Last month’s meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov was more than a mere photo opportunity. The implications of deeper Afghan-Turkmen bilateral ties could have a positive impact on a number of issues, including Afghanistan’s rising drug traffic, the insurgency and long dormant energy and transport projects. Furthermore, this relationship can be supported both by the two nations’ ties with the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and by Washington’s efforts to bolster its relations with Ashgabat.
On April 28 Karzai and Berdimukhamedov met in Kabul, where they signed a number of agreements on expanding economic, political and cultural cooperation between their countries. At a joint press conference following their discussions, Karzai was effusive about their talks, telling reporters, “My dear brother and I spoke about different spheres of life in the two countries. The main points of our discussion were: exchange of energy between the two countries; transport; communications; extension of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; extension of a railroad between the two countries, and extension of this railroad to neighboring countries through Afghanistan; Turkmenistan’s electricity exports to Afghanistan; and educational and cultural exchange programs between the two countries. We also had discussions about the situation in the region, … terrorist threats, and problems in the region” (National TV Afghanistan, April 29).
Berdimukhamedov was similarly fulsome, remarking, “Turkmen electricity and gas are exported to Afghanistan at reduced prices. Turkmenistan also continues cooperation in public health and training of experts. Thanks to the efforts of Turkmen experts, part of a railroad that connects our countries has been reconstructed as grant aid. Joint reconstruction projects and projects to extend electricity systems are being implemented in the provinces of Afghanistan. Extension of the Turkmen gas pipeline to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India helps the Afghan economy, and creates jobs for the people of Afghanistan as a bridge of true friendship.”
The meeting is not the first between the pair, who first met in July 2006 in Ashgabat.
Western energy firms undoubtedly focused on Karzai’s comments about a “gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.” The $3.5 billion, 1,050 mile-long Trans-Afghan Pipeline (TAP, now “TAPI” with the inclusion of Pakistan and India) was originally proposed in March 1995, when Turkmenistan and Pakistan signed a memorandum of understanding. As envisaged, TAP, carrying capacity of 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen natural gas a year, would run from Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad gas field across Afghanistan and Pakistan and terminate at the Indian town of Fazilka near the Indian-Pakistan border. During his July 2006 meeting with Karzai, Berdimukhamedov asserted that Turkmenistan could supply 30 bcm of gas to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan. Earlier this year the Asia Development Bank financed a TAP feasibility study and supports the project.
In 1996 the memorandum of understanding resulted in the establishment of a consortium led by Unocal, the Central Asia Gas Pipeline Ltd. (CentGas). A year later a Taliban delegation visited Unocal headquarters in Texas, and in January 1997 the Taliban signed off on the project. Whatever chances the project had disappeared four years later in rising chaos in the aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom. By committing to the pipeline, Berdimukhamedov and Karzai seem confident that peacekeeping in Afghanistan will succeed, while on the other side of the Durand Line, the new Pakistani Parliament is pursuing serious negotiations to pacify the factious North-West Frontier Province, an abrupt shift of tactics from President Pervez Musharraf’s regime.
In early April another development bolstered TAPI’s potential success. Berdimukhamedov and Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari in Ashgabat signed a framework memorandum of understanding for cooperation in oil and gas, providing Indian companies the the opportunity to enter Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon sector (The Tribune, April 5). Ansari said, “India, with its vast requirement of energy and dependence on imports, is Turkmenistan’s natural partner.” He then thanked Berdimukhamedov for “the formal support we have received about our particiption in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project.”
More than six years after the ouster of the Taliban, bilateral trade between the two countries is still minute. In 2000 Afghan-Turkmen trade was $38 million. According to an Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs assessment, it was only $43 million from January to April 2007 (www.mfa.gov.af).
It is in the area of railways that Afghanistan’s transport network is most in need; the country’s sole railway lines currently consist of six miles of track between Turkmenistan’s Gushgy to Afghanistan’s Towraghondi and 9.3 miles of line from Termez in Uzbekistan to Afghanistan’s Kheyrabad transshipment point on south bank of the Amu Darya (“Afghanistan – Railway Data,” https://web.worldbank.org). A beginning was made earlier this year as Turkmenistan reconstructed the Gushgy-Towraghondi track and agreed to build a railway between Imamnazar in Turkmenistan and Andkhoy in northwestern Afghanistan (www.turkmenistan.gov.tm).
The two countries now have a framework to pursue their railway ambitions, as both are members of the ECO, along with Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. At a meeting of ECO ministers in Ashgabat on May 28, Berdimukhamedov supported a proposal made by ECO Secretary General Hurshid Anvar to start direct cargo transportation service along the Istanbul-Tehran-Ashgabat-Tashkent-Almaty route, telling delegates, “Turkmenistan has a well-developed transport infrastructure” (Itar-Tass, May 28). Accordingly, implementing a policy for constructing a railway network in Afghanistan would be a project well within the ECO’s purview.
For either project to succeed, the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan must be addressed. But the economic incentives behind TAPI may well bestir Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India to involve themselves more deeply than before in the search for a solution to Afghanistan’s trauma, with Turkmenistan most notably abandoning its vaunted Niyazov-era policy of neutrality. After all, war is bad for business, especially when billions in profits and transit fees are at stake.