Few regions of the world are as much in need of peace as Central and South Asia. The quest for peace likely scored a victory last month with the groundbreaking of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project (TAPI). Given the attendance of the ceremony by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, President of Turkmenistan, President of Afghanistan and the Indian Minister of External Affairs, hopes are clearly high.
Although pipeline construction had been underway for quite a while, the main connector of Central Asia to South Asia, Afghanistan, had not seen any progress until February 18. The pipeline project, currently valued at $22.5 billion, will transport 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Galkynysh oil fields in eastern Turkmenistan to the South Asian states, reportedly for thirty years. Along with stressing the economic benefits for Afghanistan, which is an estimated $400 million/year in transit fees, President Ashraf Ghani also spoke about TAPI’s future role in maintaining peace in the region. Despite initial challenges, TAPI offers real reason for hope.
One of the political functions of inter-state gas and oil pipelines, such as TAPI, is to maintain peace between the countries involved in the project. Proponents claim that by making various countries economically interdependent, these inter-state pipelines act as a main force in maintaining peace. However, historical evidence suggests that the goal of pipeline creation in conflict-prone regions either does not come to fruition or does not play a significant role in peace-making.
While some inter-state pipeline systems have extended peace, such as between Russia and Austria, these pipelines have failed to deliver in conflict zones. For example, Russia proposed the creation of a Russia-North Korea-South Korea pipeline in 2012. The proposal was ultimately rejected because of North Korea’s demands for a higher transit fee than was the market rate and because of South Korea’s concern that North Korea would disrupt the gas flows for political reasons. A peace pipeline envisioned for Armenia and Azerbaijan also failed, due to a long-standing territorial disagreement between the two states. Further west, Russia took advantage of the Russia-Ukraine pipeline (before war broke out in 2014) and cut off gas to its southern neighbor, demanding that Ukraine pay higher prices. TAPI could easily end up with similar issues, with Afghanistan asking for higher transit fees than the market price, as happened in the Korean Peninsula, or Pakistan interrupting gas supply to India for political reasons, as happened in Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Even TAPI itself has not had a pleasant past. A pipeline project was first considered for the region in 1995 but was dropped the following year as Taliban took control of Afghanistan. The plan was revived in 2001 with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, but it was only after nine years that a preliminary agreement between the involved parties was signed. Though it is expected that the project will be completed and functional by 2020, its past record suggests it will take more than just a few years for TAPI to be up and running.
Along with the prolonged history of the project and the discouraging precedent set by other countries in conflict prone regions, the TAPI pipeline project also has competition: the India-Pakistan-Iran pipeline project (IPI). IPI aims to tap the large gas reserves of Pars gas fields in southern Iran, and interestingly, is also termed as a peace pipeline for the region. To further give rise to an air of heads-on rivalry between TAPI and IPI, the former is backed by the United States, while the latter is backed by Russia and its state-owned gas-oil corporation, Gazprom. Though these two projects could theoretically work parallel to each other, it is likely that they will take on rival roles, which would be detrimental to any peace process. Along with its uncertainties in regards to the Nuclear Deal, the United States is skeptical of projects that would allow Iran an economic boost. Iran, on the other hand, could perceive TAPI as a US attempt to further isolate Iran and hinder its economic growth. This possibility of rivalry has been made more real by the events surrounding the ceremony in Herat: ten Afghan militants, who had claimed to be trained in Iran to sabotage the groundbreaking ceremony, surrendered to Afghan military forces, stating that they realized that the project was for their own benefit.
A beacon of hope?
In a rare announcement the Taliban declared total support for TAPI. Furthermore, according to a Taliban spokesperson, the pipeline project would be provided full protection by the Taliban in areas under its control. With a long history of destroying public infrastructure in the region, the Taliban’s support of a major government project is a surprising move. It is likely that the Taliban were swayed by the influx of revenue and foreign aid for the project. Further, President Ashraf Ghani recently offered to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party. It is a real possibility that Ghani’s offer to recognize Taliban as a legitimate political party is a below-the-table deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban to ensure the latter’s support for the safety of the pipeline. Regardless of what happened behind closed doors during previous weeks, a major developmental project not being damaged by the Taliban is certainly a positive sign for future peace-making efforts in the region.
Coupled with a positive response from Taliban, TAPI can be a win-win situation for stakeholders if they put aside their political differences. Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves but has been unable to fully reap its economic benefits due to lack of export opportunities. Through TAPI, it can finally get a major outlet for exporting its natural gas, to diversifying its export base and bolster its economy. Afghanistan, with its huge pile of foreign debt, can benefit from thirty thousand new jobs along with an approximated $400 million in transit fees every year. Along with providing $200-250 million per year in transit fees to Pakistan, TAPI can also prove to be an impetus for country’s economic development which has already advanced through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a vital part of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI). For India, TAPI can help fulfill its increasing energy demands by providing 1.325 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, in addition to helping it strengthen diplomatic ties with its South Asian neighbours.
Given the region’s conflict and the disparate ideologies and bitter history between stakeholders, TAPI can easily become one more case of a romanticized idea of pipeline diplomacy. On top of these internal hurdles, TAPI must also overcome the competition from Iran and Russia. If TAPI is able to overcome these troubles, however, it would be the first victory for pipeline diplomacy in the region. Additionally, it could set a new precedent as to how South Asian neighbors seek to conduct diplomacy. Indeed, much is riding on this pipeline project, and only time will tell if it is able to live up to its expectations.