DESPITE the difficult security situation, some optimism surrounds the longer-term prospects of Afghanistan as an energy provider.
Yet the northern areas, where most of the country’s oil and gas resides, are facing increasing infiltration by the Afghan Taliban and a much less well-publicised group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The IMU is active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and notably in areas which are thought to contain oil, gas and minerals.
The energy potential in Afghanistan is undoubted. At peak production in the late-70s, Afghanistan sent 70-90% of its natural gas output to the Soviet Union, via a pipeline link through Uzbekistan.
IMU also has a foothold in Uzbek communities in the north, and as such will continue to pose a longer-term problem for those seeking to develop Afghan hydrocarbon resources.
Since being largely wiped out in Afghanistan after the fall of the Afghan Taliban in 2001, the IMU has relocated to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where it is thought to number in the hundreds as well as being a recruiter in central Asia and the Caucasus.
In Afghanistan, Uzbek communities are particularly vulnerable to IMU infiltration because of their increasingly marginal political role. The Uzbek population is concentrated in the north and north-west of the country, and is most numerous in four provinces, Kunduz, Faryab, Jawzian and Sari Pul, the latter of which has already seen oil extracted, albeit in tiny amounts.
The original goal of the group was to overthrow the Karimov regime but, since 2001, it has also grown close to the Pakistani Taliban as well as al Qaida and is suspected of realigning to some of the goals of their hosts.
The IMU remained closely allied with al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban as former leader, Tahir Yuldashev was close to Osama bin Laden and was also a member of al Qaida’s leadership council, the Shura Majlis.
The 2009 killing of Yuldashev left outside observers uncertain as to the direction of the group as little is known publicly about new leader Abu Usman Adil.
Uzbekistan is estimated to have about 600million barrels of oil reserves and the energy sector is crucial for the country’s economy. The country has more than 170 oil and gas fields, many of which are located in the Fergana valley region, including the locally important Mingbulak oilfield. The Fergana basin straddles Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and is rich in hydrocarbon resources. Its potential continues to increase as exploration proceeds.
However, as is the case in Afghanistan, the exploration and extraction of resources is under growing threat from the spread of religious radicalism.
Porous and remote borders facilitate not only the transit of narcotics, but also of weapons and extremist fighters, with militant networks such as the IMU and splinter groups able to traverse with relative ease.
To date, terrorist activity has focused in the main on regime targets, eschewing mass-casualty attacks. However, problems in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, including deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, could easily support a renewed extremist fringe with global jihadist ties.
In April, Kyrgyz special forces warned of the threat of a revival of the IMU in the country’s southern regions as the influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir lessens, even going so far as to suggest that IMU splinter group Islamic Jihad Union could be plotting an attack in the Kyrgyz Fergana Valley.
The IJU aims to create an Islamic state in Uzbekistan and is active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Other possible centres for militant activity include the Tajik town of Isfara, the unofficial capital of the Tajik Fergana Valley, which is more religiously conservative than other urban Tajik areas and is known to have previously acted as a hub for extremist group Bayat.
Considering the vast potential in the region, one should be careful not to concentrate all resources on the Afghan Taliban and be aware of the plethora of groups (often allies) which operate.
Currently attacks usually focus on those delivering oil by truck while recently the northwest saw oil storage facility servicing the international forces was attacked. So, the absence of damage to oil infrastructure is largely due to the absence of development in the north of Afghanistan, but prospective investors in Uzbek areas should be keenly aware of the diverse groups who may operate there.
These will have a direct impact on the oil and gas-producing areas, which could see not only northern Afghanistan destabilised but other areas too if the group is able to establish a launching pad for attacks across Central Asia and beyond.
Louise Taggart and Fraser Bomford are intelligence analysts with security specialist AKE Ltd.