Residents of the Afghan capital awoke Monday to stacks of multi-colored shipping containers meant to protect the presidential palace from the latest anti-government demonstration — this time over an electricity line from Turkmenistan.
The demonstrators — mainly members of the Hazara ethnic minority — were demanding that a 500-kilovolt power transmission line from Turkmenistan be routed through the central province of Bamiyan, home to a large Hazara population.
Bamiyan suffers from chronic electricity shortages, and when it was revealed recently that the power line would instead be routed through the rugged Salang Pass — the highway connecting northern and southern Afghanistan — before reaching Kabul, many Hazaras criticized what they saw as a racially and politically motivated decision.
Bamiyan had been part of the original route for the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan power project, known as TUTAP, which officials say will unite Afghanistan’s 10 separate power grids and bring electricity to millions of homes that lack it.
“Bamiyan is a poor province, whatever people have there they have built themselves,” said demonstrator Joma Khan, 28. “Imagine if there was power there how many people could be put to work in one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces.”
President Ashraf Ghani’s government says the decision to change the route of the project — which is being funded by the Asian Development Bank — happened under the previous administration of former President Hamid Karzai. But Ghani’s second vice president, Sarwar Danish, said the change was decided at a recent cabinet meeting.
The government says the Salang Pass route is shorter and more cost-effective.
“The goal is to provide electricity to the people, not to distribute projects based on the lobbying and pressure of small interest groups. It’s about practicality,” said Daoud Noorzai, deputy chief of staff at the presidential office. "The presidential palace invited the initiators of the TUTAP Bamiyan movement to an open discussion, but they didn’t show up.”
Routing the line through Bamiyan would cost $35 million extra and delay the project by at least two years, German consulting firm Fichtner found when it assessed the project in February 2016.
Though experts say the location of the power line will not directly impact Bamiyan’s electricity needs, the dispute has taken on an ethnic tone and served as a vehicle for Ghani’s opponents to voice frustration at his government’s inability to revitalize the economy. Some current and former members of Ghani’s government have signaled solidarity with the protesters.
“In both instances, the transmission line will end in the power-hungry capital, Kabul, and go south from there,” Thomas Ruttig of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network wrote in an online commentary published Monday. “Many of the protesters and politicians involved have possibly not read or understood the — indeed complicated — project documents.”
In response to the protests, Ghani said he would suspend the project for six months and appoint a commission to study the project documents, the Tolo news network reported Monday.
Though Ghani promised that Bamiyan would receive 300 megawatts of electricity when the project was completed, protesters said they had lost faith in the government.
“We have heard their words, but now it’s time for them to take action,” said demonstrator Nazim, 25.
“We don’t want a line, we want the key to the electricity.”
In November, thousands of Hazara protesters gathered outside the presidential palace — and briefly breached the compound — to demand justice for seven civilians killed in the southern province of Zabul. That demonstration marked the largest anti-government gathering in several years.
On Monday, the barriers to the city’s main commercial, diplomatic and administrative areas succeeded in diffusing what protest leaders had hoped would be a gathering of thousands into several smaller protests. While the demonstrations were largely peaceful, there were some reports of scuffles, and eight journalists from both local and foreign outlets were injured, according to the Afghan Journalist Safety Commission.
Mohammad Amin, 22, said protesters would continue to try to reach the presidential palace despite the roadblocks.
“We can wait. If we don’t reach the palace today, we will make it tomorrow,” Amin said from the sunroof of a Toyota van. “If not tomorrow, the next day. However long it takes, we will stay until justice prevails.”
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Latifi is a special correspondent.
10:20 a.m.: This story was updated with quotes from the government, more information about the cost of the project and about journalists injured in the protests.
This story was originally published at 9:08 a.m.