- Until the Taliban and the government in Kabul arrive at a settlement to end the war, building the Afghan portion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline will be difficult.
- So long as India and Pakistan are at loggerheads over the contested Kashmir region, the pipeline will fail to improve relations between the two countries.
- Even if the pipeline reaches fruition, the funds it generates will do little to boost Afghanistan's economic development.
Afghanistan has found itself wedged between competing powers throughout its history. In the 19th century, the country became the playing field for the "Great Game," as the United Kingdom tried to defend its colonial holdings in India against Russia's creeping influence in Central Asia. Today, though the British and Russian empires have long since fallen, Afghanistan is still caught in the middle. But this time, its position presents an opportunity. At the country's eastern border, Pakistan and India are in the midst of an energy shortage that is hindering their economic growth. Meanwhile, just north of Afghanistan lies a wealth of natural gas deposits in energy-rich Turkmenistan.
Enter the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) project, a proposed 1,735-kilometer (1,078-mile) pipeline running from the Galkynysh natural gas field in southern Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Once complete, the pipeline will transport a total of 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year (5 bcm to Afghanistan and 14 bcm each to Pakistan and India). At the same time, it could offer Kabul a rare chance to develop its economy — that is, if it ever gets off the ground. TAPI has been sidelined time and again since its conception in 1995, stymied in large part by Afghanistan's intransigent security problems. So long as these factors and other regional conflicts endure, TAPI will be little more than a lofty goal.
A Long History With the Taliban
The single biggest factor undermining the pipeline's progress is the Taliban insurgency. Still, despite their role in delaying the project, the Taliban have also lent their support to the pipeline over the years. After taking power in September 1996, the group began pursuing the endeavor as a way to boost economic growth. The Taliban started negotiations with Argentina's Bridas and the United States' Unocal, two international oil companies vying for the contract to build the pipeline across Afghanistan. As part of that process, the group sent a delegation to the United States on behalf of Unocal in 1997, making stops in Texas and the U.S. capital. President Bill Clinton's administration returned the visit, dispatching the assistant secretary of state for South Asia to Afghanistan, as well as Turkmenistan, to make the case for TAPI. For Washington, the pipeline represented an opportunity to challenge Russia's dominance in the newly independent Central Asian states by diverting the region's energy deposits away from Moscow and toward Europe and South Asia.
Kabul and Washington's plans soon went awry, however. Following al Qaeda's attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, Clinton launched Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan, which was harboring the jihadist organization. The project was derailed, if only temporarily. U.S. troops toppled the Taliban government in 2001, and the next year, the Afghan, Pakistani and Turkmen presidents signed a memorandum of understanding to begin work on a pipeline from Dauletabad gas field in Turkmenistan to Pakistan's Gwadar Port. (The project expanded to include India in 2008.)
Nearly 15 years after the agreement was signed, TAPI is still far from reaching fruition, though it has made some intermittent progress. The four countries behind the pipeline — slated to come online in 2022, four years behind schedule — held a long-awaited groundbreaking ceremony in Turkmenistan in December 2015. Then in November, the Asian Development Bank, along with Saudi Arabia's Islamic Development Bank, offered a combined total of $1.5 billion to finance the pipeline, easing the burden on Turkmenistan, which is footing 85 percent of TAPI's $10 billion bill. (The pipeline is particularly important to the former Soviet country now that Russia has stopped transiting Turkmen gas and China will not increase its imports.) Now, the TAPI Pipeline Co. — a consortium made up of Turkmengaz, Afghan Gas Enterprise, Pakistan's Inter State Gas Systems and GAIL India — is organizing roadshows in the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and London to raise additional funding.
A Self-Serving Proposal
In its current iteration, TAPI will skirt the edges of the Hindu Kush mountains in southern Afghanistan, crossing through the Taliban's strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Though that course might seem to bode poorly for the pipeline's security, the Taliban have offered to help. On Nov. 29, the group announced that it would be willing to guard the TAPI pipeline in an effort to promote similar projects in Afghanistan's national interest. First, however, the Taliban's 15-year war with the Afghan National Army, backed by NATO forces, would have to come to an end. Judging by the spate of attacks that the group has launched around the country since September, peace appears to be a distant prospect.
Notwithstanding their long history with the pipeline, the Taliban likely had ulterior motives for offering their protective services. The group is strapped for cash. Though the sources of the Taliban's funding are hazy, it is generally accepted that they derive most of their revenue from drug trafficking and protection rackets. In addition, they receive as much as $200 million annually from charities and private donors in the Persian Gulf region. But as the war drags on into its 16th year, the civilian casualties of the Taliban insurgency are piling up, thanks to an increase in targeted killings, suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. More than 11,000 Afghans were killed or injured in 2015 — more than in any other year since the United Nations began tracking civilian casualties in 2009 and a 4 percent rise from 2014. (The uptick correlates with the NATO drawdown in 2014, which enabled the Taliban to make considerable gains the following year, driving hundreds of thousands of Afghans out of the country in the process.) Disillusioned by the bloodshed, many of the Taliban's Gulf patrons are cutting down on their donations, straining the organization's finances. By proposing to guard TAPI, the Taliban were probably hoping to project a more moderate image to win back their donors.
But the group, which has attacked several other transnational projects through the years, would be just as apt to sabotage TAPI to gain leverage against the Afghan government as it would be to protect it. In 1999, the organization cut off the Helmand River's flow to Iran, causing a crisis in Iran's Hamun Lake region, and at the beginning of this year, Taliban militants attacked Kabul's main power supply, originating in Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, the group's involvement in TAPI will probably continue one way or another: The war will most likely end through a political settlement, whereby the Taliban would share power with the Afghan government.
Even if the fighting stops and the pipeline gets underway, the transit fees it generates will not be enough to boost Afghanistan's economic development as intended. Apart from its security problems, Kabul struggles with rampant corruption. Much of the almost $115 billion in reconstruction funding that the United States has funneled into Afghanistan since its invasion has vanished into the pockets of corrupt officials, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The widespread government graft has aggrieved the public and, in turn, fueled the Taliban's recruitment campaigns. Beginning in 2008, the United States redoubled its efforts to combat corruption, but the problem continues. In fact, the United States' ambassador to Afghanistan listed corruption as the war's biggest failure. To ensure that funding for the pipeline — whether financing for its construction or transit fee payments — is properly allocated, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah must push through long-stalled reforms to strengthen the country's institutions.
Afghanistan's troubles are not the only factor stalling progress on the TAPI pipeline, though. Despite their mutual interest in the project, India and Pakistan are no closer to reconciling their differences, chief among them the contested Kashmir region. So long as that dispute goes unresolved, the simmering hostilities between Islamabad and New Delhi will spill over onto transnational projects such as TAPI. Since relations between India and Pakistan began to sour anew in July, for instance, India has repeatedly threatened to increase its water usage under the Indus Waters Treaty. Pakistan, meanwhile, has blocked its trade routes with Afghanistan twice this year, leaving hundreds of cargo trucks to pile up on both sides of the border for as long as two weeks. In light of these incidents, it is easy to imagine Islamabad using the TAPI pipeline to antagonize New Delhi or, for that matter, Kabul threatening to cut off Pakistan's natural gas supply.
TAPI has come a long way since it was first proposed, but it still has a long way to go. The countries involved in the project will need to address the problems that have held it up over the past 20 years if they hope to get it up and running by 2022. Otherwise, TAPI will be relegated to the realm of ambitious ideas.