Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C) with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov President of Turkmenistan (2L), Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (R) and India's External Affairs Minister Shri M. J. Akbar (L) look on during the (TAPI) gas pipeline project inauguration in Herat province on February 23, 2018
TAPI Pipeline project has once again come to life after a period of stoppage. One of the reasons for the resumption of this project is that, at the present time, the Afghan government needs to conduct an extensive propaganda campaign on the implementation of projects like this. Kabul is using this campaign to prove that it is stable and is a country capable of attracting foreign investment and attention. Therefore, we see that the attention paid by the government of Afghanistan to the TAPI project is more than the other three countries that are part of this project; that is, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India. A special ceremony was held to mark the launch and start of the TAPI project in Afghanistan’s Herat Province in late February and for the first time, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani stayed in the city of Herat for four days. Therefore, if the TAPI project has become so important, it is due to the propaganda campaign pursued by the government of Afghanistan.
However, other stakeholder countries do not necessarily pay as much attention to it as Kabul. Another issue is that the TAPI project has various components and every one of them is accompanied with its own challenges. The easiest part of the project is connection of the gas pipeline that starts in Turkmenistan to northern parts of Afghanistan, which is currently underway and is subject to massive propaganda. Turkmenistan’s gas reserves are located in areas that are close to the border with Afghanistan and can be easily connected to this country through a pipeline. Those regions of Afghanistan, which are currently of interest for the implementation of this project, are relatively more secure regions in northwest of the country; that is, the general region from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat. These regions are both populous and relatively safe. Implementation of this project is also possible in this region in geographical terms. If this part of the project is implemented, it will by itself be very profitable for Afghanistan and can meet the needs of this important and populous part of the country. However, the problem exactly starts when this project is supposed to continue from south of Herat toward Pashtun-inhabited regions, which are under control of the Taliban and out of the government’s control, in order to reach the border with Pakistan.
This region, which is known as the tribal region, is not only insecure, but also very rugged, less populous and with a smaller consumption market. Basically speaking, this project must be implemented through support of major gas companies so that natural gas could be transferred to Pakistan and make the project economically viable. This introduction is meant to show that the primary part of the implementation of the TAPI project must be differentiated from its general outlines. I have real doubts that other parts of the project will be implemented this easily. The issue of insecurity in these parts of Afghanistan is very important. In addition, there is no sign of reduced tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. When it comes to energy supply, Pakistan is naturally not willing to make itself a hostage to the unpredictable government of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, whose general approach to Islamabad is negative, unless a major development takes place in bilateral relations. It is my guess that if the project for transit of goods from Pakistan’s Gwadar port to the Chinese city of Kashghar is made operational and China is allowed to play a more important role in development of Afghanistan, and if we witness implementation of a “China-based development” process in this country, then practical ground for the implementation of the TAPI project will be provided. This ground will include coming on-stream of Gwadar-Kashghar project, which would give Pakistan access to Central Asia through Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the way will be paved for the implementation of TAPI project to take the gas pipeline to Pakistan. This means that China must assume a much more important role as the friend of both countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan and be present in Afghanistan within framework of the huge Silk Road project. However, no promising signs in this regard are visible now.
It seems that the Chinese are skeptical and lack motivation, because lack of security in Afghanistan is a major problem and they know that they cannot do anything to solve it on their own. The Chinese are not willing to undertake a high cost in this regard, because it is not very economical for them. Even in the Silk Road project, many communication routes can be activated earlier, including the Gwadar-Kashghar route or other routes located in Central Asia. In this way, there would be no need to choose the difficult route of going through Afghanistan to get connected to western regions. Therefore, if this happens, a new opening may come about in the TAPI project and this can take place in medium term. Of course, there are more important political and security considerations involved here, which include the type of the relationship between the United States and China.
As we know, due to the role that the United States is playing in Afghanistan, these considerations are of high importance to China. Therefore, it seems that the southern part of the TAPI pipeline project, which crosses through Afghanistan, is surrounded with more doubts, especially taking into account that India is a very important variable as the final destination of the TAPI project. The question that has been always there is when India has already quit the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, how it may be possibly willing to get involved in another project in which the problem with India-Pakistan relations will be once more a concern and will make India a hostage to Pakistan once again. Indians have not given any clear answer to this question and it seems that the rivalry between India and Pakistan will continue and get Afghanistan involved as well. At the present time, we see that in parallel to a “China-based” model of development in Afghanistan in which Pakistan is automatically involved, we have an “India-based” development project as well, which is defined within framework of the more extended development project of Afghanistan by India and the United States.
The “India-US-based” development project stands in total contrast to the “China-Pakistan-based” project as a result of which Afghanistan will become an arena for rivalry between India and Pakistan more than before. In this way, the country is expected to become more insecure as a result of the escalation of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, which in general, will have negative side effects on the future outlook of the TAPI project. From my viewpoint, up to this point, India’s relative cooperation with this project has been for an economic reason. India is trying to implement development projects and if it has helped Afghanistan so far, it is because it will be beneficial to India as well. In this way, New Delhi will be able to promote a positive attitude toward India among Central Asian nations. However, the role that India plays can be determining only when this project reaches southern regions of Afghanistan and finally Pakistan. It is in this stage that the final approach taken by India to this project will be determining. In the medium term, I keep looking upon this scenario with some doubt and it is unlikely that this project will be finished. India and Pakistan have other sources and routes to get their needed gas, which are not this risky. At a time that Pakistan is not yet able to activate Iran’s gas pipeline, which can provide it with inexpensive, uninterrupted and secure gas supply, how it is expected to make itself dependent on the insecure pipeline that is to cross through Afghanistan?
This question can be raised in a more serious way about India as well. At the present time, there are debates about projects that can transfer liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar and even Iran to India through the Persian Gulf and using an undersea pipeline. In the long run, this project can be more beneficial to India than the pipeline coming from Turkmenistan, which has to cross two insecure and risky countries before reaching India. In my opinion, although the TAPI gas pipeline may not reach Pakistan in the short term, it can at least meet the needs of northern parts of Afghanistan to natural gas.
Jafar Haghpanah, a visiting lecturer at University of Tehran, is the senior expert on South Asia
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