The defeat of the Taliban appears to be reviving a debate about pipeline construction in Afghanistan that would widen international access to Central Asia's vast energy resources. A few observers argue that pipelines might speed Afghanistan's reconstruction. However, others say that an attempt to establish Afghanistan as a transit hub for energy exports could provoke a collision of interests among key power brokers in the region.
Natural gas-rich Turkmenistan in 1997 forged a consortium with oil companies, led by Unocal, to build a trans-Afghan pipeline. The $1.9-billion project hit snags almost from the time of its announcement. The main obstacle was the Taliban's control of most of Afghanistan's territory, and the on-going civil war. By 1998, construction plans collapsed after Unocal withdrew from the consortium.
With the Taliban no longer a factor in Afghanistan, some experts say the pipeline idea merits a second look. "The large-scale projects aimed at building gas and oil pipelines linking the Caspian region with the attractive international market of the Arabian Sea may become the principal, if not the only, means to breathe a [new] life into Afghanistan", said Carnegie Endowment's Central Asia scholar Martha Brill Olcott in the interview with the Moscow daily Izvestia.
The country most likely to suffer from the possible construction of pipelines in Afghanistan is Russia, currently a leading member of the anti-terrorism coalition, and a long-time sponsor of the Northern Alliance. Moscow has long been wary about the development of new Central Asian oil and gas export routes that do not go through Russian territory.
There are some indirect signs that the idea of a trans-Afghan gas project is being revived. The United States and Great Britain have recently lifted economic sanctions against Afghanistan. This move, apprehensively notes Moscow economic publication Rossiiskaya Biznes-Gazeta, "can be the first harbinger of the US companies' intentions to re-join the trans-Afghan gas consortium."
In late October, Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, sent a letter to the UN leaders advocating construction of a pipeline bringing Turkmen gas to Pakistan's Arabian Sea ports across the Afghan territory. Seeking UN support for the project, Niyazov contended that this pipeline "will help rebuild this country [Afghanistan], normalize peaceful life and work of the Afghan people, and also accelerate socio-economic development of the entire adjacent region."
Speaking at the newly refurbished Turkmen embassy in Moscow on November 30, Niyazov elaborated on his intentions. "We could sell to foreign markets about 120 billion cubic meters of gas annually, but we can not do this due to the lack of pipelines," he said. Niyazov went on to take a swipe at Russia: In reciting foreign investment statistics for 2001, the Turkmen strongman noted the lack of Russian investment.
"Russia is nowhere to be seen not because they do not want to take part, but because they have problems, they themselves are looking for investments," Niyazov said.
If the trans-Afghan gas project is realized, Moscow experts say, the Russian economy will face two unpleasant consequences. Firstly, Russian energy sector will lose Turkmen gas that is now being delivered to Russia and, in the long-term perspective, also Uzbek gas. That could amount to 25 billion cubic meters annually. Secondly, if Central Asian gas exports are directed south, across Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean, Russia will lose transit revenue.
Russian experts reluctantly acknowledged the existence of a price incentive for Central Asia states to seek alternates to Russian routes. According to Rossiiskaya Biznes-Gazeta, Russia can pay maximum $38 per thousand cubic meters of Turkmen and Uzbek gas. At the same time, the potential importers of Central Asian gas in South Asia have recently confirmed that their minimal price per thousand cubic meters is up to $60, notes the newspaper.
Even the most liberal Russian experts are ambiguous about a trans-Afghan pipeline. It "will surely give a substantial boost to the country's [Afghanistan's] development," concedes Alexei Malashenko, a leading Central Asia analyst. "However, in this case Turkmenbashi will gain too much leverage for control over the situation," adds Malashenko. "No one knows how he [Niyazov] might behave".
According to Unocal officials, the company doesn't plan to get involved into Afghanistan again and has shifted its resources to other world regions. However, Moscow is suspicious that Unocal "tries to hide its true intentions," according to an editorial in the Russian daily Izvestia.
A number of Russian observers tend to interpret the current US troop deployment and basing agreements with the Central Asian nations within the context of energy geopolitics. "The United States does not conceal the plans to establish its [military] bases in the region to secure the safety of energy transit routes," writes the Kommersant daily.
Another detail adds to the Kremlin's worries. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American academic, recently was appointed in June as special assistant to President George W. Bush and senior director at the National Security Council for the Persian Gulf and southwest Asia and other issues. According to Philip Smith, director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, "Zalmay is immensely influential in driving US policy toward Afghanistan." Four years ago, Khalilzad served as a liaison for Unocal in the trans-Afghan pipeline project.
Moscow is likely to try to thwart the building of what the international oilmen call the "new Silk Road." There are two ways Russia may do this: by increasing its on-the-ground military presence in Afghanistan, and by wooing Niyazov. Russia seems to be already undertaking steps in both these directions.
The Kremlin reportedly is offering Niyazov a 10-year deal covering Russian purchases of Turkmen gas and its export to third countries. Moscow analysts say that Russia may also offer Turkmenistan special quotas for deliveries of natural resources through the Russian transit network.
In the military sphere, Defense Ministry officials are expanding Russian military participation in Afghanistan. Sources in Russia's defense ministry argue that there is a danger of "military-political vacuum" in Afghanistan that might "create conditions for the breaking of civil war."
"Not only has the decision on Russian military participation in the Afghan settlement been taken," writes the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, "but it is already being implemented."
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Regional Exchange Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995; Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; and Kiev correspondent for the Paris-based weekly Russkaya mysl, 1998-2000.