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A pipeline to prosperity in Afghanistan

13 gennaio 2010

by Rob Sobhani – Financial Times

Published: January 11 2010 12:39 | Last updated: January 11 2010 12:39

Last month saw a dramatic shift in one country’s control of its largest natural resource when the 1,833km China-Turkmenistan natural gas pipeline was inaugurated. The pipeline runs from Turkmenistan’s Samandepe gas field to central China. This was a geo-political coup for Turkmenistan, freeing Ashkabad from Russian domination of pipeline routes coming out of central Asia. Securing multiple pipeline routes out of the Caspian Sea as a means to circumvent Russia was also the basis for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which freed Azerbaijan from Moscow’s domination.

President Barack Obama has the opportunity to make a second Turkmen gas pipeline the pivotal part of his Afghan policy. The Tapi pipeline is a $7.6bn, 1,680km natural gas pipeline that would run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and, eventually, to India. Such a major undertaking would improve living standards in Afghanistan by bringing desperately-needed jobs to the country as well as enhance stability by providing steady transit revenues for a long time. It may also, possibly, encourage Afghan combatants to work together for a common cause.

Critics have described this proposed pipeline as ”going from hell through hell to hell”. The precedents of the Turkmenistan-China and other pipelines are clear examples, however, of how oil and gas pipelines can become geo-political assets for all of the countries involved. Creating stakeholders through the participation of as many players as possible in this project would have significant potential to enhance stability in the region. Indeed, a trans-Afghan pipeline would be a pioneering move linking the energy deficient economies of south Asia to the hydrocarbon-rich central Asian countries.

The pipeline would run from the Dauletabad gas field in Turkmenistan to Afghanistan. From there it would be constructed alongside the highway running from Herat to Kandahar and then via Quetta to Multan, Pakistan. The final destination of the pipeline would be the Indian town of Fazilka near the border between Pakistan and India. The pipeline could be operational by 2013 if construction were to begin soon.

The viability of the project depends on whether the Taliban can be persuaded to work with the rest of the Pashtun majority to ensure the safe development of the pipeline. There is a long history to the proposal, which dates back to 1998 (when a Unocal-led consortium was formed to build the pipeline and the Taliban signed an agreement allowing the project to proceed, actually sending representatives to Washington to discuss the pipeline with the Clinton administration). Instability in Afghanistan, however, caused major players in the consortium to withdraw.

It is now 12 years since the first agreement to deliver natural gas through Afghanistan was concluded. The need for the gas is even more pressing and the benefits to all the parties involved just as positive. Leadership is required to make the pipeline a reality. Mr Obama has the opportunity to take the lead – militarily to protect the pipeline, financially by adding US Export-Import Bank financing to the consortium, and diplomatically by inviting all stakeholders to the table (including representatives from each of the major Afghan tribal groups and from the Taliban).

The risks attached to this project are considerable but not insurmountable. These risks pertain to the security aspects and the investment climate in the region. The example of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is instructive when addressing both the security and financial aspects of the trans-Afghan pipeline. Like it, the trans-Afghan pipeline will be buried below ground, thus protecting the entire route from above-ground sabotage. Like it, Washington can spearhead the financing of this project. This will also allow US companies to participate and create jobs within the US.

American leadership and diplomacy was also the reason for the Ceyhan pipeline’s success. President Bill Clinton personally encouraged the leaders of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia to build it and assigned Al Gore to oversee its success. So too Mr Obama should invite the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan to the White House as a show of his determination to launch this ambitious project.

The geo-political, strategic and economic benefits to an American led effort to build a trans-Afghan pipeline are manifold: First, the pipeline would be a source of revenue for whomever controls Afghanistan, thus creating stakeholders beyond the current regime in Kabul. Second, it creates long-term stakeholders. Pakistan and India would be incentivised to keep the gas flowing, not compete in Afghanistan. Third, it would signal to the Afghan people that the west is a long-term partner in its reconstruction. The psychological impact on their hearts and minds would be enormous since almost half of the $7.6bn would be invested in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan is now Mr Obama’s war. He can increase his chances of winning this war by adding a trans-Afghan pipeline to his strategy.

The writer is president of Caspian Energy Consulting




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