The New War for Afghanistan's Untapped Oil

What's driving the recent surge in Taliban violence?

by Antonia Juhasz

January 10, 2013
The Atlantic

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/01/the-new-war-for-afghanistans-untapped-oil/267010/

I am looking out the window as men in grey turbans run from my
building out onto the highway, their AK 47s at the ready.
"There's been an accident," my Afghan guide, Danish calmly
tells me. "Someone was just killed in the plaza here."

I am in Faryab province in northwest Afghanistan, which had
been considered among the more peaceful areas. "Was someone
hit by a car?" I ask. Danish pauses. The "Oh yes, she's
American" look passes quickly over his face before he replies,
"Somebody was shot."

Within a few minutes we get a report from the secretary of
Abdullah Masoumi, the governor of Khoja Sabz Posh District, in
whose office we've been waiting for some time. It was the
Taliban, he tells us, and the victim was Commander Czhulam, a
leading member of the governor's security team and a former
commander under General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the
country's most powerful warlords.

With the close of 2012, the Pentagon has revealed a disturbing
trend in Afghanistan: Taliban attacks remained steady, or in
some cases increased, over 2011 levels. I experienced the
Taliban surge firsthand this past November, and can offer a
cause not cited in the Pentagon's report: oil and gas.

I was there as part of a three week investigation into the
growing efforts of both the US and Afghan governments to
develop Afghanistan's oil and gas sector. I prepared my
itinerary to include what are supposed to be among the safest
regions, and was traveling alone with just a local guide and
driver, my only "safety-gear" the local clothing and black
head covering I wore. As long as I kept my mouth shut, with my
dark hair and Middle-European heritage, I regularly passed for
a local. I was tracking an oil and gas trail across Western
and Northern Afghanistan. But so too, it became increasingly
apparent, are the Taliban.

I was to interview Governor Masoumi because his district sits
atop fields of natural gas in one of the most energy-rich
provinces. As in virtually all of Afghanistan, none of the
fields are marked because almost no natural gas or oil
operations are taking place. I know the fields are there
because I am following a map of Afghanistan's oil and natural
gas riches produced by the United States' Government's US
Geological Survey (USGS).

My journey has uncovered a largely hidden battle being waged
for control of Afghanistan's fossil fuel resources. The Afghan
and US governments hope these resources will attract
international oil companies and raise badly needed income. The
Taliban appear increasingly bent on denying the fruits of the
sector to their rivals, be they local, national, or
international.

As we leave Faryab, Danish warns, "If the Taliban catch us,
throw your camera out the window and pretend to be my deaf
mute mother."

Two days later I'm in Jowzan province to the north of Faryab,
waiting at the gates of the Khoja Gogardak natural gas
treatment plant, a few miles from Sheberghan city. A lone
guard sits nearby. Old, thin, and short with a small grey
turban and stark white beard, his AK-47 is casually slung
across his shoulder while two small "guard puppy" dogs relax
at his feet, enjoying the calm afternoon sun in the heart of
General Dostum's territory. His lackadaisical attitude is both
quaint and oddly reassuring.

Suddenly, Mir Hasan, head engineer of the facility, appears
and ushers us quickly inside. "There is a recent security
situation which is not good and the military will be here in a
few minutes," Danish translates.

Hasan had received word a few minutes earlier that his
employees working at a natural gas field behind the facility
and just in the distance (he points, we look) were attacked by
the Taliban. "Right here?!" I ask. "Yes," Danish confirms.
Hasan politely reassures me that he is happy to give me the
tour of the facility, 90 percent of which is outdoors and in
full view of the just-attacked field, but we'll have to be
quick about it as the Afghan military is on its way. "This
just happened?!" I ask. "Yes, exactly," Hasan responds. "Has
this happened before?" I ask. "Mostly their attacks take place
during the night," he explains. "This is the first time that
they have attacked during the day."

I quickly recall that on the road out of Mazar-i-Sharif, the
city General Dostum calls home, Danish had been shocked to see
a man on a motorbike brazenly wearing the telltale-black
turban of a Taliban and brandishing his weapon in the middle
of the day. It was the first time either Danish or our driver
had seen such a display in over ten years.

"I think we better go," Danish tells me. I try to stall,
hoping to be there when the Afghan military arrive, but the
men are anxious. Engineer Hasan cannot yet report any details
other than that when the Taliban began shooting, his men got
into their vehicles and fled the area without apparent injury.
"You are not very lucky," Hasan tells me, as we say goodbye to
him at the gate.

How right he was. I am standing in the middle of the street in
Sheberghan City waiting for Mohammad Chaari, commander of
security for the Amu Darya oil contract area awarded in 2011
to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in
partnership with Afghanistan's Watan Group. With two
facilities operating in Sari Pul Province south of Jowzan and
east of Faryab, theirs is the only oil production in
Afghanistan -- although they currently ship their entire
product to Turkmenistan. Almost a week earlier, I had been
given a secret tour. (The Chinese no longer allow press onto
the facility, so I was snuck in.)

While we wait for Chaari, we overhear a conversation between
him and two CNPC engineers from Sari Pul. There has been a
Taliban attack near the facility, "large enough to call in air
support." No one would say more when asked, but Commander
Chaari does tell me that his security detail are about to be
significantly increased.

We begin crossing oil and gas fields off my itinerary, deeming
them too "insecure" to visit, including oil fields very near
to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and the entire province of
Kunduz. "Insecure," I have quickly learned, is code for
"Taliban." As the director general of the Afghan Oil and Gas
Survey tells me, "There is nothing else causing insecurity."

The US Pentagon is the de-facto lead US agency pushing the
development of Afghanistan's oil and gas sector. Jim Bowen, a
Houston oilman hired by the Pentagon to guide a November 15
international oil and gas contract tender process, confirmed
for me that these attacks are in fact on the rise. "Certainly,
as the [oil and gas] sector develops, the sector is creating
targets, there is no doubt about that," Bowen tells me. "But
exactly how one defines 'Taliban' is open to interpretation."

Sitting in Kabul shortly before my departure, I speak with
Javed Noorani, extractive industries monitor for the Afghan
NGO Integrity Watch. He confirms Bowen's analysis: As the oil
and gas sector draws increasing public attention, so too have
Taliban attacks grown. But identifying who is supporting those
Taliban, "be they Pakistani, Iranian, or homegrown, is not so
simple."

The result is clear, and far from unique to Afghanistan: As
development of the oil and gas sector has risen, so too has
violence and insecurity.

[Antonia Juhasz is a fellow at the Investigative Reporting
Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate
School of Journalism. She has written for The New York Times,
Los Angeles Times, and The Nation, among others.]

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