Insurgency? What insurgency? Setting aside concerns about Islamic militants, the presidents of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, along with India’s petroleum minister, Murli Deora, have signed an inter-governmental agreement pledging to construct a 1,735-kilometer natural gas pipeline connecting all four states.
The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline would supply 33 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas a year from the Dauletabad gas fields to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan’s volatile southern provinces, according to the semi-official Turkmenistan.ru website. In doing so, Kabul could reap billions of dollars in transit fees.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, speaking at a signing ceremony on December 11, hailed the pipeline as “a real and effective stabilizing factor with long term positive impact on the overall situation in Central and Southern Asia and adjacent regions,” according to Turkmen state-controlled media.
“This resource-rich region can complement the economies of our countries,” added Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai stressed the economic benefits of the pipeline and said Afghanistan would work to “expedite” the project’s completion. Kabul could earn upwards of $1.4 billion in transit fees annually.
The TAPI project has long been contemplated, but practical complications, namely Afghanistan’s chronic instability, have prevented the interested parties from taking concrete steps to make it a reality. On December 12, a day after the agreement was inked in Ashgabat, Afghanistan’s Mines and Industry minister said pipeline security would be a top priority.
“This huge project is very important for Afghanistan. Five thousand to 7,000 security forces will be deployed to safeguard the pipeline route,” Wahidullah Shahrani told the Pakistani news paper The Daily Times.
Gran Hewad, a political researcher with the Afghan Analysts Network, said the security challenge would be significant, but added that Kabul might have the political will and a powerful economic incentive to keep the Taliban away from TAPI.
“The route through Herat and Kandahar is not so difficulty for the Afghan National Security Forces to control,” Hewad claimed. “US military progress will likely improve along the route, it's a very strategic interest, and support from the local population can also increase.”
Hewad added that it “remains an interesting question” whether or not ‘pipeline security’ could turn into a protection-racket cash cow for insurgents or local warlords. Much will depend on Karzai’s ability to turn the international project into something with tangible grassroots benefits, he stressed.
Last year, Pakistani officials voiced fears the pipeline would never become a reality because of fighting in Afghanistan. They urged a shift in the country’s focus toward exploring the possibility of an Iran-Pakistani pipeline. That project had an added attraction: Tehran was willing to sell its gas more cheaply than Ashgabat.
Given the movement on TAPI development, the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project appears to have been shelved. The Asian Development Bank is set to provide financing for the TAPI project.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.