Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turning the Lights On in Kabul

The capital has seen a dramatic upturn in the amount of electricity available since Ismail Khan took over as energy minister.
By IWPR Afghanistan

Ismail Khan set himself a daunting task when he took office as Afghanistan’s minister of water and energy in December.

The former mujahedin commander who long held sway over the western city of Herat promised the hard-pressed residents of Kabul that he would fix their energy shortage within two months.

Now, through a combination of hard work and good luck, it appears that the strongman from Herat has been able to fulfil his pledge. Instead of having power for only a few short hours, three nights out of seven, residents of much of the city now have electricity on a nightly basis.

"Right now, 70 per cent of Kabul's homes have electricity every night," Ismail Khan told IWPR.

Providing power in a city that saw much of its electrical infrastructure destroyed during decades of fighting hasn’t been easy. In addition, years of drought have severely limited the country’s ability to use its hydroelectric generators – the country’s main source of generating power – to produce electricity.

It would take between 150 and 200 megawatts of power daily to meet all the power demands of the city. Since Ismail Khan took office, the amount of electricity available to the capital has increased from 60 to 110 megawatts a day. He hopes to be able to provide 100 per cent of the energy need very soon.

This seems possible because the government has recently purchased 25 generators from a British-based manufacturer, at a cost of 4.9 million US dollars, which will have a combined capacity to produce an additional 30 megawatts of electricity daily.

"We have signed the contract and paid the money. They have pledged to have the generators imported to Kabul within one month," said Ismail Khan. "This will bring energy to the western areas of Kabul that have had no electricity at all for the past few years."

In addition, the minister said, the Iranian ambassador has pledged to provide another 30 megawatts by the beginning of March.

Even the weather appears to be cooperating with the minister. The severe winter, with an above-average snowfall, means there will be additional water available this spring to power the country’s hydroelectric plants.

"This is a good omen," said Ismail Khan. "The water level has risen, which also increases the capacity of the power supply."

In addition to making more electricity available, Ismail Khan said his ministry is attempting to combat those who illegally tap into the country’s power grid.

"We have groups patrolling the city day and night," said the minister. "We have taken the necessary steps to prevent people benefiting from electricity privately and misusing it. We have not been completely successful, but we are hopeful that we will be able to distribute electricity equitably."

To those who have followed his long career, it comes as no surprise that Ismail Khan has been able to accomplish so much since President Hamed Karzai appointed him to the cabinet.

Ismail Khan distinguished himself as a mujahedin commander during the ten-year war with the Soviet Union. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, he returned to his native Herat province, building a strong power base and becoming governor in 1992. He ultimately took on the title of emir, or ruler, of the southwestern region.

He was arrested and imprisoned by the Taleban in Kandahar for three years, escaping in 2000 to join the Northern Alliance. After the fall of the Taleban in 2001, he returned to Herat, again as governor, and set about the reconstruction of the region.

His removal from that post by Karzai, who had become increasingly concerned by Ismail Khan’s independence from the central government, in September 2004 sparked demonstrations throughout the region. At the time he rejected Karzai’s offer of the post of minister of mines and industry, saying that he was a military man.

Following last October’s presidential elections, however, Ismail Khan accepted the post of minister of water and energy.

His role during the years of fighting in the country continues to be controversial. In January, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission issued a report calling for the country’s warlords to be held accountable for alleged war crimes committed during the county’s civil wars.

The foreign media has called for Ismail Khan, along with Abdul Rashid Dostum, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani, to be among the first to face a war-crimes tribunal.

Ismal Khan takes the charges philosophically, but does not disguise his pique.

"When the country faced dangers from communism, and later on terrorism, the jihad commanders were called heroes,” he said. “Now that the danger has passed, we are labelled violators of human rights. Until yesterday, everybody was praising us and governments were helping us. Now we they are using imported words like ‘warlords’ against us. I think this is unkind to the mujahedin."

For now, Ismail Khan seems satisfied with his current post and is busy developing ways to increase the country’s electricity supply, including the use of alternative sources of energy.

"Both sun and wind are being looked at as possible energy sources," said Ismail Khan, adding that solar power for now may require too large a capital investment to be a viable source of power. But Ismail Khan noted that wind turbines are being installed in Bamian province, and are being considered for Farah, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.

"I am planning to provide energy to every part of the country," said Ismail Khan. "Provinces that have water sources will be powered by hydroelectricity; provinces where wind can be used will have turbines; border provinces will import power. The rest will get their electricity through generators."

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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