When protesters interrupted President Ashraf Ghani’s speech in London three times on 13 May 2016, the heated controversy surrounding the route of TUTAP, a main electricity grid initiative, received even international attention. In Afghanistan, the tensions have been simmering since January 2016 when Hazara members of the government started trying to prevent a potential rerouting of the electricity transmission line away from their ethnic group’s settlement areas. The leak of their efforts into the media triggered the first public protests. In early May, following a cabinet decision to stick to the rerouting plan, the subject reached the wider public, translating into a broad protest movement. For today, 16 May 2016, large protests in Kabul have been announced and are expected by some to reach or even surpass the scope of the ‘Zabul Seven’ demonstrations in November 2015. AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig, with contributions from Ali Yawar Adili, Salima Ahmadi and Jelena Bjelica, looks into what is at stake.Power transmission line in Balkh province. Photo: Jelena Bjelica (2011).
Thousands of demonstrators are expected to gather this morning (16 May 2016) in Kabul to protest the government’s decision where a new key electricity transmission line would cross the Hindu Kush massive. Two alternative routes have been hotly discussed: one over the Salang Pass and one through Bamyan province. The government finally opted for the first one in April 2016.
Protests and counter-protests
The protests are planned to mirror the ‘Zabul Seven’ demonstration of 11 November 2015, one if not the biggest in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taleban regime. The organisers, who call themselves the People’s High Council (Shura-ye Ali-ye Mardomi), plan to rally protesters converging along ten routes from different parts of the city onto Kabul’s central Jada-ye Pashtunistan in front of the entry to the Arg, the presidential palace. This square was also the venue for the ‘Zabul Seven’ protests, locally known as inqilab-e tabasum (Tabasum revolution), named after an under-age girl beheaded during the abductions by militants in Zabul province in October 2015.
In what amounts to a call for a general strike, or a “city closure” (ta’til-e shahr), as it is called by the organisers, the people’s council issued a follow-up statement on 13 May 2016 calling on “all educational centres, schools, madrasas, universities, shop keepers and business people” to “leave their routine work and pour into the streets” on “Great Monday” (Dushanbe-ye Bozorg) and to support the call for freedom and justice. In this statement the intent was apparently to project broader political aims: “Our dream [sic] is disgust of darkness and getting to the light. By ‘light’ we do not only mean it in its literal meaning.” Some social activists told AAN they would be ready to remain in the streets for many days.
The Kabul protests were preceded by demonstrations in Mazar-e Sharif and Ghazni on 15 May. In Mazar, hundreds of protesters, mainly university students, chanted slogans such as “stop discrimination” and “we want justice.” In Ghazni, according to a local leader of Khalili’s Hezb-e Wahdat “thousands“ of protesters demanded “justice and balanced development.” Simultaneous protests were announced for Daikundi, Baghlan and, again, Bamyan on 16 May as well as for a number of western capitals both on 15 and 16 May, including Washington, Stockholm, Berlin and Tokyo, mainly organised by the Hazara diaspora. The Ghani protests in London on 12 May 2016, when the president attended an anti-corruption summit, as well as the interruption of Ghani’s speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) a day later were also organised by locally based Hazara and other activists.
A late-night meeting held in the palace on 14 May 2016, in order to find a last-minute compromise on the route of the power line, so that the protests could be called off, came to nothing. It was attended by the president and politicians in the government who have publicly supported the planned Kabul protests, including second Vice-President Muhammad Sarwar Danesh and Second Deputy Chief Executive, Muhammad Mohaqqeq (here and here). The government is afraid that, as with the ‘Zabul Seven’ protests, security problems might arise. Indeed, some participants tried to scale the Arg’s walls during the ‘Zabul Seven’ protests, and there were rumours that certain individuals participating in the demonstration were planning to storm the palace and topple the government. (The situation de-escalated after the protesters were allowed onto the palace’s premises to hold an overnight vigil.)
