Can the Taliban be trusted to protect Afghanistan’s big bet on a gas pipeline?
HERAT, Afghanistan — The Afghan government has completed some of the first steps on a $10 billion natural gas pipeline project so potentially lucrative that the Taliban have promised their support.
The proposed 1,127-mile TAPI natural gas pipeline, named for Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — the four partner nations in the project — may deliver as much as $400 million a year to the Afghan government through transit fees.
The pipeline is one of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s highest priorities and a big part of his plan to reduce the country’s reliance on the United States and other nations. But financial and security hurdles await the fledgling pipeline, including funding concerns and a proposed pipeline route that will run through Taliban-contested provinces.
“This is the big question for the Taliban: ‘Can it let the Kabul government have this win?’” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. “I don’t know if the Taliban would let this project move forward. If they see the Kabul government as illegitimate, why would they support any project that would help that government?”
Two competing Taliban factions in western Afghanistan pledged to local media to prevent disruption and to convince people to support the pipeline, but that was before gunmen killed six surveyors working on the pipeline in Kandahar on May 21. A Taliban spokesman in a message to Stars and Stripes denied responsibility for the attack.
Taliban groups in the past have pledged to protect infrastructure elsewhere but have then attacked electricity pylons, schools and roads. The Taliban are decentralized, and it’s unclear how much control leaders have over their affiliated groups.
Survivors of the Kandahar strike said one Taliban group promised not to attack them, but then another group attacked anyway, said Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament representing Kandahar. Another official said the government was investigating whether the incident was a Taliban attack or the result of an internal feud.
The Afghan government plans to defend the pipeline construction with three Afghan National Army units: the 205th, 207th and 215th corps, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Radmanish.
Bolstering these 7,000 troops will be a mixture of local militia and police units – a substantial investment of manpower for an Afghan military in control of about half of the country.
“Seven thousand is not a small amount for a struggling Afghan army,” said Kugelman, who sees security issues as the main constraint on the project. “To take away 7,000 from the paramount project of defeating the Taliban seems risky.”
An economic dream In one of the first steps building the pipeline, a team of surveyors in Herat province completed an initial mine survey at the end of May. Shiroqa Sarwari, governor of Herat province’s Guzara district, visited a construction site in his district on June 3, guarded by convoy of at least 20 policemen.
The convoy stopped at a concrete slab about 20 miles south of Herat city, where there will be a substation bringing power and 1,500 jobs to Guzra, Sarwari said. The Afghan government estimates the project will create 14,000 jobs nationwide, bringing fiber optic cable and power lines along the route.
“We keep hoping that a miracle will happen, and all our problems will be solved, but that’s unpredictable,” Sarwari said. “But here an economic revolution will come, people will be glowing, there will be opportunities, there will be hope, which is very important.”
The terms of the pipeline deal is as follows: Turkmenistan agrees to take on 85 percent of the costs of building the $10 billion pipeline, and in exchange Afghanistan, Pakistan and India agree to 30-year deals to buy natural gas via the pipeline. In time, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India may be able to tap into 43 billion cubic yards of natural gas going down the pipeline each year.
Regional differences The Afghan government inaugurated work on the pipeline in a ceremony Feb. 23 that Ghani attended.
The pipeline enters Afghanistan through Herat, on the country’s northwestern border with Turkmenistan. The province is considered mostly safe, although its southern district, Shindand, is not.
The pipeline’s route then weaves through Farah, where Taliban forces stormed the provincial capital in mid-May. It then goes through Helmand, where the Taliban dominate much of the province, and then Kandahar, the former Taliban capital.
The pipeline, as proposed, would then cross into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, home to the Taliban’s Quetta Shura and host to a bloody insurgency by militant forces against the government in Islamabad. When the pipeline is completed, it will end in a town in India.
Beyond security concerns, energy industry analysts doubt whether Turkmenistan, responsible for 85 percent of the $10 billion project and in a recession since 2014, can find enough money to pay for the construction.
“I don’t think anyone would say they have $10 billion lying around,” said Laurent Ruseckas, energy analyst at the London-based financial services firm IHS Markit. “This isn’t a real thing until they have credible funding.”
The dream of a pipeline through Western Afghanistan goes back to the late 1990s, when the American oil company Unocal negotiated with the Taliban on a project that collapsed.
That preliminary work on the pipeline has even begun in Afghanistan, after almost 30 years of stifled efforts, shows how governments in the region continue to believe in the promise of this pipeline despite the challenges, analysts said.
Pakistan and India’s energy are expected to double by 2030, providing additional incentive.
“The energy incentives are so powerful that we would hope these would galvanize the main players to overcome their issues and finance the project,” Kugelman said.
“In some ways, TAPI has exceeded expectations to come this far,” Kugelman added.
Mohammad Aref Karimi and Ghulam Rasoul Murtazawie contributed to this report.