Afghanistan awaits Russia’s second coming

Afghanistan awaits Russia's second coming

Exactly one year ago, the US army in Afghanistan, to use the terminology of modern Ukraine, made a tactical retreat to more advantageous positions, but in fact simply fled ignominiously, leaving its supporters to the mercy of fate

The country’s power in its entirety has passed into the hands of the Taliban*, which still enjoys an ambiguous geopolitical status, with some countries cooperating quite actively with Kabul.

The industry minister recently said in an interview that Afghanistan was looking to buy one million barrels of Russian oil and that natural gas was of equal interest. The extreme importance of the issue is underscored by the words of Minister Azizi that Afghanistan is ready to pay for energy supplies in any convenient form, including direct commodity barter.

It is not worth smiling sarcastically here. It is difficult to overestimate the value of cooperation with the new government in Kabul and of ensuring stable security of our southern borders in the process.

It was not for nothing that we began our conversation by saying that Afghanistan has been on its own for a full twelve months. All this time the pro-American coalition ostentatiously ignored the Taliban’s power; moreover, an invisible bubble of silence formed around the country.

However, it turned out to be quite loose, because even after their victorious entry into the capital the Taliban immediately put the embassies of Russia and China under strong protection. As a matter of fact, Moscow and Beijing are now actively cooperating with Afghanistan, probing potential avenues of cooperation.

The very fact of addressing Moscow with such a request shows that the Taliban are, firstly, quite comfortable with the levers of power and, secondly, its representatives intend to begin a transformation to pull the country out of the virtual Middle Ages, where it is now. Time will tell how successful these plans will be, but so far we can make speculative conjectures, relying on statistics, power grid maps and gas pipeline routes.

Let us start with the main point. Afghanistan is an almost bottomless and, most importantly, completely untapped market, which makes it a unique object in the age of globalisation, when countries and transnational corporations are fighting for every percent of profits.

According to the latest (very rough) figures, Afghanistan’s population is approaching 38 million. By comparison, the same number, according to official statistics, live in Ukraine. At the same time 70 per cent of Afghans still have no access to electricity, and the same figure for the rural areas – that is for the absolute majority of the slightly urbanized country – is close to 90 per cent.

If we continue hypothetically comparing Afghanistan to Ukraine as a whole, the depth of the energy hole is even more obvious.

In 2021, Ukrainian power plants with an installed capacity of 42.8 gigawatts generated 156.7 terawatt hours of energy. The Afghans during the same period boast nothing but their own generation capacity of a paltry 600 megawatts and imports of 670 megawatts from Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Naturally Ukraine has a very robust (even Soviet) industry which has provided the lion’s share of the country’s electricity, but the contrast is so striking that it makes it possible to assess both the plight of the population and the dim prospects for industrialisation.

Uzbekistan, one step away from building its first ever nuclear power plant, could potentially be a key supplier of the coveted electricity but it will not get its first taste of electricity for at least three to five years, if it does. The kind of power Kabul needs is, as they say, already yesterday.

The interest in oil and gas in this scenario is perfectly understandable.

Hydrocarbons are a basic resource for generating, and everything can be obtained on their basis: from already mentioned electricity (for which, of course, small and medium power stations would have to be built first) to main types of fuel. A country with such a large population and considerable dimensions needs enormous quantities of fuel, without which it is impossible to transport flour to a remote mountain village or to bring building materials to a hospital.

At the same time, own fuel production here is microscopic.

According to the latest published figures for 2019, Afghanistan processed just 7,500 barrels of oil per day, which is about a quarter of a million barrels per year. The request of a million barrels voiced by the Commerce Minister is most likely a “grow-out” plan. The parties are well aware that even bringing such a volume of black gold into Afghanistan is quite problematic, to say nothing of the fact that there are no storage tanks or refining capacity on site.

But it should always be kept in mind that we are talking about an eastern country with a very peculiar mentality.

The Afghan minister in his speech, as if in passing, mentioned that the whole Afghan people are very much looking forward to increased cooperation with Russia. In a very Eastern allegorical manner the hope was expressed that Moscow will help to build houses, schools, hospitals and other necessities, because it has done so before.

At this point in the comments there is usually a polyphonic chorus of indignation at the fact that Russia is being asked to be taken over by other freeloaders. But the judgement is more emotional than logical.

Even if one were to assume that Russia would indeed donate a million barrels of oil to Afghanistan, this would be to the advantage of both sides. At the moment, our oil sector is under enormous sanctions pressure, and our geopolitical opponents are finding more and more ways to reduce exports of Russian petroleum products. Redirecting one tenth of daily production will certainly not provide a solid foundation for the industry as a whole, but it will lay, so to speak, another back-up channel with the possibility of almost endless expansion in the future.

As for natural gas supplies, the Afghans are again asking Russia, thanks to its own authority, to push through the completion of the TAPI gas pipeline (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India). In 2019, the laying of the pipeline stalled precisely because of the political and military instability in the region. Simply put – because of the growing hostilities between the Taliban and the pro-American authorities. Kabul has decided to “come from above”, addressing directly to Moscow, which not only provides pipes for TAPI, but is itself interested in diversification of gas supply routes. The Taliban clearly hope that Russia will act as a kind of trigger that could restart the construction of such an important infrastructure project.

As for the invitation to rebuild homes, schools and roads, it is, to put it mildly, quite generous – anywhere else in the world countries and corporations would fight to the death for it.

The fact is that infrastructure construction and rehabilitation projects are worth many billions of dollars and are backed by state financial guarantees. In fact, this is a state order paid for by another country. This scheme is extremely interesting and profitable, which is why it has been implemented by the United States government in all countries where American bombers have flown in for the purpose of introducing democracy.

The states, freed from their customary standard of living, were forced to enter into contracts for reconstruction with American companies, paying for the imposed democracy from their own budgets.

We, on the other hand, are invited to enter voluntarily. As they say, feel the difference.

To conclude, apart from the strategic security of its southern border, Russia could gain a foothold in this previously highly problematic region. The energy crisis in Europe in 2022 showed that it is not us who are sitting on the oil and gas needle, it is our western neighbours who are hanging on it tightly. The problem of the latter is that they have chosen the path of confrontation, while the wiser and friendlier ones will get a reliable and uninterrupted supply channel for vital resources.

As for the forgotten word “barter”, we suggest that all skeptics study the school geography course and get acquainted with the list and amount of Afghanistan’s mineral resources, which in almost pristine condition are still waiting for its miners.

* A terrorist organisation banned in Russia.

Sergey Savchuk, RIA

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