Kandahar could fall into darkness when US stops paying for its electricity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 4:54am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 4:54am

When the United States stops funding power production in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar next year, lights will flicker out and factories will fall idle, playing into the hands of Taliban insurgents in the area.

Bringing a stable source of electricity to Kandahar, the cradle of the hardline Islamist movement and once a base for its leader Mullah Omar, was a top US counter-insurgency priority as Washington pushed to win hearts and minds.

But regular power in the city is still years away. When the United States finally ends subsidies - now running at just over US$1 million a month - in September 2015, Kandahar could lose about half its severely limited electricity supplies, Afghan power officials and US inspectors say.

The Taliban, meanwhile, controls about half the 12 megawatts of electricity supplied to Kandahar province from the Kajaki plant in neighbouring Helmand province, ensuring a stable power supply in their strongholds, according to state power firm Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat in Kandahar.

About 130 factories operating in Kandahar rely on electricity that is maintained and paid for by the Americans, said Fuzl Haq, a businessman in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.

"If the Americans stop paying for the fuel to run these factories, some 6,000 workers will lose their jobs," Haq said, reflecting the concerns of many Kandaharis. "These are all young people, and they may join up with the Taliban or resort to crime in order to earn money."

Alex Bronstein-Moffly, a spokesman for the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said power shortages in insurgent heartlands would be a major setback 13 years after the Taliban were toppled in a US-backed war.

"If electrical service to Kandahar is compromised, it could end up endangering counter-insurgency and economic gains made over the last few years," he said.

Kandahar has been a strategic settlement since the time of Alexander the Great, a vital trade route for South and Central Asia that has seen the birth and death of empires. Yet modern Kandahar is emblematic of one of the world's poorest countries, where only 30 per cent of people have access to electricity.

US subsidies were intended to fill in until the power grid reached Kandahar and a new turbine was installed at the Kajaki dam. Both projects remain years away from completion, not least because of strong resistance from the Taliban in the region.

"It appears that the US still has no realistic plan for helping the Afghan government develop a sustainable source of electricity," John Sopko, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan, wrote in a report published on Tuesday.

Major Brad Avots, a Pentagon spokesman, said the US government had helped increase Afghans' access to regular electricity supplies fivefold since 2002.

He said the US government was working on ways to help Afghans develop a sustainable power solution, in part by upgrading infrastructure while Afghanistan is "transitioning away from subsidies by charging consumers for the electricity they consume".