Who Wins in a "War" With the Taliban Over Oil and Gas?

(Photo: ISAF/Flickr)
Country: Afghanistan
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While Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai negotiated transitional security arrangements with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, other Washington insiders pressed for a stronger focus on the political and economic transitions to stabilize the country after  2014, including how to develop the country’s vast oil, gas and mineral resources.

During this flurry of activity, The Atlantic posted "The New War for Afghanistan's Untapped Oil,"  Antonia Juhasz’s report of her field investigation into the links between natural resources and conflict in Afghanistan, where she witnessed what she was told a Taliban assault on oil- and gas-producing facilities. Since the announcement of the country’s estimated $3 trillion in oil, gas and minerals, there have been fears this resource wealth could become another source of conflict. Afghan civilian organizations such as Integrity Watch Afghanistan and Afghanistan Watch have monitored and documented some of these conflicts in the mining sector.

Juhasz's article, however, is the first to assert the violence signals a “new war” between the Taliban and Afghan government. This cursory conclusion misses key nuances about the identity of the perpetrators, the reasons for local violence and links to the ongoing insurgency. But given the acceleration of resource development and the lack of progress in peace talks, it’s worth asking: What does the Taliban gain by acting as a spoiler to oil development?

Juhasz writes of “the hidden battle being waged for control of Afghanistan's fossil fuel resources.” But is the Taliban violently competing to control the oil and gas projects in the Northwest? What would it do if it controlled those assets? Only an experienced operator can run an oil extraction project, which includes, among other things, managing the equipment, transport and marketing of goods to buyers. The Taliban understands this, as demonstrated during its regime in the 1990s when it unsuccessfully negotiated a pipeline deal with Unocal.

Even if the Taliban cannot capture these assets, it might make sense to use violence to deny the Karzai government of "the fruits of the sector" to prepare for a Taliban-controlled future. But the Afghan government does not rely on revenues from natural resources: According to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, two years ago less than 0.2 percent of the country's GDP came from mining. Oil production has yet to begin. By targeting infrastructure and threatening companies, the Taliban would only harm its prospects by scaring off badly needed investment and exploration  expertise, further hindering any future revenues for a government in which they control or share power.

Lastly, assuming the Taliban is a serious political actor and not just an unthinking engine of mayhem, could disrupting oil and gas operations help it attain a better negotiating position in the reconciliation process? This is a risky strategy. Too much violence and intimidation will drive out those few companies, like China’s National Petroleum Company, willing to operate in unstable regions. Even brief disruptions in operations could alienate local power-brokers who depend on payoffs, contracts or jobs from these projects. These local, often armed networks would then be highly incentivized to rebuff any Taliban incursion into the Northwest Uzbek-dominated territories where the country’s oil is produced. In the end, such a strategy would be unsustainable without clear gains.

On the issue of oil at least, it's more likely the Taliban's interest largely coincides with the government's—to build a profitable industry where they can share in the power and spoils. As policymakers shift their attention to political and economic transition in 2014, they must focus on the positive developments that can result from a resource boon, such as economic prosperity and a settlement where the dividends from peace outweigh the returns from violence.

Katarina Kuai is RWI Program Officer and lead on Afghanistan projects.

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