border review | 22 June 2012

Afghan Oil, CNPC, Dostum and Karzai's cousins

At the end of last year, China’s National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) inked a deal to exploit natural gas and oil in Afghanistan’s northeastern Amu Darya basin (see Afghan Oil and Orientalism).

According to Joao Peixe of, the project is now facing threats and demands by militia close to Abdul Rashid Dostum – ex-warlord, general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Afghan National Army, and informal leader of the Uzbeks in Afghanistan.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai pledged to send 300 police to help secure the Amu Darya site. This must be seen in the light of who CPNC’s Afghan partners are: Watan Oil and Gas, a company controlled by President Karzai’s cousins Rateb and Rashid Popal, as Ben Farmer and Dean Nelson (Telegraph) note.

The Popals are an influential family whose land was seized during the Soviet occupation. Many of its members were arrested and disappeared. According to Afghan Biographies, Rateb lost his hands in a failed attempt to bomb the Russian embassy. He managed to leave Afghanistan and came via Germany to the US, where he got married and studied. In 1989 he was convicted for smuggling drugs and spent more than eight years in a New York prison.

He returned to Pakistan in 1998 and became the personal translator of ambassador Zaeef, Taliban government’s emmissary to Islamabad. Later, Rateb started a steel factory with Chinese help. The Popan family’s company Watan Risk Management also worked as a contractor for the US forces. In 2010, they were accused of paying off Taliban insurgents to secure the US-led coalition’s supply chain between Kandahar and Kabul (see this CBC news report for an analysis).

I am sure that all of this was thoroughly scrutinised by CPNC and most probably, Chinese intelligence has considered the feasibility and safety of this investment together with the PRC’s other Afghan endeavours in mining and irrigation. Rateb Popal’s link to Taliban elites may have looked like some sort of security advantage in the long run. But Dostum’s claim now renders things much more complicated.

In the meantime, as Kimberly Dvorak (for reports, US Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) is not pleased with the prospect of US resources and blood being used to protect Chinese interests’ in Afghanistan. Much along the same lines, a senior UK diplomat told The Daily Telegraph:

I think we all desperately hoped that British soldiers were dying for something more noble than helping Karzai’s drug dealing cousin to sell gas from northern Afghanistan to the Chinese.