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Updated: TAPI gas pipeline - A project in the midst of conflict

Published: 27/01/2012 06:12:00 PM GMT
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Shaken by mounting international pressure for not pursuing an already signed gas pipeline project with Iran, energy-starved Pakistan is seeking an alternative energy project involving its archrival India, war-stricken Afghanistan, and the central Asian gas-rich state of Turkmenistan.

Shaken by mounting international pressure for not pursuing an already signed gas pipeline project with Iran, energy-starved Pakistan is seeking an alternative energy project involving its archrival India, war-stricken Afghanistan, and the central Asian gas-rich state of Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI), also known as the “Pipeline for Peace”, would run through war-racked Afghanistan. And Pakistan and India are eager to tap this source in order to meet their growing energy needs that have virtually hampered their respective growth rates.

Pakistan and India together were part of Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project, vehemently opposed by the United States amid mounting international sanctions on the Islamic republic for its controversial nuclear program. India was the first to quit the IPI project, which is likely to be completed by 2014. However, Pakistan still sticks to the project.

“There has been a considerable progress in our talks, and we have agreed to continue the process in the coming days”, Indian oil minister Jaipal Reddy told newsmen after holding talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Asim Hussein, who is visiting New Delhi to discuss the terms and references of the proposed project.

“We intend to have a joint strategy on the upstream sector where Turkmenistan is to develop its gas field”, Asim Hussein told reporters.

The Iranian issue

The United States, which has spearheaded its sanctions on Iran for not bowing to the international community vis-à-vis its nuclear program, favors the TAPI, and is asking Pakistan to hold off on the pipeline deal with Tehran.

But, Pakistan, a sometimes ally to the US, has rejected the US demand. India, which although has come out of the IPI deal, says that it would continue to import oil from Iran despite new sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union on the Islamic Republic.

However, analysts believe that despite an assurance from Pakistan, it would be difficult for it to go ahead with the IPI project, keeping a surging international pressure on Iran that has virtually isolated the Islamic Republic.

Analysts see the shift in Pakistan’s focus vis-à-vis economic cooperation with its neighbors, particularly India, as a result of rankled relations with its historical economic and defense partner, the United States, in the wake of various recent events ranging from the killing of 26 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike last November to the closure of the two key supply routes for foreign forces fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.

The 7.6 billion dollars TAPI project is seen in the context of increasing economic ties between the two south Asian nuclear states, which have fought three full-fledged wars, and a three-week long Kargil skirmish. Pakistan has recently granted a status of most favorite nation (MFN) to India signaling that it is keen to improve its economic ties with its neighbor despite political differences.

The 1,700 kilometers long TAPI pipeline aims to transport over 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually from the Dauletabad gas fields in southeastern Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth largest gas reserves. The Central Asian energy giant also owns the world’s second biggest natural gas field, holding around 14 trillion cubic meters of gas.

Afghan link

Despite US support, and bilateral agreement between the two otherwise rival states—Pakistan and India—political and security analysts see various hurdles in the execution of the proposed project.

Their thrust of the arguments is on instability in war-stricken Afghanistan, which the pipeline has to pass through.

“Stability will be an important factor, which has the potential to hamper this (TAPI) project”, Kamal Hyder, an Islamabad-based security analyst told “Islam Online”.

He opines that as long as the afghan issue is resolved, and there is durable stability in the war-racked country, the execution of the project would be a Herculean task.

“As long as there is resistance movement in Afghanistan or as long as there is no solution to the problem, this pipeline project will remain be a pipeline dream”, he maintained.

Hyder observes that Afghanistan will be the critical link with respect to TAPI project.

“The proposed pipeline has to go through the most critical Afghan provinces in the west and then in the south, particularly Hilmand, Uruzgan, and Kandahar, where insurgency is at its peak”, he contended.

Shamim-ur-Rehman, a Karachi-based political analyst agrees.

“I doubt that this project would take off, at least in near future”, Shamim told “Islam Online”, referring to the volatile security environment in Afghanistan.

He believes that the future of TAPI project is directly linked to peace in Afghanistan.

“Unless there is political and security stability in Afghanistan, the future of this project seems to be skeptical”, he maintained.

Strategic predicaments

Analysts opine that the decades-long strategic war between Pakistan and India will be another major factor haunting the future of this project.

“Both India and Pakistan have a major trust deficit as far as strategic issues are concerned”, Hyder remarked.

“India will never want Pakistan to have control over the tap. It may seek an international guarantee to ensure that Pakistan cannot block the pipeline in case of a major event”, he thought referring to the deadly Mumbai attack that killed 176 people in November 2008, bringing the two countries on the verge of a war.

India blames Pakistan for patronizing the attack. However, Pakistan denies the charge.

“The project can only be feasible if there is a strategic agreement between the two countries, which in the given situation, seems to be difficult”, Hyder observed.

Shamim, a Karachi-based analyst agrees.

“America wants India to be a major economic player in the region, and the TAPI project will give a golden opportunity to India to be fully involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan in the name of this project”, he contended.

“US support to TAPI is directly linked to the ongoing proxy war between Pakistan and India in Afghanistan”, he asserted.

Secondly, Shamim thinks that without resolution of some key issues, particularly Kashmir, between Pakistan and India, there are little chances of economic warmness between the two nuclear states.

“Economy cannot be disassociated from politics”, he said.