New TAPI gas pipeline could boost Afghanistan, regional stability

Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are set to sign a gas pipeline deal tomorrow. But the planned route goes through two fierce Taliban areas, raising security concerns.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are set to sign an agreement tomorrow on a major gas pipeline from Turkmenistan that would help meet the trio's growing energy needs and potentially stabilize the region. But with a planned route that passes through two of the fiercest Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, the pipeline's security remains a serious concern.

“[The pipeline's] route may serve as a stabilizing corridor, linking neighbors together in economic growth and prosperity,” said Susan Elliot, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State on South and Central Asian Affairs, at an energy conference in Turkmenistan last month. “The road ahead is long for this project but the benefits could be tremendous and are certainly worthy of the diligence demonstrated by these four countries so far.”

Significantly, this gas pipeline will also challenge a rival project involving Iran. That proposed pipeline, which would run from Iran to India via Pakistan and thus is known as IPI, was stalled due to security issues and the strong opposition from the US because of Iran's nuclear program. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, or TAPI, is seen as a potential alternative to the Iranian supply line.

The presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the petroleum minister of India have gathered in the capital of gas-rich Turkmenistan to finalize the last remaining details. On Dec. 11, they are expected to sign the agreement to build the 1,700-km (1,060 miles) pipeline.

This $7.6 billion project will deliver 33 billion of cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year from the giant Dauletabad field in southeast of Turkmenistan. Most of this gas will be shipped to energy-hungry Pakistan and India. The US government also sees TAPI as contributing to reconstruction and peaceful development of Afghanistan.

Why Turkmenistan was eager for a deal

Initially proposed in mid 1990s, TAPI for years remained but a dream due to the instability in Afghanistan and later in Pakistan. The idea was revived in 2005 with the help of the Asian Development Bank, which sponsored the feasibility study for this project. This year, Turkmenistan – losing significant business over a rift with Russia – pushed hard to finalize the agreement.

The reason the Central Asian nation is so keen to push this project forward is that plummeting gas revenues have weakened the power of its regime, one of the most repressive in the world.

Turkmenistan has the fourth-largest proven gas reserves in the world and used to sell most of its gas to Russia. However, Moscow significantly reduced its purchases in 2009 following a pipeline explosion and subsequent price row with Turkmenistan. As a result, Turkmenistan's total gas exports dropped to one-quarter of 2008 levels, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

So Turkmenistan decided to redirect a shipment of gas from the Dauletabad field, which used to go to Russia, toward the south, explains John Roberts, oil and gas expert from Platts, a company that analyzes the energy market.

A potential Taliban target

Mr. Roberts and other analysts say they're concerned about the viability of TAPI. Roberts claims that although economically the project will be beneficial for all participating states, the security issue remains unresolved.

“Is the security situation sufficiently good to maintain both construction works and later protection of the pipeline?” he asks. “Who will protect people building it? How many rockets does it take to stop the pipeline working?”

The route of this pipeline lies through particularly difficult areas in Afghanistan – Kandahar and Helmand. These provinces are considered to be the stronghold of the Taliban, where some of the worst violence took place in recent years.

“The difficulty with this pipeline will be if it is seen as politically significant in any way, it may well become a target for Taliban,” says Stuart Gordon, research fellow on the International Security Program at London-based think tank Chatham House.

Dr. Gordon claims that this project “will heavily rely on deals with local communities to ensure security and that is going to be difficult to deliver.”

Afghan assurances of safety

The Afghan government has sought to reassure those concerned about the safety of the pipeline. It announced that the government will pay local communities to guard the pipe, which will be buried underground, making it harder to attack.

Despite security challenges, Gordon says construction of the TAPI pipeline is still possible, simply more expensive due to the security situation.

“What it tends to do is it adds enormously to the delays and to the costs of the projects," he says. "But projects do get completed in Afghanistan. And some projects are very successful.”

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