Pipe dream in Afghanistan?

By ALEXANDROS PETERSEN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   May 24, 2012 at 6:30 AM   |   Comments

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KABUL, Afghanistan, May 24 (UPI) -- Since U.S. President Barack Obama's visit earlier this month, talk in the Afghan capital has centered almost exclusively on how the United States' and NATO presence will pack its bags on the way out of the country, beginning next year.

In country and in the region, Washington has had trouble managing the optics of that exit. But, one thing that almost all parties in Afghanistan, as well as its neighbors agree on is that economic development is key to ensuring that the country doesn't relapse into endemic conflict and international black hole status.

A lot has been said about the importance of the Afghan ring road in this effort. The U.S. State Department's New Silk Road Strategy is meant to link Afghanistan to its neighbors in Central and South Asia through road and rail links.

But the world's No. 4 holder of natural gas reserves says these projects might be complemented by the resurrection of a pre-9/11 pipeline project: the Trans-Afghan or TAPI natural gas line. Afghanistan's northern neighbor, Turkmenistan, says its vast relatively undeveloped gas fields could be linked to energy-hungry Pakistan and India, while providing spinoff development opportunities along its right of way through Afghanistan's neglected rural areas. At a capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, the relatively large project would snake through troubled Herat and Kandahar provinces.

By now, you're probably asking how anyone could build and expect to secure a natural gas pipeline through war-torn Afghanistan. You and most of the world's energy analysts.

More technical and energy security experts will tell you that TAPI isn't just a pipe dream but a recurring dream that has appeared in various guises over the years only to evaporate into the ether of Afghan reality time after time.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was once a consultant for the project but, even under his presidency, the project has achieved nothing on the ground.

Skeptics ask how it could it It would be a glaring target for Taliban militants, local sabotage and attempted siphoning and that is only if it could be built in the midst of an insurgency that by many accounts is only getting worse.

The Turkmens, however, would beg to disagree. In fact, they recently leaked that they will be signing a purchasing agreement with Islamabad and New Delhi this month. This is the result of a long dialogue process facilitated by the Asian Development Bank. India's Cabinet approved the project this month and is soon sending a delegation to Turkmenistan to iron out details.

And, after initial skepticism, the Obama administration has quietly thrown its weight behind the unlikely project, too.

The office of the Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, Ambassador Richard Morningstar, has been monitoring and at times shepherding the process from dialogue to agreement to implementation over the past couple of years. The office says there are at least two U.S. energy firms interested in joining the state-controlled companies of the four states involved in realizing the project.

Analysts are right to be skeptical of this project. If built, it would immediately become an energy sector legend for its daring and scope.

But then again, Afghanistan's wider neighborhood has seen a lot of pipe dreams become reality in the past decade. China recently built a record-breaking pipeline connecting its eastern coast cities with natural gas resources in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. And, TAPI is reminiscent of another U.S.-backed pipe dream that become reality: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean.

Having observed the BTC pipeline for more than a decade, I can remember when its regional security issues, Chechnya, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Georgia's conflicts with Russia, were considered by most energy analysts to be insurmountable obstacles to pipeline construction. But the project implemented revolutionary security standards that have become industry benchmarks, including an underground pipe, hardened pumping stations and constant right-of-way patrols recruited from local communities, as well as a network of community liaison officers ensuring that those affected by the project see it as an asset to protect.

TAPI would have to achieve a similar revolution in security standards but there is no reason to think this is impossible. It has many of the key components that BTC boasted: diplomatic support, agreement from key regional players, buttressing from a respected international financial institution and clear buyers and sellers on either side.

No one is claiming that TAPI isn't risky or ambitious. But so is everything about the future of Afghanistan. At least TAPI presents a project pushed by regional actors and only supported by the United States.

Should it see completion, it wouldn't just be a conduit for development in Afghanistan but also provide important impetus for some of the country's crucial neighbors such as Pakistan to invest in a more stable future.

At this point, TAPI is still a pipe dream but, if construction begins, it could become the key to a less problematic Afghanistan.

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(Alexandros Petersen is the author of "The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West" and adviser to the European Energy Security Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His latest research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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