The High Council of Jihadi parties backed the government on this. On the eve of the protests, it gathered in Kabul and warned against possible violence caused by the planned demonstration, urging the organisers to call it off. They also urged the government not to take any steps towards the implementation of the initiative until the issue has been resolved and offered to mediate. Participants included Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Munib, Wahidullah Sabawun, Qutbuddin Helal, Haji Din Muhammad as well as Sarwar Danish from those supporting the Jombesh-e Roshnayi (Enlightening Movement) and other Shia and Ismaili leaders such as Sayed Mansur Naderi and Sayed Hussain Anwari. Muhammad Karim Khalili’s Hezb-e Wahdat published a statement on 15 May 2016 saying that, in contrast to media reports, Khalili “has not participated in the decision[-making]” of the council and only supports one stance and that is the “revocation of the cabinet decision and transiting the electricity through the Bamyan-Maidan route as a national project.”
The protest organisers, however, did not give in. In a statement published on the afternoon of 15 May, the People’s High Council called on Kabulis to “be prepared for a great civil march without paying any attention to the rumours [about a possible compromise] or to the psychological warfare by the government.”
There have also been an increasingly number of counter-rallies. These have been the result of a statement made on 3 May 2016 by the Minister of Water and Energy Ali Ahmad Osmani announcing that the decision about the TUTAP route could not be changed because such a change would “affect” the plans for electricity supplies to 12 mainly southern provinces including Maidan-Wardak, Ghazni, Logar, Paktia, Paktika, Khost but also to Parwan, Panjshir and Kapisa. The following day, acting head of Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), Mir Wais Alemi stated that: “God forbid there is insistence that the project is routed through Bamyan, there is the risk that this project … might be cancelled.” Rallies and meetings were held in favour of the Salang route in the provinces of Paktia, Khost and Helmand on 10 May; further gatherings followed on 15 May in Paktika, Khost, Logar and Parwan, supporting the Salang route for the transmission line and denouncing the anti-Ghani protesters in London.
What is TUTAP?
TUTAP – an acronym for the participating countries Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan – is an initiative designed to close the large gap in Afghanistan’s current need for electrical power by connecting existing “insular” grids inside the country and linking this unified grid system to neighbouring countries. This would allow the export of surplus electricity from Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics to Pakistan and be used to cover seasonal power shortages in participating countries by the use of ‘two-way’ lines. The TUTAP regional power-sharing initiative and the better known CASA-1000 project (another 1000kV transmission line planned to connect Tajikistan with Afghanistan and Pakistan) (for initial information regarding the initiative, see this 2015 AAN dispatch) constitute the first phase of the East-Central-South Asia Regional Electricity Market (E-CASAREM) development program, which envisions the creation of a shared power market among the countries of East, Central and South Asia. For Afghanistan, TUTAP should provide all the power it needs by 2030.
The controversial Hindu Kush passage, whether via the Salang or Bamyan, covers only a short distance but topographically, it is the most complicated part of one of the lines of the envisioned TUTAP grid through the project’s main hub in Pul-e Khumri. From there, it crosses the Hindu Kush mountains to southern and southeastern Afghanistan.
Afghanistan ranks among the five per cent of countries with the lowest per capita energy consumption in the world, and is still a net energy importer. In 2014, for example, more than 80 per cent (1,000 megawatts [MW]) of its total power supply (1,247 MW) came from Iran (16%), Tajikistan (25%), Turkmenistan (12%), and Uzbekistan (27%), with the rest generated through indigenous hydropower and thermal sources (see a 2015 ADB report). According to the same report, the “lack of domestic generation remains the key challenge for energy security in Afghanistan,” which often “create disparities in economic development; and fuel ethnic and regional tensions, insecurity, and discontent.”
In 2008, Afghanistan began a comprehensive programme to expand its power grid and to develop new capacity in the generation, transmission, and distribution of electrical power. The Strategy for Regional Cooperation in the Energy Sector of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program (CAREC) endorsed by the Seventh Ministerial Conference on Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation held between 19 and 21 November 2008 in Baku, Azerbaijan decided on an investment proposal for Afghanistan. This included “transmission and distribution rehabilitation in Afghanistan to enable the country to absorb the imported power from Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and distribute it to load centers.” CASA-1000 and TUTAP are initiatives that were derived from this decision.
