Is the TAPI (Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India) pipeline finally about to go ahead?
Given the plans to build it through Helmand province and Baluchistan, some have deemed it a pipe dream.
Yet solid US backing and funding may now connect South Asian markets with the second-largest known natural gas depot in the world.
Late May saw a first in the history of the long-stalled TAPI pipeline, as all countries involved signed agreements on construction, transfer and energy trade.
The US is keen to promote its new Silk Road strategy (a greater economic engagement with South and Central Asia, with Afghanistan becoming a major hub of international transport following the withdrawal of the high troop numbers in the country), as well as to cut off any plans for an Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) oil pipeline.
These desires have given new impetus to the project, manifested by increased funding and diplomatic attention.
In addition to US support, the Asian development Bank and the Russia have shown interest in the project, adding to the financial backing from state-owned energy corporations in the signatory countries.
In an effort to alleviate the obvious security concerns, Afghan President Hamid Karzai claims to have negotiated security for the projects with insurgent groups, and in May 2012 a new regional player became involved when the Bangladeshi government showed interest. The pipeline is planned to be operative in 2018.
So how realistic is the project in light of these developments?
For many, the security obstacles in Afghanistan, especially in the face of escalating inter-ethnic and inter-communal violence after the 2014 Nato withdrawal, appear insurmountable.
The pipeline will head south through Kandahar and Helmand provinces which remain among most restive in the country.
On top of this, central government control of the project has been deeply questioned, in light of President Karzai’s weak hold of provinces outside Kabul, evidenced by high levels of violence in contested areas and Taliban “shadow” courts in other areas.
President Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan may also be an unreliable partner. Business interests have long been wary of the deeply autocratic regime and the lack of transparency, but Berdymukhamedov can behave erratically, most recently dismissing his petroleum minister two days after the TAPI deal was signed, apparently on a whim.
And then there is Baluchistan, the Pakistani province the pipe will run through after exiting Afghanistan, currently riddled with nationalist, jihadi and sectarian violence.
Much of the territory the pipeline will run through is lawless, adding an overhanging risk of theft and disruption. In light of this many would say the only reason the unlikely TAPI pipeline is even being re-considered is American backing.
Yet one should not underestimate the outcomes of US determination – and importantly, funding – in the face of seemingly impossible security concerns.
The operation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which transits a region of geopolitical instability, demonstrates this. Drawing lessons from this project, the TAPI pipeline will be built partly-underground to prevent theft, and guarded by a 12,000-strong security force through Afghanistan’s restive provinces.
Importantly, in the middle of ongoing security crises in central Asia, escalating energy crises are rapidly becoming an acute issue in South Asia. India’s needs are projected to quadruple by 2017, and some argue it’s a matter of time before energy needs will stall growth. Pakistan’s industrial sectors are suffering heavily from this already.
Bangladesh’s interest in the pipeline stems from its recent rapid growth, and ensuing energy needs. In other words, the energy needs in the region are so severe and long-term that there are robust incentives to make the project work.
Less than 10% of India’s energy needs will be satisfied by the pipeline, adding a separate interest in the project as they are testing ground for future energy co-operation with central Asia, in an attempt to set off China’s advancement in resource allocation.
For foreign firms, the fact that the pipeline runs through restive provinces and disorganised states may be risky but beneficial, as the Afghans and Turkmen in particular will not be able to start construction without foreign involvement.
Given US and Russian funding, it is highly likely that construction and pipeline security will involve foreign actors and firms. The TAPI pipeline, if it finally goes ahead, is a high-risk, but also potential high-yield, project.
For political and security risk information on the TAPI countries readers can request a trial to AKE’s country intelligence hub, Global IntAKE, please contact email@example.com.
Fraser Bomford, is head of intelligence and Ingrid Magnusson is research assistant at international security specialist AKE