Heated protests against the Afghan president at a recent RUSI event exposed the deep divisions that exist within the country. Raymond Whitaker reports
When President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan addressed an invited audience recently in the august surroundings of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, he was interrupted three times by angry interventions from the floor.
It was not the president’s inflammatory rhetoric that had stirred such passions among his listeners: far from it. Ghani, a scholar in earlier days of political science and anthropology, followed by work as an international development specialist at the World Bank, was delivering a somewhat academic analysis of international terrorism and its impact on Afghanistan. His opponents were also concerned with power structures, but of a different kind.
The three men who stood up to shout at their president before being bundled out of the hall were all Hazaras, members of the most downtrodden ethnic group in Afghanistan. Minority Shia Muslims, supposed descendants of Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde, the Hazaras are concentrated in the central region around Bamian, where they watched helplessly as the Taliban blew up world-famous Buddha statues in 2001. The Taliban was equally ruthless with the people of the region, whom they considered apostates, but the Hazaras have never felt well-treated by any government in Kabul.
The grievance being aired at RUSI concerned electrical power – specifically, a proposed transmission line to carry electricity from Turkmenistan to Kabul. As originally devised, the power line was to have surmounted the Hindu Kush, the world’s second highest mountain range, by running through Bamian province. But in May it emerged that a new route had been chosen instead, over the Salang pass, and the Hazaras were stirred to anger.
The president told his London audience that the change had been decided under his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, and that to stick to the original route would delay the project by three years and add many millions of dollars to the cost. His critics say the Salang is subject to avalanches, while the Bamian route would make it possible to build power stations which used local coal deposits. But the technical details were soon forgotten as the political cost of the issue became evident.
Four days after the president spoke at RUSI, a giant protest rally of Hazaras against the rerouting, the biggest demonstration the Afghan capital had seen since 2014, brought Kabul to a standstill. In November protesters reached the presidential compound, with some attempting to scale the walls, after seven Hazara hostages were beheaded by Islamic State or its allies in southern Afghanistan, so this time the authorities took no chances. Shipping containers were used to block all the main thoroughfares, and the demonstrators were kept well away from the city centre. But Ghani announced a delay in the project while a 12-member commission examined the possibility of returning to the Bamian route. Whatever happened, the president promised, Bamian and Wardak provinces, the Hazara heartland, would be connected to the transmission line.
The protest united all facets of the Hazara community, including urban technocrats, traditional leaders and senior Hazara members of the Karzai administration, who appeared to be trying to regain ground after their role in routing the power line through Salang became public. Ghani had little choice but to appease this alliance.
There is no doubt that Afghanistan desperately needs the project.
The transmission line is part of a much larger scheme, known as TUTAP, which aims to link power systems in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Leaders of the five countries gathered in May, a few days before Ghani’s visit to London, to launch the plan.
At present Afghanistan imports electricity from the first three countries initialised in TUTAP – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – plus Iran, but each system is incompatible with the rest, requiring expensive converters to make it possible to connect them. Pointing out that the country had no fewer than ten separate electricity systems, the Asian Development Bank said in a recent report: ‘Afghanistan needs a unified national electricity grid.’ Unless and until it does, other regional schemes, such as plans to pipe natural gas through the country, will be hindered.
But the reaction of the Hazaras shows that development in Afghanistan is not simply a matter of allocating money: there are ethnic sensitivities to be considered, and a delicate balance of interests in Kabul, quite apart from the murderous activities and ambitions of the Taliban and Islamic State.