The executing agency for TUTAP in Afghanistan is the Asian Development Bank (ADB), through which the funding from multiple donors is also being channelled.
In October 2012, the Afghan government developed a national priority programme, called the National Energy Supply Programme (NESP), which detailed Afghanistan’s energy supply challenges and demands. The NESP highlighted that:
The current transmission system for import of power from the neighboring countries is operating at its limit. Imports from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to the north of Kabul are severely constrained by the transmission line over the Salang Pass. All three countries plan to continue supplying Afghanistan in the same amount and even increase their power transfer, which would require increasing the current transmission line capacity. The option of the Salang Pass transmission line is being studied and analyzed in the Power Sector Master Plan and results will be available in 2013.
In 2013 the Asian Development Bank commissioned the German consulting company Fichtner to develop the country’s Power Sector Master Plan. In May 2013, Fichtner came up with a 450-pages document that states in its executive summary:
For the additional [TUTAP] Hindu Kush crossing it is recommended to use the so called Bamyan route … The Bamyan route will avoid the narrow space and difficulties along the Salang Pass…
Choosing the Salang Pass route for construction of the new line to Kabul may have the advantage of slightly shorter time for construction and will have slightly less investment costs, as a separate investigation on technical feasibility of this route has shown.
From the other point of view, significant disadvantages need to be considered. First, the network integration of the coal fired power plants along the Bamyan route [another government mega project that has fallen into serious delay, however; more in this AAN analysis] and the power supply of Bamyan region will require an additional transmission line and the additional investment will be significant high, adding to the total investment. The Salang Pass will also be the route for the HVDC line for CASA-1000 project, as the actual planning of CASA-1000 project indicates and the construction of a third line along the Salang Pass will be very difficult, if not impossible.
Routing all lines to Kabul on one corridor will increase the risk of losing the whole supply for Kabul region due to one single event, with its major consequences.
What appears to be a recommendation (and indeed became one of the main lines of argument by the protesters), comes with the disclaimer that “this consultant’s report does not necessarily reflect the views of ADB or the Government concerned, and ADB and the Government cannot be held liable for its contents” and that “all the views expressed herein may not be incorporated into the proposed project’s design.” This practically refers the decision-making back to the government in Kabul – which it did, and which triggered the current protests.
How did the conflict emerge?
In early January 2016, second Vice President Muhammad Sarwar Danesh wrote a letter, first to President Ghani and then to the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) and the state-owned electricity company, DABS (the only electricity grid operator in the country and party to the TUTAP initiative) to raise his concerns about the planned rerouting of the TUTAP line from Bamyan to the Salang. He also listed the arguments against the Salang and those for the Bamyan route. The letter was somehow made public and was published by the media on 9 January 2016 (see for example here).
The leaking of Danesh’s letter – it is unclear by whom – led to the first street protests. Still on the same day, 9 January 2016, people in Bamyan demonstrated. A member of the local provincial council and of Khalili’s Wahdat party, Muhammad Hassan Assadi, who participated in the protest, was the first one who reportedly demanded Bamyan’s MPs to boycott parliament in protest. On 12 January 2016, Mohaqqeq echoed Danesh’s concerns in a social media post and joined the protest.
Tawassoli Gharjistani, a member of the technical committee set up by the president following the leaking of Danesh’s letter, told AAN that the president’s office responded to the letter by ordering the MoEW and DABS to work with Danesh’s office. According to Gharjistani, after a first meeting on 10 January 2016, the following main decisions were taken: firstly, that the procurement process for TUTAP be stopped, and secondly, a technical committee comprising of representatives of the MoEW, DABS, the offices of the Second Vice-President and of the Second Deputy Chief Executive as well as other relevant ministries be established to review the pros and cons of the two routes. After some delay and further meetings, on 10 March 2016 the technical committee agreed on an assessment report that was to be submitted to the cabinet.
