On Friday, representatives from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India gathered in Herat to mark the start of work on the Afghan portion of the TAPI pipeline. It was another large celebration of, in the best case, incremental progress.
On Twitter, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said of Herat and the project, “A new chapter of economic growth and regional connectivity starts right here in the economic and cultural hub of #Afghanistan.”
Ghani was joined by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and Indian Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, also attended the ceremony.
The TAPI project, which has an estimated price tag now of $10 billion, endeavors to bring 33 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas to energy-starved South Asia for 30 years via a 1,800-kilometer pipeline that will stretch across Afghanistan. Construction is estimated to last two years.
It’s anyone’s guess as to when those two years are judged to have started, however. Turkmenistan threw a groundbreaking back in December 2015 for its 214-kilometer section of the pipeline. As Bruce Pannier noted last week, Ashgabat says a pipeline has been built but there’s a curious lack of even photographic proof.
Virtually all news regarding the TAPI project comes via governments or government mouthpieces. This news is usually doused in a slurry of optimism and divorced from any sense of time. The smallest steps are touted as major progress and setbacks go unmentioned.
Security is generally cited by observers as the biggest concern, although the Taliban has pledged, repeatedly now, to support and protect the project. In December 2016, the Taliban said they were “committed to safeguarding” national infrastructure projects like CASA-1000 and TAPI. At the time, Afghan officials were skeptical, with a presidential spokesman saying, “They have to prove their promises in action.”
Last week, a Taliban spokesman again pledged the group’s support. According to Voice of America, Qari Mohammad Yusuf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesperson, said in an emailed statement:
The Islamic Emirate views this project as an important element of the country’s economic infrastructure and believes its proper implementation will benefit the Afghan people. We announce our cooperation in providing security for the project in areas under our control.
He apparently claimed credit on behalf of the Taliban for the project, which indeed has been in consideration since the 1990s. Back then Unocal, a California-based oil company (now a subsidiary of Chevron), headed a consortium intent on building a pipeline across Afghanistan. The project, however, failed. By late 1997, Unocal was negotiating with the Taliban to build the pipeline but by 1998 the arrangements deteriorated and then collapsed entirely.
The Taliban probably sees the benefit of a completed TAPI, in the form of dollar signs and an imagined future in which the Taliban is back in Kabul. Afghanistan is set to draw in millions in transit fees — exactly how much depends on your source. As Pannier noted, there is quite a range:
The Afghan Voice Agency reported on February 19 that the amount would be “nearly $400 million” annually. Afghanistan’s ToloNews reported on February 20 that “Afghanistan is expected to earn $500 million USD in transit duties annually from the project. Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov promised in November that Afghanistan would receive some $1 billion annually in transit fees from TAPI.
All of that is more than the $50 to $100 million the Taliban was negotiating with Unocal for in the 1990s.
Then again, the war in Afghanistan is unrelenting. It seems absurd to believe the Taliban will sit on their hands as the pipeline, and its Afghan government-supplied security guards, just pass by. We’ll see what happens as construction gets started.
Ahead of the ceremony last week, Afghan authorities said that 10 “Afghan militants” who apparently claimed to have been trained in Iran to sabotage the TAPI festivities turned themselves in.
Herat Governor Mohammad Asif Rahimi said they changed their minds, putting a very Afghan government set of words into their mouths: “But they realized that the interest and benefit of the people of Afghanistan and future generations lie in letting this project go forward.”
As RFE/RL reported, “Afghan officials in western and southern provinces bordering Iran have blamed Tehran for bankrolling the Taliban and other insurgent factions in the region,” though Tehran denies any such support of militant groups in Afghanistan.