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Asia

Energy project divides Afghan society

The TUTAP project aimed to unite the country's power lines, but instead caused a split down ethnic lines. A change in plan, which bypasses an underdeveloped province, has sparked mass protests by the Hazara minority.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kabul on Monday to protest the Afghan government's reroute of the TUTAP transnational electricity project. Most belong to the predominantly Shiite Hazara ethnic group, an impoverished minority that has been repressed throughout the country's history. Carrying lanterns, they demanded electricity for the province of Bamyan.

"The population wants justice," Ali Kawa, one of the protestors, told DW. "Justice means that the possibilities and resources of this land will be distributed to all, regardless of one's background or religion."

A few days ago, it became known that the Afghan government decided to direct the planned high-voltage power line through the northeastern district of Salang, rather than Bamyan. Three Afghan Hazaras later interrupted a talk by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in London, accusing him of racism. A heated discussion ensued over social media, with Hazaras and Pastuns launching ethnic insults at each other, before the anger reached its climax with the protests on Monday.

Political abuse or technical problems?

The TUTAP project is designed to deliver electricity from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan (the acronym comes from the names of the countries involved), making power available to millions of Afghans by connecting preexisting infrastructure. The German technical advising firm Fichtner originally recommended that the power route run through Bamyan province, near planned Chinese and Indian natural resource projects and a power station that could be connected to the line.

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Afghan capital locked down for massive demonstration

But Fichtner now advises against this route, according to company documents made available to DW, because the projects have yet to come to fruition and cost calculations have grown to exceed expectations.

According to Daud Noorzai, deputy chief of staff for President Ghani, the TUTAP project wouldn't have delivered power to Bayman province anyways. Like a water pipeline, high-tension power lines don't deliver to the areas it passes through, Noorzai told DW. "Changing to the current structure to pass through Bamyan would not only create more costs, but also prolong the completion of the project by years."

In the future, the government says it wants to be more transparent about the implementation of its projects and prevent their manipulation by different sides of the political spectrum.

But the anger is sparked by far more than revised calculation, according to Alexey Yusupov, head of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Kabul. "This has a lot to do with a sense of injustice, and of discontent with the government in general, much less than it has to do with the technical aspects of the project."

An outlet for dissatisfaction

In a way, TUTAP has become a specific issue for Hazaras to vent their general anger. "This has become an emotional issue, because the protestors have the feeling that the government is taking something away which they had promised," Yusupov said. This feeling that has built up among Hazaras.

Bamyan is one of the most underdeveloped provinces in Afghanistan, though other provinces have received just as little in the way of development support. The situation has only worsened since the end of the first NATO mission, which spelled the end as well of accompanying financial aid.

This has then latched onto a laundry list of discontents with the increasingly unpopular National Unity Government - rampant corruption, growing unemployment, a worsening refugee problem and faltering peace negotiations with the Taliban.

The TUTAP project has provided an opportunity to unleash this resentment. Futhermore, Hazara leaders in the government have seized on the pent-up anger of the community. "Political leaders like Mohammad Mohaqeq and Karim Khalili want to demonstrate their power and show that they are able to get people out onto the street," Yusupov said.

Calls for unity

There have also been counter-demonstrations. In the southern Kandahar province, for example, tribal elders, the provincial council, civil society representatives and students have met to speak out against the protests. They carried signs with images of President Ghani, criticizing the incident in London and the deploring the politicization of TUTAP down ethnic lines.

Afghanistan Demonstration Stromleiltungsprojekt Totab in Kandahar

A counter-demonstration held in the city of Khandar

"This is a national project," said Haji Saifullah, a tribal elder. "The Salang route offers more advantages for the entire country, and, therefore, the government should not submit to the pressure." He believes Hazaras shouldn't feel personally attacked by the route change.

Experts warn that the stand-off could grow dangerous, given the ethnic dimension. Such tensions fed a civil war that tore the country apart in the 1990s.

Hoping to defuse the situation, President Ghani announced Tuesday the creation of a commission tasked with untangling the project's perceived interweaving of political and technical issues, as well as making clear that TUTAP is in any case an important step for the entire country. Even residents of the capital, Kabul, are accustomed to daily power outages. In rural areas, electricity is rarely available for more than two hours a day.

But the commission has a tough task ahead. The organizers of Monday's march quickly rejected it as a fix without substance.

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