A copy of this report, received from Taqi Amini, a former member of the technical committee and now one of the protest leaders, includes two major (and somewhat contradictory and unrealistic) recommendations. First, it was recommended that TUTAP be built through Bamyan and that this should take place within the framework of the existing financial plan or obtain additional funding. Secondly, it was recommended that, should the Salang route be chosen, a further 220 KV power line be added to connect Bamyan to TUTAP in order to alleviate local concerns that the rerouting would not cut the province off from the main power system (which would further increase the costs).
On 30 April 2016, the NUG cabinet approved the Salang as the route for the TUTAP power line. This was confirmed in a video message by President Ghani dated 9 May 2016:
The cabinet’s decision regarding this project, which was announced last week, was in fact in line with steps already taken in previous years by the leaders of the then-government and in accordance with an agreement they had signed with the Asian Development Bank. This project, which was supposed to have started a long time ago and already be operational by 2016, was delayed for several years. At this juncture, we had to consider the development opportunity cost. As our financial resources are sadly insufficient, our current dependence on funding has meant that our options regarding national projects are also limited and dependent on conditions, which are presented mostly with a particular perspective of economic rationality. For this reason, we had to use this last chance and deadline and take the final steps towards the implementation of this national project in order not to lose this important development opportunity.
The president further announced that in order to ensure that “big development steps are taken with national consensus,” he had tasked a national commission, whose members are to be appointed “in consultation with representatives of the people, political and civil activists and specialists.” This commission will review all related documents and finally submit “a comprehensive and coherent opinion, taking into consideration both its economic aspect and social impacts” for Ghani’s final decision. He also appealed to all parties to “keep the doors for negations open, instead of emotions resort to professional arguments, and take the collective interest as criterion for our decision-making.”
The conflict pours onto the streets
Following the cabinet’s decision in April, the Jombesh-e Roshnayi political and social movement developed. It gave the government an ultimatum of 72 hours to respond to the “demands of the people” and have the TUTAP line run through Bamyan province. On 6 May, it brought out “thousands of people” in Bamyan city criticising the government’s decision. Demonstrations in Daykundi and Herat followed.
The logo of the Enlightening Movement.
When the government did not respond as demanded, the People’s High Council held a large open-air gathering on 9 May in the Shahid Mazari Mosala, an open space in the west of Kabul, to decide on further steps, that included the preparation of a larger demonstration. Former Vice President Muhammad Karim Khalili, Danesh, Mohaqqeq and Sadeq Modaber, another Hazara party leader close to former president Karzai and the former head of the Office of Administrative Affairs, as well as a number of Hazara MPs joined the gathering. In a symbolic move, they left the platform erected for the leaders and sat with the rest of the crowd on the ground. The council then issued a statement setting 16 May 2016 as the date for the large-scale protest in Kabul.
Mere hours after the gathering, Ghani released a video message calling for negotiations and ordering yet another review committee. The following day, the People’s High Council responded to the president’s message by making the revocation of the pro-Salang cabinet decision the precondition for negotiation with the government.
Who are the organisers?
At least some the ‘Zabul Seven’ organisers are part of Jombesh-e Roshnayi which is mainly a Hazara movement. The People’s High Council is its leading body. It includes representatives from political parties, independent politicians, MPs, civil society and social activists from different spheres like independent journalism, education and social work. It is the non-party activists, though, who run the preparation of the protests and shape the face of the movement. With this composition, the protest movement is much broader than the ‘Zabul Seven’ protests in November 2015 although it finds it difficult to mobilise beyond the Hazara community.
Furthermore, the movement’s methods of communicating are distinct. All gatherings, held in the Baqir ul-Ulum mosque close to the Darulaman Palace, are open to the public. Decisions and the call for today’s protests are communicated through social media. One of the major channels of communication is the Facebook group Jumhuri-ye Sukut (The Republic of Silence). It has been reporting and discussing Hazara issues and promoting ‘humanist’ education and human rights beyond the ethnic group for a number of years already. Decisions of the council and the announcements for the protests have also used these channels but have also been publicly disseminated through public loudspeakers in some parts of Kabul.
