Central Asian Countries Left with the Burden of Keeping Afghanistan’s Lights On
Jun 23, 2022
Afghanistan is unable to pay its electricity bill to its northern neighbors and both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are beginning to feel the pinch.
Since the Taliban seized control of the country last summer, millions of Afghans have struggled to survive. Thousands of civil servants fled the country in the initial takeover, forcing the Taliban to fill these vacancies with unskilled bureaucrats or Taliban fighters who have proven to be incapable of managing the growing crisis. Furthermore, international sanctions imposed against the Taliban regime have frozen Afghanistan’s economy. Even though nonprofit organizations are permitted to operate within the country, many are wary to do so out of concern of violating U.S. sanctions. In February 2022, President Biden decreed that $7 billion of Kabul’s frozen assets would be allocated towards humanitarian aid relief and payments to families of the September 11 terrorist attack victims. Moreover, there is the very real question regarding the extent to which the Taliban rulers actually care about the economy, its growth, and public well-being.
The dire situation also places Afghanistan’s northern neighbors in an awkward position as they await over $100 million in payments for electricity imports.
Afghanistan imports about 78 percent of its electricity from neighboring Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan for approximately $220 million annually. The large dependence on imports has forced the Taliban leadership to ask these suppliers to keep exporting electricity despite unpaid bills. In October 2021, acting head of the Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), the national electricity monopoly, Safiullah Ahmadzai said, “Our neighboring states now have the right to cut our power, under the contract… We are convincing them not to do that and that they will get paid.”
So far, Afghanistan’s neighbors have kept the lights on. Uzbekistan is contracted to supply two billion kWh of power and Tajikistan will provide 1.5 billion kWh of power to Afghanistan in 2022, valued at $100 million and $69 million respectively. It is unclear, though, how Afghanistan plans to pay. In January and February, DABS did pay Tajikistan $6 million out of its $33 million debt to the country. Still, that payment is only a fraction of the Taliban’s growing debt.
Central Asian countries could halt electricity exports to Afghanistan. However, the United Nations Development Program has warned that any blockage of electricity supplies could mean no power for 10 million Afghans, exacerbating an already serious humanitarian crisis. Moreover, electricity shortages could fuel terrorist activity in Afghanistan, including the extremist and anti-Taliban group, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has threatened Central Asian states as well as the new rulers in Kabul. Central Asian countries could also face a flood of refugees from Afghanistan if the power goes out.
The situation means Iran and Central Asian countries are forced to supply Afghanistan with electricity to deter humanitarian and security crises, all the while Afghanistan unsuccessfully searches for ways to pay off its debt. If the situation persists on its current path, Afghanistan will continue to accrue unsustainable amounts of debt for an economy already unable to support its own populace.
The economic costs of keeping the lights on across Afghanistan has been unfairly placed on the Central Asian states bordering the country. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan will be the countries to hurt from a humanitarian crisis or considerable economic decline most directly in Afghanistan. Figuring out a way to pay these countries for the electricity they need to continue supplying Afghans should be high on the agenda of those in western governments and international institutions looking at Afghanistan’s humanitarian problems and the impacts they can have on the broader region.