Natural Gas Asia

Friday, November 28, 2014

Afghan Security Dulls Turkmenistan’s Hints at Major Gas Deal

By Jen Alic for Natural Gas Europe

Turkmenistan is reportedly gearing up to sign a natural gas agreement with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India by the end of this month in a move that would provide the foundation for building a pipeline connecting the four countries despite major security concerns that make the Afghanistan-Pakistan part of the pipeline an expensive security nightmare at best.

Unnamed Turkmen officials told the Associated Press that the deal is likely to be signed at an energy conference in Turkmenistan later this month, and that gas for the planned 1,600-kilometer, $7.6 billion TAPI pipeline would come from two Turkmen fields – Dauletabad in the south and South Yolotan near the Afghan border.

South Yolotan is not yet developed, but could hold as much as 21.2 trillion cubic meters of gas, which would make it the second largest gas field in the world in terms of reserves. Turkmen oil and gas officials told AP that gas could be extracted from South Yolotan by 2013, if not earlier. 

Europe and the United States are keen on constructing a pipeline through Afghanistan, something that has been in the works since the 1990s, despite the obvious security concerns. For Turkmenistan, the pipeline would give it a direct route for its gas to Europe, as the country seeks to further diversify its already vast clientele that includes Russia, Iran and China.

For Afghanistan, the pipeline project, which plans to ship some 33 billion cubic meters of gas annually through the country, could generate up to $1 billion in revenues each year and create tens of thousands of jobs.

While Turkmen hints of a new gas deal just around the corner are a positive boost for the planned pipeline, securing the Afghan portion as well as the portion that runs through Pakistan’s restive tribal lands, is nothing if not challenging.

As the US plots its partial withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, what is not discussed is the extent and role of troops who will be left behind. As many as 30,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan and their key unofficial mandate will be to provide security for the TAPI pipeline.  

This will not be enough to ensure the pipeline’s successful functioning. Invariably, the Taliban will have to be cut into the deal, which has serious implications for Afghanistan and the benefits such a pipeline would bring in the form of state revenues and employment.

The Taliban have for all intents and purposes infiltrated every level of Afghan government, and it will not allow the pipeline to operate without its involvement. This could go two ways: Either the pipeline will be NATO’s method for buying patronage from the Taliban, a pay-off of sorts in return for a semblance of false security wholly dependent on revenues kicked back to the Taliban; or the Taliban will hijack the pipeline entirely in a return to the pre-war situation.

The pipeline could bring regional stability through connected energy security, or it could set Afghanistan back even further, depending on the key players’ ability to turn enemies into true stakeholders.

A new Pentagon report warns that the Taliban is poised to step up attacks in the summer. The Afghan central government is weak at best, and NATO has met with little success in ensuring what should effectively be population control, in the absence of which the Taliban will flourish. This is also evidenced by the fact that the number of “green-on-blue” (when Afghan soldiers turn on NATO forces) attacks have risen over the past five years.

As such, the “withdrawal” of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan is less a withdrawal than a shifting of focus from internal Afghan problems to energy security. The two, however, cannot be separated.

Throughout, Turkmenistan has remained the key uncertainty in NATO’s energy security efforts, as home to some 4 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves. Turkmenistan has the potential to be a major hub for gas pipelines exporting to all corners of the world: north to Russia, east to China, south to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan, and west to Europe through the Caspian Sea.

Always pragmatic, Turkmenistan has taken great pains to reposition itself strategically since the death of the Turkmenbashi, President Saparmurat Niyazov, in 2006. That shift has seen a stronger pull towards NATO’s own energy security efforts, with an eye to the European market. The early May reports of the upcoming gas deal with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India could be the cement that fixes this shift in Turkmen policy. Given Turkmenistan’s pragmatism and business acumen, the question also arises of how Turkmenistan views the security situation in Afghanistan and on what it is basing its confidence.

At every point along the proposed pipeline route from Afghanistan to Pakistan, across the eternally up-for-grabs Durand Line, the Taliban are poised to strike with limited resistance. Furthermore, according to geopolitical analyst Dr. John C.K. Daly, “the Taliban have access to the U.S. military’s inner circle”. The high-tech security required to guard this pipeline will represent an enormous cost, perhaps greater than the cost of the Afghan war itself. But perhaps it is a cost Western stakeholders are willing to pay as the pipeline would represent the only benefit to the West from this long war.   

But it is more likely that any seeming confidence in the security situation is being trumped by another fact: The TAPI pipeline would subdue a planned Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline which could potentially deliver gas cheaper than TAPI. The pipeline, if successful, would also cut Iran off from expanding its interests in Central Asia, in particular.

An Azeri professor, Bakhtiar Asianbayli, summed it up pointedly during an April summit, saying that the TAPI pipeline project would mean that “prospects of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline will be zero”.   

Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst and the co-founder of ISA Intel (www.isaintel.com) and former editor-in-chief for ISN Security Watch in Zurich.

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