From New York Heroin Dealer to Afghanistan's Biggest Oil Man


KABUL, July 8 (Reuters) - One-eyed Rateb Popal's debut as an Afghan businessman was not promising: he was caught smuggling heroin and locked up in a New York federal prison for almost a decade.

Popal had better luck once back in Afghanistan, where he emerged from obscurity to make millions in U.S. army convoy security following the 2001 removal of the Islamist Taliban. He went on to win rights to the first major oil and gas project.

The Amu Darya joint venture with Chinese energy firm CNPC is the only major foreign investment in Afghanistan's estimated trillion dollars worth of natural resources that stands a real chance of succeeding and providing an alternative to income from aid.

Other huge investments in iron and copper face collapse.

And yet Amu Darya, in Afghanistan's far north along the river of the same name, is beset by stumbling blocks.

Though the site's Soviet-built wells are pumping oil and selling it to a nearby refinery, disputes over budgeting between CNPC and Popal's company, Watan Oil and Gas,have halted drilling and exploration.

"If CNPC fails in Afghanistan, it will severely hamper future foreign investment in the Afghan hydrocarbon sector," said Matthew Napiltonia, a former director of the project.


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