TAPI: The Audacity of Pipeline Hope

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 223

Indian Petroleum Minister Murli Deora, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Turkmenistan’s leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Afghan President Hamid Karzai sign documents on the TAPI project in Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. (AFP)

On December 11 in Ashgabat, the top officials of four participant countries signed agreements on a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, favored on and off (currently on again) by the US government. Presidents Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, and Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari, along with India’s Petroleum Minister,  Murli Deora, signed an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) on the project; while the ministerial-level officials of the four countries  signed a  gas pipeline framework agreement (GPFA). The IGA is said to include a legal framework as well as issues of physical security for the project, while the GPFA covers largely technical issues.
Originating in south-eastern Turkmenistan, the pipeline is envisaged to run through parts of Afghanistan, including Herat and Kandahar; to continue into Pakistan via  Quetta and Multan, and to terminate at Fazilka in India’s Punjab, with a total length of approximately 1,700 kilometers (km), including 730 km in Afghanistan. Construction is supposed to be completed by 2013-2014, apparently on the assumption that it would start in 2011.
The line is planned to carry 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas annually, from which Pakistan and India would purchase 42 percent each. Afghanistan would buy (and/or receive in lieu of transit fees) 16 percent of that total volume.
TAPI construction cost estimates range from $3.3 billion to $7.5 billion and over –a spread testifying to the absence of up-to-date feasibility studies. Pricing of gas and other commercial issues are yet to be negotiated.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has endorsed the proposed pipeline since and remains its sole backer, at least in principle. Attending the signing event, ADB President, Haruhiko Kuroda, reiterated his support for the project, but stopped short of specifics. Kuroda cautioned that the participant countries must guarantee the security of the pipeline and quality of the construction work.
That cautionary note refers to the war and turmoil in Afghanistan and some nearby areas of Pakistan. At the signing event, President Karzai promised that his country would strive to guarantee the security of construction and operation of the pipeline; while President Zardari expected the project to bring economic development and, thus, help “combat extremism” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan’s Minister of Mines, Wahidullah Shahrani, said that “local communities” along the pipeline route would be paid to guard it (apparently a reference to local warlords) (Interfax, Neytralny Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan.ru, Business Recorder [Pakistan], Press Trust of India, December 11-13).
The project’s history has been an agitated one. Initiated in 1995 by Turkmenistan and Pakistan, with an international consortium led by the US company Unocal, the project moved forward with the cooperation of Afghan Taliban authorities. Hamid Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad were promoting the project at that stage, long before becoming president of Afghanistan and US ambassador to that country, respectively. In 1998 the Taliban authorities selected the Unocal-led consortium, CentGas, over rival international companies to implement the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline project. Gazprom, initially holding a 10 percent stake in it, withdrew from Centgas, thus removing a possible source of obstruction. However, Unocal itself withdrew in late 1998 (one of the factors being political pressure from vocal feminist groups over the Taliban’s treatment of women), then folded into another company. The collapse of US-Taliban contacts prior to 2001 froze the project entirely.
The US helped reactivate the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan project in 2002, as a nation-building tool following the US military intervention in Afghanistan. The project was supposed to give Afghanistan’s warring tribes a common interest in state consolidation, as well as a unique source of currency revenue and infrastructure development. These assumptions were not borne out, however. In 2005, the British consultancy Penspen (one of worldwide leaders in this field) submitted the “final version” of a feasibility study, financed by the ADB. Meanwhile, India negotiated its entry into the project, which thus became TAPI. In 2008, India signed agreements of intent with Afghanistan and Pakistan on transportation of Turkmen gas.
The Penspen study apparently remains the basis for the TAPI agreements signed on December 11, 2010 in Ashgabat. Under that study, the gas field Dauletabad was envisaged as the main supply source in Turkmenistan for this project. At present, the participants envision Turkmenistan’s supergiant, yet to be developed Yolotan-South Osman fields as a likely major source for TAPI.
The TAPI project meets a set of US political objectives in the region. Hopes and calculations attached to it include: nation-building and development in Afghanistan; a common stake for Pakistan and India in a joint project, potentially encouraging a détente between these two countries; a channel for Indian influence in Afghanistan; and nullifying plans for an Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline, which has been under discussion for some years between these three governments. These political objectives of TAPI seem to have precipitated the signing of the agreements, despite the forbidding circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan.