The Afghanistan Land Bridge Is Finally Here

A long-awaited gas pipeline could bring prosperity and stability to some of the poorest countries in Central and South Asia. But can the project survive Kandahar?

By , a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
TURKPIPE
TURKPIPE

One of the world's most quixotic energy projects finally kicked off this month, with the formal groundbreaking of the so-called TAPI pipeline meant to tap into the gas fields of Turkmenistan, snake across Afghanistan and Pakistan, and end up fueling thirsty markets in India.

But it remains to be seen whether the project will indeed become the game-changer that many in the region hope or whether Afghanistan will again become the graveyard of energy empires.

The notion that cross-border energy projects can lead to closer and friendlier ties and regional cooperation faces no sterner test than in the $10 billion TAPI pipeline. At 1,100 miles long, it will have to cross both the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan and the restive Baluchistan in southern Pakistan.

One of the world’s most quixotic energy projects finally kicked off this month, with the formal groundbreaking of the so-called TAPI pipeline meant to tap into the gas fields of Turkmenistan, snake across Afghanistan and Pakistan, and end up fueling thirsty markets in India.

But it remains to be seen whether the project will indeed become the game-changer that many in the region hope or whether Afghanistan will again become the graveyard of energy empires.

The notion that cross-border energy projects can lead to closer and friendlier ties and regional cooperation faces no sterner test than in the $10 billion TAPI pipeline. At 1,100 miles long, it will have to cross both the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan and the restive Baluchistan in southern Pakistan.

The project is meant to soothe decades of animosity between Pakistan and Afghanistan and between Pakistan and India. Ideally, it would finally turn the barren hills of Afghanistan from a barrier into a bridge, linking Central Asia’s vast resources with South Asia’s booming economies. For Turkmenistan, it represents a way to find new markets to avoid excessive dependence on sales to China. For Afghanistan and Pakistan, the pipe would bring both much-needed natural gas and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual transit fees. And for India, the pipeline could help meet a voracious demand for energy that currently can only really be met with dirty coal.

That’s why the pipeline has been a longtime dream not just of leaders in the region, but also of U.S. diplomats who tried to promote a “New Silk Road” for Central Asia to bring trade, jobs, and security to the war-torn region.

TAPI, the United States figures, can give Turkmenistan more options to sell its energy, helping free it from excessive reliance on nearby neighbors like Russia, which is trying to reassert its historical dominance in the area. It can also both link Afghanistan to its neighbors and give Kabul a reliable source of energy and income, in addition to potentially greasing reconciliation between New Delhi and Islamabad. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry most recently championed the project on a trip through Central Asia last month.

“The United States has embraced this idea of Afghanistan as a land bridge, largely to make it more self-reliant, and one of the ways to do so was through projects like TAPI,” former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad told Foreign Policy.

At the official Dec. 13 groundbreaking, leaders from all four countries waxed historic about the potential benefits from the pipeline, which has been on the drawing board for 20 years. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov hailed it as a “historic event,” while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the route would become a “superhighway of cooperation.” Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said TAPI is the key to “greater regional economic collaboration,” while Indian Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari called it the “first step [toward] unification of the region.”

But that hopeful rhetoric is set to collide with messier realities on the ground, including daunting obstacles like a devilish security environment, the huge cost, and lingering distrust between neighbors.

“I’m pretty skeptical that this pipeline could become a spark for peace,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center.

One of the biggest challenges has been trying to find international energy companies willing to take on the project. Unocal, a U.S. firm now owned by Chevron Corp., tried and failed in the 1990s; majors like Chevron and Total balked at joining TAPI. While a Dubai-based oil and gas firm has now reportedly jumped into the project, it’s not clear that it will bring either the capital or the technical expertise that’s needed.

But perhaps the biggest headache is simply ensuring security along the pipeline’s route.

“This pipeline would go through not just Afghanistan, but through some of the most lawless, dangerous parts of Afghanistan,” said Kugelman. That includes Kandahar, the cradle of the Afghan Taliban, as well as areas ruled by other militant groups, he said. The Taliban, for their part, reportedly support the project but also want a stake in its security.

To keep the pipeline physically safe, Afghanistan has promised a 7,000-strong security force, but that will also add to the cost of carrying gas more than 1,000 miles to its final destination.

But there is one hopeful contrast with the late 1990s, when Unocal bailed out of a similar project. Then, Pakistan supported the Taliban and other militants as a way to influence events in Afghanistan; now, the calculus in Islamabad appears to be changing.

“There has been a growing trend to view jihadist militancy as a threat to Pakistan itself,” said Micha’el Tanchum, an expert on Eurasian energy at the Atlantic Council. He has written about TAPI’s promise and pitfalls.

Tanchum said Pakistan’s agreement to an international force working with the Afghan military will be essential to secure the route. Khalilzad, meanwhile, said reliance on energy supplies via Afghanistan could fundamentally change Pakistan’s approach to arming militant groups just across the border.

Another big question mark is whether India really wants Pakistan to have control over its energy supply. The two countries for decades have had an acrimonious relationship, including three wars over the years, culminating in a nuclear showdown in the late 1990s. Yet in recent months, relations have improved, raising hopes of true cooperation on TAPI.

Indian policymakers, trying to position New Delhi for a bigger role in Central Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, want to put life-or-death disputes with Pakistan behind them, while Pakistani officials have in recent years sought to bury the idea that India represents an existential threat to Islamabad, Tanchum said. Indeed, earlier this month the two countries formally restarted talks on reconciliation, after the last bid at amity was ambushed by the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

“While the Kashmir [territorial dispute] fundamentally divides the two sides, neither side wants a return to the brinksmanship of the late 1990s,” Tanchum said. “TAPI can help the elements in each country that seek to put Indo-Pakistani relations on a different footing.”

And while India has access to other sources of energy that would require less heavy lifting than TAPI, such as seaborne imports of liquefied natural gas, the potential benefits go far beyond just securing fuel for power plants and factories.

“If TAPI succeeds, the strategic gain for India would be enormous. India would be able to develop a significant footprint in Central Asia, something its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy has so far failed to do,” Tanchum said. That could help turn India into a “genuine player” on Eurasia’s evolving chessboard, he said.

Photo credit: 2008+/Flickr

Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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