The great game: Indian power firms to wade into Afghan battlefields

In spite of the dangers, Afghanistan is determined to push forward with CASA-1000 work, which is expected to bring in upwards of $40 million a year in transit fees
Indian companies, KEC International and Kalpataru Power Transmission Limited, are expected to begin work by the year-end on $235 million power line transiting through seven of Afghanistan’s most insurgency-torn districts, a spokesperson for state power monopoly Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) has said.

The announcement comes amid stalled negotiations for the release of seven Indian engineers working for KEC International. The engineers were kidnapped by the Taliban near the town of Pul-e Khomri earlier this month.

Wahidullah Tawhidi, DABS spokesman said plans for the CASA-1000 power project, which will carry power from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan, will be complete in the next three months. “After signing the contracts for the converter stations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the construction phase will start in Afghanistan by the year-end”.

“New Delhi really needs to apply its mind to how Indians operating in Afghanistan will be protected as these projects get underway,” a senior intelligence official told Business Standard. 

KEC International — which is one of several Indian companies engaged in strategic projects in Afghanistan — was engaged in repairing power pylons blown up by the Taliban, which carry electricity from Uzbekistan through Baghlan province. Baghlan is one of several regions where the Taliban and the Afghan government are locked in combat. 

The Indian government has become increasingly concerned over the fate of the men, amid escalating fighting, with the Afghan army’s 209 Corps seeking to recapture the town of Tala Wa Barfak, just south of Pul-i Khomri.

In the hours after the kidnapping, local government officials and officials from DABS had opened negotiations with the Taliban’s deputy commander for Baghlan province, Qari Bakhtiar, who was holding the hostages in the village of Dand-i Shahabuddin, on Pul-i Khomri’s outskirts. 

Early on, Afghan government sources say, Qari Bakhtiar said the men had been kidnapped by accident — the result of a misunderstanding over the terms of a protection-for-cash agreement between local contractors and Taliban fighters on the ground.

But amid the savage fighting, negotiations appear to have slowed down. “There have been no specific demands from the Taliban,” an Afghan government source said. “This suggests they are not in a hurry to resolve the situation, and perhaps hope that a delay will lead to a higher ransom somewhere down the road”.

The Taliban’s ultimate decision, the official said, will be taken by its Peshawar-based spymaster Hamidullah Akhunzada, who heads the organisation’s ransoms committee. “Hostage-taking is one of the Taliban central leadership’s cash-cow”, he explained, “along protection rackets and revenues from opium trafficking”.

In spite of the dangers, Afghanistan is determined to push forward with CASA-1000 work, which is expected to bring in upwards of $40 million a year in transit fees. 

This consists of a powerline from Datka in the Kyrgyz Republic to Sangtuda in Tajikistan, 500 kilometres away. The power-line will then traverse Afghanistan for 562 km, before terminating at Nowshera in Pakistan. In addition, Afghanistan will draw some 300MW of the 1,300MW of electricity the project is designed to handle.

Funded by the World Bank, the $2.1 billion power project has been touted as an important step towards building a common Central Asian power market that can supply energy-hungry countries in South Asia.

But the fact that the lines traverse some of the most dangerous battlegrounds in Afghanistan — including Baghlan, Kunduz and Nangarhar —have raised questions on whether it will prove feasible to complete the project by the end of the decade, as planned.

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