CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Taliban’s lousy power deals exposed as Uzbekistan pulls plug in deadly cold

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Taliban’s lousy power deals exposed as Uzbekistan pulls plug in deadly cold
Afghanistan's decrepit power infrastructure is plain for all to see in this scene from Kabul. / Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, cc-by-sa 2.0
By Fuad Shahbazov February 3, 2023

Beware the fair-weather friend. Recent weeks saw Uzbekistan plunge large parts of Afghanistan into darkness as, faced by its coldest winter weather in 50 years and suffering energy shortages and disruptions, Tashkent opted to put its own citizens first and pull the plug on electricity supplies to the Afghans.

Afghanistan too suffered the severe cold snap and, with its power provision gone, crippling outages led to the deaths of at least 160 people left without heating, including babies, as well as the hospitalisation of hundreds of others.

Nobody can have been taken aback by Tashkent’s decision to declare force majeure and look after its own first. And there’s also the rather pertinent fact that the Taliban militants, who once more rule Afghanistan, became known for attacking vital infrastructure during their two-decade-long insurgency, preventing the completion of big power generation projects. Afghans reap what they sow.

Power lines in Herat. Afghanistan's electricity network needs massive investment. Much of the country is not on the grid (Jim Kelly, cc-by-sa 2.0).

The blackout situation was, though, even more galling for Kabul given that it was only very recently that the Taliban proclaimed a new electricity supply agreement signed with the Uzbeks.

Some credit where credit is due. Since the US pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021, leaving behind a country that has since remained perilously close to an out and out humanitarian and economic catastrophe, it has in fact been Uzbekistan, of all Afghanistan’s neighbours, that has appealed to the world to recognise that working with the Taliban is the only existing option for stabilizing the country and giving its imperiled people some kind of workable future.

The 450-megawatt power deal between Tashkent and Kabul—specifically with Afghanistan’s power utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Shirkat (DABS)—was announced after the Taliban's Acting Energy and Water Minister, Mullah Abdul Latif Mansour, at the start of January paid an official visit to Uzbekistan. With Tashkent a rare voice declaring significant commitment to intraregional cooperation involving Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the time was ripe to strike a new energy deal.

And strike a deal they did. The acting minister returned to Kabul with an agreement on Uzbekistan electricity exports for Afghanistan. That was seen in some quarters as generous given that a year earlier, Uzbekistan resorted to stopping power exports to Afghanistan due to Kabul's inability to pay outstanding energy debts of around $70mn. Another $30mn in unpaid power bills was owed to Tajikistan.

Chronic dependence

Uzbekistan’s subsequent switching off of the deal in January in the face of ‘big freeze’ energy troubles at home means the agreement, ironically, has served to highlight the Taliban-led government's mismanagement of Afghanistan’s energy sector and the country’s chronic dependence on power imports.

In fact, not much seems to be going right for the fundamentalist militants. On February 1, Uzbekistan suspended rail transport to Afghanistan due to the Taliban administration’s failure to fulfil its obligations on technical maintenance works.

Amid the distressing difficulties caused by the energy shutdown, inhabitants of Afghanistan were receiving only one hour of electricity every two days. "Even one hour of electricity helped warm our home," Karima Rahimyar, a teacher in Kabul, told Radio Azadi, adding that most Afghans do not have the money to buy coal or wood for heating.

On January 25, Uzbekistan resumed some electricity exports to Afghanistan, while it was almost simultaneously announced that Turkmenistan has renewed an annual electricity supply agreement with the Taliban.

Afghanistan's first wind farm in Panjshir Province (Credit: Daniel Wilkinson, US State Dept, public domain).

So things are looking up. But landlocked Afghanistan imports more than 70% of the electricity it needs from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran (in fact 73% of Afghan power supply is imported—22% of that from Iran, 4% from Tajikistan, 17% from Turkmenistan, and 57% from Uzbekistan).

And the supply of surplus hydroelectric power from these countries is unreliable, to put it mildly. The outlook for Afghanistan’s future power supplies with such a high dependence on imports is all too precarious.

The chances of the Taliban's unrecognised and internationally isolated government—lately facing increasingly regular protests about the oppression it imposes on Afghan citizens—righting the critical situation seem next to nil. Attracting the required donor funding and technical support even to complete existing hydroelectric projects in Afghanistan remains a steep uphill task for such an administration.

As for the billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s own central bank funds frozen by the US, there’s some good news in that Washington has established the Switzerland-based Afghan Fund, which is meant to help stabilise the Afghan economy by paying for imports like electricity—without benefiting the Taliban. But the only sure way out of the economic hole for Afghanistan has to include the building of its own infrastructure.

The country may be sitting on estimated natural resources—including natural gas, copper and rare earths—worth more than $1 trillion and it can boast of one recent foreign investment breakthrough—on January 5, Kabul and Beijing signed a $540mn deal to develop an oil and gas field—but unless the Taliban start showing rather more realism in working with outside partners to address their failing state, Afghans won’t be feeling secure in the face of a forecast blizzard any time soon.

Fuad Shahbazov is an independent policy analyst focusing on regional security issues in the South Caucasus and a Chevening FCDO scholar at the University of Durham School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA). He tweets at @fuadshahbazov