets in Paktia Province, in the eastern part of the country, to defend the government’s decision. They claim that passing the power lines through Bamyan would deprive them of access to electricity. This issue has divided the Parliament into two camps: for and against the government.
It is a crisis which the fragile National Unity Government, an unhappy alliance of President Ashram Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, may have a hard time controlling.