Analysis: Afghanistan's untapped energy riches

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent  |  Oct. 24, 2008 at 11:00 AM
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While Afghanistan now intermittently crops up during the presidential debates, it is largely the forgotten war, which next month will be seven years old with little resolution in sight. Inside the Beltway chickenhawks never proposed that Afghanistan's energy resources could somehow pay for the war, but the fact remains that since 2001 little money has been directed to Afghanistan's energy sector to help the country become self-sufficient, much less an exporter. Nearly eight years after coalition forces overthrew the Taliban, Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest and least developed countries, where two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day.

For those with a sense of irony, the Soviets during their occupation went much further in attempting to develop Afghanistan's energy infrastructure. As Afghanistan continues to unravel, it is worthwhile to cast a backward glance at the country's energy potential since 1979, when the Soviets began their ill-fated intervention. While the Soviet Union completed its withdrawal in 1988, the Afghans next year will pass the dolorous anniversary of 30 years of nearly uninterrupted war, ironically broken only by the brief tenure of the Taliban, who pacified the country with a brutal hand.

According to the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration, while Afghanistan's estimated oil reserves are relatively modest, "with perhaps up to 100 million barrels," the country's natural gas reserves are far more substantial. As northern Afghanistan is a "southward extension of Central Asia's highly prolific, natural gas-prone Amu Darya Basin," Afghanistan "has proven, probable and possible natural gas reserves of about 5 trillion cubic feet."

Nearly eight years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the CIA estimates that Afghanistan's oil consumption, all imported, is slightly more than 5,000 barrels per day, while indigenous natural gas production, which is all domestically consumed, is approximately 20 million cubic meters per year. It is not that Afghanistan lacks energy and mineralogical resources; far from it, but what has been signally lacking since the overthrow of the Taliban is the political will and economic assistance needed to develop them.

Ironically, during the 1979-1988 Soviet occupation of the country, extensive Soviet exploration produced superb geological maps and reports that listed more than 1,400 mineral outcroppings, along with about 70 commercially viable deposits even under the grotesquely inefficient Soviet economic system. The Soviet Union subsequently committed more than $650 million for resource exploration and development in Afghanistan, with proposed projects including an oil refinery capable of producing a half-million tons per annum, as well as a smelting complex for the Ainak deposit that was to have produced 1.5 million tons of copper per year. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal a subsequent World Bank analysis projected that the Ainak copper production alone could eventually capture as much as 2 percent of the annual world market. The country is also blessed with massive coal deposits, one of which, the Hajigak iron deposit, in the Hindu Kush mountain range west of Kabul, is assessed as one of the largest high-grade deposits in the world.

We will never know what a Soviet-dominated development of Afghanistan would have looked like, because they were never able to quell the insurgency there. Three years after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing the possibility of the West developing the oil and natural gas deposits of the former Soviet republics ringing the Caspian Sea, even as Afghanistan slid into a brutal civil war.

The Western interest in Caspian energy would prove fateful for Afghanistan, as any consideration of developing its indigenous assets evaporated after September 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul.

Afghanistan was now to be turned into a transit corridor, with the proposed $3.5 billion, 1,050-mile Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (initially "TAP," now "TAPI" with the inclusion of Pakistan and India). TAPI was under development even before the Taliban captured Kabul, as in 1995 Turkmenistan and Pakistan initialed a memorandum of understanding. TAPI, with a carrying capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas a year, would run from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad gas field across Afghanistan and Pakistan and terminate at the northwestern Indian town of Fazilka.

Of course, TAPI would require the assent of the Taliban, and in 1997 the Central Asia Gas Pipeline Ltd. consortium, led by U.S. company Unocal, flew a Taliban delegation to Unocal headquarters in Houston, where the Taliban signed off on the project.

But then the Taliban made the fatal mistake of offering sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, and in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the country was invaded and the Taliban were driven from power.

With the overthrow of the Taliban, new possibilities seemed to open up, but these were quickly dashed, as the Bush administration continued to pursue a military option largely to the exclusion of everything else. In a grotesque demonstration of the administration's post-Taliban priorities for Afghanistan, in 2002 the U.S. Geological Survey requested $70 million from the U.S. Department of State to reassess Afghanistan's water and mineral resources, oil, gas, coal, earthquake hazards, infrastructure development and training. The State Department offered less than 10 percent of the requested funding, and what was given was solely for oil and gas.

Thirteen years after it was first proposed, TAPI is still under discussion. As for the USGS, its personnel have been diverted to the search for Taliban and al-Qaida guerrillas in Afghanistan's more than 10,000 caves.

In the meantime, the administration's rhetoric continues. On Oct. 18 in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said, "We're very engaged, and we're going to stay engaged to help build a stable Afghanistan that can be an asset to the people in the region and not a threat." Engagement does not seem to include help in developing the country's energy or mineralogical wealth in order to bankroll a much needed infrastructure for the Afghan people.

And what of Abdullah Sixpack? On Oct. 9 Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock reported that because of drought the country faces a food deficit of 2 million tons, primarily wheat flour and rice, and appealed for assistance for the millions of vulnerable Afghans in the coming six months. Last winter was the coldest in Central Asia in 50 years, and hundreds died across the region.

Those looking for the underlying causes of the Taliban resurgence need look no further.

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