Trailblazer in Turkmenistan

Hopes and fears are high as work begins on a landmark gas pipeline

Trailblazer in Turkmenistan
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif joined President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, and Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari of India to inaugurate the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline on Sunday. The historic groundbreaking was held in the Karakum desert outside the southeastern Turkmen city of Mary.

The milestone development is being lauded by security analysts and commercial stakeholders alike, and Prime Minister Sharif called the project a trailblazer.

“TAPI is not just a gas transit initiative connecting energy-rich Central Asia with energy starved South Asia, but a trailblazing project,” he said. The gas pipeline project would help promote peace and trade amongst the regional countries, he said.
"You will bribe the Taliban and look for financiers"

The sentiment was echoed by all regional leaders, including President Ghani. “We are committed to the stable development of the entire region which will develop in an active and stable manner if we cooperate,” the Afghanistan president said.

Experts inside Pakistan say the project will help the country’s economy. LCCI President Sheikh Muhammad Arshad says TAPI has laid foundation of a new era of progress. “It is a game-changer for all stakeholders. We have to monitor this mega project continuously,” he says. “It will enhance productivity of our export-based industry. It will give a jumpstart to the country’s exports.”

While TAPI is largely being touted as a solution to diplomatic and security predicaments facing South Asia, the question marks over the project – which was first conceived in 1995 – originate from those very realms as well.

“The Afghan government will not find it easy to provide security to the pipeline,” says security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of Pakistan and the Geostrategic Environment: a Study of Foreign Policy. “The Taliban and other groups are there to make things difficult.”

'A game-changer for all stakeholders'
'A game-changer for all stakeholders'

“The biggest security question obviously is that the pipeline is passing through a volatile, unsettled area. You will bribe the Taliban and look for funders. Finding funding won’t be difficult though,” Rizvi claims.

Federal Defence Minister Khawaja Asif says Taliban could be engaged to ensure TAPI’s safety. “We will wield all our positive influence to ensure our interests,” Asif said. “The project is also important for Afghanistan and that is why no Afghan stakeholder will oppose it.”

“Is Khawaja Asif suggesting that the Taliban are under Pakistani control?” asks Rizvi. He says the Taliban groups that control the land that lies on the TAPI route might just be bought off.

Former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri says that TAPI has historically had the backing of the US as well.

“When I was the foreign minister, the US was encouraging this project. They didn’t want the Iran-Pakistan (IP) Pipeline to materialize. And for us, TAPI was one way we could get around our energy difficulties,” he said. “But we were clear that we wanted both TAPI and IP, because our needs were immense and still are, and one pipeline couldn’t bridge our energy shortfall. We consulted experts in international law as well, regarding the possibility of avoiding sanctions.”

Kasuri believes a foreign commercial partner will help streamline the project.

“This is a very important aspect. Because unless there is finance, the project obviously can’t work. And it remains to be seen whether it’s Russia, China or someone else who will finance the project.”
"A Pakistan-India pipeline will not be a diplomatic cakewalk"

However, the former foreign minister agrees that TAPI’s future would ultimately depend on the situation in Afghanistan. But he doesn’t believe that Pakistan can do any more than it is already doing to help on that particular front.

“Afghanistan is a sovereign country. We cannot sit here and claim to ensure security in that area. It is Afghan national army that has to provide that security,” he says. “What we can do is help bring about reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. And that is what we have been doing of late. The army chief has been there. The PM has been there. There have been meetings in Kabul and Washington and so I’m sure both Pakistan Army and Pakistan government are very keen to improve relations with Afghanistan.”

Kasuri maintains that the TAPI gas pipeline project has the same geostrategic importance as the IP project. Pakistan should work on both the projects to bridge its energy shortfall and enhance regional cooperation, he says.

But Rizvi believes the Pakistani government does not seem interested in IP, adding that the volatility in Afghanistan isn’t the only concern with regard to TAPI’s future.

“Any pipeline that links Pakistan and India will not be a diplomatic cakewalk,” Rizvi says. “There will be hue and cry in Pakistan as well; people will ask why a pipeline is going from Pakistan to India. India will obviously feel that a pipeline coming from Pakistan is an unreliable source of energy.”

Pakistan should ensure that it has its priorities sorted out, he says. “Pakistan should be concerned with ensuring that both TAPI and IP reach Pakistan. Whether India-Pakistan relations reach a point where they can indulge in energy sharing is something that can be deliberated on later.”