KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan demand that Russia return oil and gas geological data "borrowed" by the former Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s has been ignored, causing friction in relations between the two nations.
Afghan Minister of Mines and Industries Joma Mohamadi told The Times that his country has formally requested the return of the extensive geological surveys.
The Soviets "borrowed the data for safekeeping" in 1987 and the Russians have not returned them, Mohamadi said. The surveys covered the large natural gas field near Sheberghan that the Afghan government says could contain hundreds of millions of cubic feet of gas, a potentially major deposit.
"The data is the property of the government of Afghanistan," said Mohamadi, who has returned to Afghanistan after fleeing his homeland's strife years ago for a career at the World Bank in Washington. "It was not stolen but handed to them for the safety of the documents. And now we want it back."
Afghanistan's energy industry has been left a shambles by more than two decades of warfare, looting and anarchy. The data would help the nation in its efforts to attract foreign investment in developing oil and gas fields, which lie mainly in the northwestern part of the country.
Recovering the data might also help impoverished Afghanistan save some of the tens of millions of dollars that a comprehensive new geological survey would cost. Such surveys are a prerequisite to any major investment in oil and gas drilling.
As part of a $500-million agreement they signed this year, Russia would supply oil and oil products to Afghanistan.
Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company that Mohamadi says is responsible for the data, maintains that it doesn't know where the material is.
Most likely, this information is not kept in one place, Dmitri Panteleyev, press spokesman for the Moscow-based Rosneft, said in a telephone interview, and collecting it would be a task of "enormous difficulty and effort."
"And even if this information was available at one specific place, there is no guarantee that the Russian side would be ready to share it with Afghanistan," he said. "It is more of a political question than an economic one."
The spokesman also questioned Mohamadi's contention that the surveys are Afghan property.
"It is not that the Soviets came and took what the Afghans had already obtained before them," Panteleyev said. "All the work was done by Soviet specialists. Besides this, it was [done with] Soviet know-how too."
The dispute has reopened some old wounds and comes to light as foreign oil companies, including Rosneft, are considering the Afghan government's invitation to invest in energy development here.
The former Soviet Union made huge investments in Afghan energy during its 10-year occupation. Its oil companies drilled 100 gas wells, 55 of which are still in good condition, Mohamadi said. The Soviets capped them all before their retreat in 1989. The Soviets also built pipelines, now largely destroyed, that shipped fuel north out of the country as well as to Kabul, the capital.
Zakir Kadyrov, Rosneft's Kabul office chief, said that his company is open to being a part of a consortium that develops Afghan oil and gas and that his company brings a lot to the table. But he said he is not in possession of any Afghan geological data.
"The Afghan government is seeking partners. It would be nonsense for Western companies to proceed without us," he said. "All these wells were built with our technology. The other companies would be starting from zero."
Attracting investment in natural resources is one of the few short-term solutions open to the Afghan government in addressing its severe revenue shortage. Tax collections are virtually nil, and customs duties are for the most part monopolized by regional warlords who pass only a tiny fraction on to the administration of President Hamid Karzai.
All told, the Afghan government is responsible for collecting less than 20% of its $460-million annual budget. Foreign nations and multinational agencies have promised to donate the rest.
Seeing energy as one of the few potential bright spots on an otherwise bleak economic landscape, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency is financing a $1.1-million feasibility study for a proposed pipeline that would bring gas from northern Afghanistan to the Kabul area to feed a gas-powered electricity-generating plant.
Preliminary data produced by an August survey of the gas fields by the U.S. Geological Survey indicate that "there is significant amounts of gas there," said a government official who wanted neither his name nor nationality printed.
The World Bank has expressed interest in financing both the 250-mile pipeline and the gas-fired power plant, as long as there is enough gas to make such an investment feasible, Mohamadi said. Hence, he pointed out, the need for the data.
Afghanistan is also trying to revive a transnational pipeline project considered by El Segundo-based Unocal and other companies in the mid-1990s. The pipeline would run from the major natural gas fields of Turkmenistan and through northeastern Afghanistan and Pakistan before terminating in India. Transit fees of between $150 million and $300 million would be a bonanza for the Afghans.
But even top Afghan officials acknowledge that the transnational project has little chance until India and Pakistan settle their dispute over the Kashmir region.
Alexei V. Kuznetsov in The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.