When Vice President Hamid Ansari pressed the button for the ground breaking ceremony of the ambitious $10 billion (original estimate $7.6 billion) Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline in Turkmenistan last year conjointly with President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, it opened a new chapter for Central and South Asia. Conservative estimates add another $4-5 billions as cost overruns. Completion of the 1,735-km pipeline project would better energy security for the region and help better relations. Aided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), TAPI is a natural gas pipeline that is to transport Caspian Sea natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and onwards to India. Turkmenistan’s state company ‘Turkmengas’ will lead the consortium for building the TAPI pipeline. The TAPI pipeline will have a capacity to carry 90 million standard cubic metres a day (mmscmd) gas for a 30-year period and is targeted to be operational in 2018-2019. India and Pakistan were get 38 mmscmd each, while the remaining 14 mmscmd were to be supplied to Afghanistan. India’s state gas utility GAIL has signed a Gas Sales and Purchase Agreement (GSPA) with TurkmenGas for import of 38 mmscmd of natural gas for 30 years. However, Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan informed the Rajya Sabha in December 2015 that with Afghanistan agreeing to take approx 1.5-4 mmscmd against the original agreed volume of 14mmscmd, the Indian volumes may increase to 43-44.25 mmscmd. Incidentally, Afghanistan’s estimated mean volumes of undiscovered petroleum is 1,596 million barrels (Mbbl) of crude oil, 444 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 562 Mbbl of natural gas liquids including 3.8 billion barrels of oil between Balkh and Jazwan in north. China’s CNPC has been commercial drilling 1.5 million barrels of oil annually in Afghanistan since 2012 while Afghanistan only consumes 5,000 barrels per day.
Looking back at what eventually emerged as TAPI, the original project started on 15 March 1995 with a MoU signed between Turkmenistan and Pakistan for a pipeline project. There was considerable foreign interest in the pipeline and in October 1995 Saudi Oil Company ‘Delta’ and ‘Unacol’ of USA signed an agreement with Turkmenistan. Subsequently in 1997, an international consortium (CentGas) led by Unacol was formed and formal agreement signed with Turkmenistan. In 1998, Afghan Taliban signed an agreement with CentGas for letting the project to proceed. However, following the bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam, Unacol withdrew from the consortium in December 1998. Later, a new deal was signed on in 2002 by Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, followed by ADB submitting final version of a feasibility study in 2005 but construction of the Turkmen section did not commence because of instability in Afghanistan. In April 2008, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan signed a framework agreement to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan but there were problems of agreement on transit fee for gas passing through Afghan territory due to Taliban. Islamabad and New Delhi too could not agree on transit fee for the pipeline passing through Pakistan, latter linking fee structure to any India-Afghanistan agreement. Finally in May 2012, Afghan Parliament approved the agreement on a gas pipeline and the day after, the Indian Cabinet allowed GAIL to sign the agreement with TurkmenGas. The ground breaking was the easiest part of TAPI but there are numerous obstacles for laying the pipeline through troubled regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the map below indicating some of the problems.
In Afghanistan, TAPI pipeline will be constructed alongside the Kandhar-Herat Highway in western Afghanistan, and then via Quetta and Multan in Pakistan, finally reaching its final destination in Fazilka, India near the Indo-Pak border. The map above shows areas that are mined and areas that UN had declared extreme risk zones. To top this, the Taliban is already controlling 60 percent territory in Afghanistan and is expanding its influence. In addition, the ISIS has entered the fray in Afghanistan, controls seven districts of Nangarhar Province and is also expanding to other areas. Presently, US-NATO are to reduce their current strength of some 9800 troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 in early 2017, which will likely increase instability in the region. The major impediment is the Taliban and the Pakistani military orchestrating proxy attacks. Pakistan’s Water and Power Minister Khawaja Asif has said that Islamabad will use its influence over the Taliban to ensure security of TAPI, actually confirming underhand links that ISI maintains with global and regional terrorist organizations. Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh tweeted the counter by saying, “For Pakistan to engage Taliban on TAPI secretly is a direct threat to Afghanistan’s sovereignty – ‘Heart of Asia’ statements are one day old which talk of ONE Afghanistan”. The million dollar question for India is that when Pakistan is hell bent on targeting Indian assets and interests in Afghanistan, why would she permit free-flow of TAPI to India?
Prakash Katoch is third generation army officer hailing from Himachal Pradesh. He is former Lieutenant General from Special Forces and post-retirement has published over 2100 articles on international affairs, geopolitics, military, security, technical and topical issues besides authoring two books. He is active in seminars at both national and international levels.