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Taliban Attacks Short-Circuit Kabul Power Plays


One of the pylons recently downed in Afghanistan's Baghlan Province

A Taliban attack in an isolated part of northern Afghanistan has revealed how vulnerable Kabul is when it comes to maintaining its electricity supply -- a weakness the Taliban now says it is exploiting in order to pressure the Afghan government on its demands.

In the predawn hours of April 14, Taliban militants fixed a land mine to the base of an electricity transmission tower in Baghlan Province on the north side of the Hindu Kush mountains.

When they detonated the mine, the giant metal pylon crashed to the ground, snapping the double-circuit power lines that carry imported electricity to Kabul from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Transmission of some 300 megawatts of electricity was cut, leaving Kabul with less than one-quarter of its normal supply.

It marked the fourth time within a month that Taliban fighters had knocked out Kabul's power with attacks along the 550-kilometer power-transmission route from Uzbekistan.

Each attack has employed the same guerrilla tactics that a U.S. Marine Corps textbook says were used in the 1980s by anti-Soviet mujahedin fighters to knock out Kabul's power by blowing up pylons along the transmission line to the nearby Naghlu Hydroelectric Power Plant.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Taliban attacks on power-transmission lines will continue until the Afghan government starts providing electricity to areas under Taliban control in the northern provinces of Baghlan and Kunduz.

Electricity Rationing

In Kabul, where Muslim worshippers were awakening and preparing for morning prayers at the time of the latest attack, the impact of the small explosion on the other side of the Hindu Kush mountains was felt immediately.

Hopelessly undersupplied, the national power utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) went into the electricity-rationing mode that had been a daily routine in Kabul a decade earlier before the war-shattered power grid was rebuilt with foreign aid.

For the next day and a half, while Taliban fighters with rocket-propelled grenade launchers kept repair crews from repairing the transmission line, electricity was cut for most Kabul residents.

Meanwhile, in Kabul's central business districts, supplies were rotated in a way that gave most companies less than an hour of power during the weekend.

Mohammad Alem, a 38-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul, was more than annoyed.

"During last two power outages caused by these attacks, the yogurt and fresh cream in my shop spoiled," Alem said. "It cost us dearly."

"Electricity is vital for us," Alem said. "Our business is dependent on electricity. If there is no power then the yogurt, cream, and cheese that must be kept cold is useless."

Impact On Businesses

Orangzeb, another frustrated Kabul resident, remembers a decade earlier when electricity was considered a luxury by many Afghans, and people in the capital were accustomed to days when there was power for just one hour.

Orangzeb said he does not want that situation to return.

"Even now, there is a gas problem every day in Kabul," Orangzeb said. "There are a lot of problems in Kabul. With these attacks on the transmission lines in the provinces we have a problem with electricity again in Kabul, too."

Bilal, also a resident of Kabul, said that periodic electricity cuts go hand-in-hand with the interruption of water supplies and cause "a lot of people to suffer" in the Afghan capital.

Some Kabul residents are worried about how the outages will affect their businesses.
Some Kabul residents are worried about how the outages will affect their businesses.

He said it also is hurting industrial, commercial, and manufacturing firms in Kabul.

Orangzeb, Bilal, and other Kabul residents told RFE/RL that the Afghan government should just heed militant demands to supply electricity to Taliban-controlled areas.

DABS chief executive officer Amanullah Ghalib said the national power utility is trying to do just that -- "prevent the destruction of more transmission towers" by speeding its efforts to distribute electricity to "all parts of Afghanistan."

"Unfortunately, the cooperation of people has diminished" in areas under Taliban control, Ghalib said. "This is the reason insurgents have destroyed these towers and are harming the power supply."

"We are trying to inform the people in provincial councils, clerics in the region, and tribal elders that our work has not stopped" in Taliban-controlled areas, Ghalib said. "Our development work is continuing in all areas of Afghanistan."

That work includes attempts to bolster Afghanistan's own power generation through the development of wind power and solar energy -- including a 15-megawatt solar plant being built in Kandahar by DABS and Afghanistan's private Zularistan Company.

DABS, which relies heavily on hydroelectricity for generating its own electricity supplies, also has been expanding capacity at the hydroelectric dams that were built across Afghanistan from the 1950s through the 1970s.

The most recent expansion was the launch on April 12 of a newly reconstructed power turbine at the Naghlu Hydroelectric Power Plant -- a facility built in the 1960s on the Kabul River with the help of the Soviet Union about 70 kilometers east of Kabul.

On April 11, DABS also activated a new transformer station to the north of Kabul in the Qale Surkh area of Parwan Province -- a development that brought electricity to about 2,000 residents in the Jabul Saraj district.

But that project also has highlighted issues other than militant attacks that have hampered the expansion of Afghanistan's power grid.

The new transformer station is part of a $60 million power-grid expansion funded by the U.S. government and overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

The project aims to eventually expand Afghanistan's North East Power System to 1 million more people by linking a substation at Charikar near Bagram, across Parwan Province, to a newly built substation in neighboring Kapisa Province.

But the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the broader project remains inoperable because of the "mismanagement of the contract" for building the new substation, 182 power towers, and more than 50 kilometers of transmission lines.

In a March 30 report, SIGAR said the U.S. Army engineers let construction by a private Afghan firm, Zwakman Nabizai Construction Company, go ahead before the Afghan government acquired the privately held land along the transmission line.

It said the contract also did not include a provision to connect the expanded power grid to either power station.

SIGAR also documented numerous cases where the Afghan construction firm failed to clear the transmission line route of houses, huts, barns, cattle sheds and other structures, or of trees and vegetation.

"Until all buildings and other structures along the transmission line route have been removed, USACE will not energize" the expanded power grid "because of safety issues," SIGAR said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.
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