March 30, 2015 / 5:28 AM / 3 years ago

Clashes with Taliban halt supply of power in south Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) - Clashes between Afghan forces and the Taliban have cut off the main supply of power to Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces, according to residents and the chief of the national power company.

Both areas are militant strongholds and major centers of opium production, which partly funds the insurgency. Key drug smuggling routes cross both provinces, making them a strategic priority for both Taliban and coalition forces.

The two provinces rely on the Kajaki plant in Helmand for the bulk of their already severely limited supply of electricity, but intense fighting in the area has halted around 90 percent of power.

“I don’t think it is sabotage,” said the company’s chief commercial officer, Mirwais Alami. “Otherwise they would be cutting off electricity to their own villages. The lines could have been cut by government bullets.”

It was difficult to say when power supplies would resume because clashes made it difficult to repair the lines, he added.

Efforts to control the restive southern provinces have cost hundreds of coalition lives and clashes in Helmand have intensified since Afghan forces launched an offensive there in mid-February. Most foreign forces withdrew last year.

Improving the supply of power to areas like Kandahar, where the Taliban movement began, was a top U.S. counter-insurgency priority as Washington pursued its policy of winning hearts and minds.

Expensive diesel subsidies were to fill in until the power grid reached Kandahar and third turbine was built at Kajaki, but both projects are years from completion.

USAID is now looking at solar power as a cheap source of alternative energy for the time being, according to Alami.

Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jeremy Laurence

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