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TAPI, Turkmenistan, and the Taliban

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TAPI, Turkmenistan, and the Taliban

The Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan doesn’t materially affect the dim prospects that TAPI will be built any time soon.

TAPI, Turkmenistan, and the Taliban
Credit: Pixabay

Over the weekend, a Turkmen delegation passed through Kabul for meetings with the Taliban government. At the top of the agenda were Turkmenistan’s pipe dreams: The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan (TAPI) gas pipeline, which has been in some form of development for decades. 

Turkmen Minister of Foreign Affairs Rashid Meredov is one of of the highest-level Central Asian officials to travel to meet with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In late September, Kyrgyzstan dispatched deputy chairman of the country’s Security Council, Taalatbek Masadykov, and the head of the Kyrgyz presidential administration’s foreign policy department, Jeenbek Kulubaev, to forge connections with the Taliban. A few days later, Kazakhstan announced that its ambassador to Afghanistan, Alimzhan Esengeldiev, had met with Taliban leaders, too.

Uzbekistan has hosted Taliban delegations on several occasions in recent years, and continued to do so without pause despite the collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul in mid-August. Indeed, mere days before August 15, a Taliban delegation was in Tashkent to discuss “current and future national projects such as security for railroad and power lines.” On October 7, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov landed in Kabul to continue talks with the Taliban. Energy and transportation issues topped the agenda. 

Energy issues factor even more acutely in Taliban relations with Turkmenistan, which has no significant industries outside of the gas business. In Kabul, Turkmen officials got what they wanted: Positive signals from the Taliban in support of the TAPI project.

Mohammad Issa Akhund, the Taliban’s acting minister of mines and petroleum, said in a statement reported by Reuters that “We have been working hard for some time and we are ready to take pride in starting work on the TAPI project.”

Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi was quoted in the Turkmen Foreign Ministry’s statement after the meeting as saying that the Taliban wanted to get to work on projects between the two countries.

The Turkmen statement specified that “the sides expressed readiness of the two countries to further cooperation in promoting the construction of the projects Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) transnational gas pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) high-voltage power transmission line, and railroad lines from Turkmenistan to some provinces of Afghanistan.”

Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob was quoted in the Turkmen statement as pledging to “spare no effort” in ensuring the security of infrastructure projects.

The Taliban have made such pledges before, as recently as February 2021 when a Taliban delegation visited Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital. The Taliban made the same pledge back in 2018 when representatives from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan (under the Ghani government), Pakistan, and India gathered in Herat to mark what they heralded as the start of work on the Afghan portion of the TAPI pipeline

As I wrote back in 2018:

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 [in a late February 2018 article], 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.

So here we are again at another Potemkin milestone. The latest Turkmen statement mentions neither timelines nor prices. The focus on security in a sense is a distraction from the real Achilles heel — funding — but the Taliban’s return to power doesn’t really change the security concerns.

While it may not be the Taliban targeting construction efforts, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch, known variably as ISKP or ISK (or, if you’re Washington, ISIS-K) would arguably pose a threat. ISK has engaged in several attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control, including in Kabul as U.S. and other foreign forces rushed to evacuate in August. In mid-October an ISK suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Kunduz, and this week six attackers set off an explosion at the entrance of a military hospital in Kabul (ISK has not claimed responsibility yet but is widely believed to be responsible and has claimed similar previous attacks). ISK has made no pledges about protecting infrastructure, and the Wall Street Journal reported this week that some former members of the Afghan security and intelligence forces are joining its ranks to fight the Taliban.

It’s hard to fathom that international financial institutions, which are hesitant to provide funding directly to the Taliban’s government, will be enthusiastic about a gas pipeline through Afghanistan. Without significant external financial support, Turkmenistan isn’t able to fund the project. As Steven Mann, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan and until 2020 a senior advisor to ExxonMobil, recently wrote in a piece assessing whether the Taliban’s victory could give a boost to TAPI:

The ADB has indicated it will contribute $1 billion in loans. The Turkmen government, grappling with a massive economic crisis, has risibly pledged $1.675 billion. The remainder is envisioned to come from export credit agencies and commercial lenders, all lending individually to the four governments and relying on sovereign guarantees from each country. What is an Afghan sovereign guarantee worth? Or a Turkmen? It strains credulity that an institution like the ADB would agree to this arrangement. In contrast, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which also has Turkmenistan in its purview, has long kept its distance from TAPI.

Mann floats China as a possible investor but gives long odds that China would be sufficiently motivated to bother with the project.

Ultimately, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan does not materially affect TAPI’s prospects. If the financing question was troublesome before 2020, it’s only become more problematic since the onset of the pandemic and the fall of the government in Afghanistan. Security remains a concern if the primary problem — funding — can be solved. Despite several ultimately false starts, whether the pipeline will ever be built remains in question.