On 14 May 2016, most Hazara and a number of other MPs – altogether 31 people – walked out of the Wolesi Jirga session, announcing that they would not return until the fate of the TUTAP initiative had been determined. The non-Hazara MPs are Latif Pedram from Badakhshan who, after the announcement of the NUG, declared there was a need for an opposition and that he would lead it; the Uzbek MP Muhammad Hashem Ortaq (the movement is not supported by Uzbek leader Dostum) and Mohiuddin Mehdi, a Tajik Jamiati intellectual. This walkout now threatens to delay major parliamentary decisions in the coming days, such as the vote over the new defence minister and NDS chief.
As emotions run high, the controversy has increasingly taken on an ethnic colouring. With Bamyan mainly populated by Hazaras, and given that the protests were started and are mainly carried out by Hazaras, this has created a counter-reaction among Pashtun MPs and Pashtun communities living in the provinces south of where TUTAP is supposed to cross the Hindu Kush. Mirroring the feelings of people in Bamyan, they also fear they might not profit from the new TUTAP system if it is not routed through the Salang. (In fact, neither would make much of a difference for them, as in both instances the transmission line will end in the power-hungry capital Kabul and go south from there. Many of the protesters and politicians involved have possibly not read or understood the – indeed complicated – project documents.) Among Hazaras, deep-seated feelings of what they see as government neglect of the central provinces over the past 15 years became apparent, finding its most extreme expression by the London RUSI protestor calling Ghani a “racist” (which was in fact rejected also by many of those supporting the protest movement).
In parliament, there were mutual accusations of “discrimination” and turning the TUTAP initiative into a “victim of ethnic politics” between different groups of MPs. The bad word of a baghi – “rebel” in a religious connotation, recently used by President Ghani for the Taleban – was hurled at the protestors. The dispute on 14 May almost turned into a physical brawl but some cooler-headed MPs stepped in just in time.
There are also a number of politicians – both Tajik and Pashtun (but few Uzbeks) – that have tried to capitalise on the protests by supporting the protesters’ demands and turning them into a vehicle for further undermining the NUG, which is already under pressure, or to encourage the administration to bring them back into (or keep them in) government positions. The former category includes ex-Minister of Interior Muhammad Omar Daudzai who is close to former president Karzai; among the latter are the acting governor of Balkh province Atta Muhammad Nur as well as two former chiefs of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Amrullah Saleh (who wrote on his Facebook page that the “central regions are part of the country’s soil, not a colony of the central government”) and Rahmatullah Nabil. This papers over the fact that at least some of these politicians had been a part of the Karzai government when the initial decisions regarding TUTAP were taken. Several leading Hazara politicians have climbed on the bandwagon to win back popularity they lost during the ‘Zabul Seven’ protests when they tried to speak on behalf of the protesters without being asked to do so. Hence, the need for their humble and symbolic gesture of sitting on the ground besides the protests’ foot soldiers.
In the meantime, during the afternoon of 15 May 2016, the protests spawned their first success. Following a morning meeting with MPs – minus the boycotting group – and senators in the presidential palace (the day’s Senate session was cancelled), President Ghani reportedly promised to send all documents related to TUTAP to parliament for deliberation. The president also issued a decree with the names of the 12 members of the new review commission he had announced earlier. Dr. Mohammad Humayoun Qayoumi, one of the President’s Chief Adviser, was named as the head of the review commission, which, among others, includes also the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan and former finance minister Omar Zakhilwal as well as the Minister of Economy Abdul Sattar Murad and the Minister of Urban Development Sayed Sadat Mansur Naderi. Ghani also suspended the 30 April cabinet decision on the trans-Hindu Kush route. The commission now has ten days to come up with a solution.
It is high time that someone starts to distinguish the technical arguments from the political ones. These last-minute steps might also take the edge off today’s protests that, as it turns out, will go ahead anyway. Given the lack of trust in the government, however, whatever decision the new commission will finally take will almost surely lead to new protests.
The security forces, meanwhile, were also active. A number of the planned demonstration routes have been blocked with containers, as witnessed by AAN colleagues. The garrison commander of Kabul held a press conference and said that the demonstrators would only be allowed to march to the Chaman-e Huzur, the fairground near the National Stadium in the southeast of the city.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020