Why TAPI pipeline plan may force India to negotiate with the Taliban

A ground-breaking ceremony was performed for the 1,735-km Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline this weekend. But many hurdles still remain.

Plans for the 1,735-km Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline have been nearly 30 years in the making. Finally, on Sunday, leaders of all four participating states, including India’s Vice President Hamid Ansari, met in the town of Mary in Turkmenistan to officially announce the pipeline project open.

TAPI “is one of those great ideas in regional cooperation about which we have dreamt of and it has not materialised till now”, Ansari said.  “So I am very optimistic that after the ground breaking ceremony things will begin to roll."

Successive Indian governments have offered several reasons for their bullishness on the project: it would enhance India’s energy security, it would use economics to counter jihad ideologues, and would present a balance in central Asia to China’s overwhelming presence in the region.

However,  building the TAPI pipeline is easier said than done. The project is expected to cost between $7 billion-$10 billion, with overrun costs in conservative estimates expected to add a further $4 billion-$5 billion. But beyond the costs, the real problems for the pipeline are the two participating nations in the middle of the TAPI formulation ?Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rocky course

In Afghanistan, the pipeline is expected to be constructed alongside the Herat-Kandahar highway, moving on to Quetta and Multan in Pakistan and finally ending in Fazilka, Punjab, in India. The pipeline will start from the Galkynysh gas field with Turkmenistan’s own Turkmengas as part of a special purpose consortium company leading the consortium. It is also understood that the United Arab Emirates’s Dragon Oil may look to become a consortium lead partner, after France’s Total SA backed out two years ago after showing some interest. As part of the TAPI initiative, India and Pakistan will get 38 million standard cubic meters a day of natural gas with the remaining 14 million mmscmd going to Afghanistan.

TAPI, if completed, will run through some of the most lawless regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Estimates done through basic risk assessments in 2011-’12 suggested than a specific and dedicated force of up to 18,000 security personnel would be needed to protect it from terrorism and sabotage. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had informally committed up to 7,000 Afghan personnel for the job, and talks of an inter-governmental joint security task force for TAPI is also being mooted.

One of the key players that will eventually need to be consulted, which would be against most TAPI members’ choice, is the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan’s Water and Power Minister Khawaja Asif has reportedly said that Islamabad will use its influence over the Taliban to ensure security of TAPI. So, in effect, the Taliban could end up playing a critical role in TAPI and New Delhi, Kabul and Ashgabat may find themselves in negotiations with a terror group.

Talking to the Taliban

The Taliban is in itself going through a seemingly tremulous transitional phase after it was confirmed earlier this year that its former chief Mullah Omar had died of tuberculosis in 2013. The new Taliban head, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was reportedly injured in a gunfight during a meeting of militants in Pakistan. Previous negotiations with the group have failed miserably. Beyond this, political tensions between Kabul and Islamabad rose on sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference last week as Afghan intelligence agency chief Rahmatullah Nabil resigned after taking his own president head-on for his reconciliation efforts with Pakistan even as Taliban continued to attack Afghan interests.

The security challenges of TAPI, and the geo-political complexities have earned the project many sceptics, and perhaps understandably so.  Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, who had said in an interview in May that Pakistan wants two different set of concessions from Ghani, one for state of Pakistan and one for the Taliban, took to Twitter and highlighted the misfit alignment of Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban.

Even as the four countries broke ground in Mary, the TAPI pipeline story is far from over. Significant roadblocks relating to economics and political stability are still in place. The pipeline is still a pipe dream, albeit one that has just had an opening ceremony.

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