Afghanistan ready to play connector role in Eurasian integration

The inauguration of TAPI – the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline – signals Kabul is on-board with the grand project of Eurasian integration

One of the top roller-coaster sagas in what, some years ago, I christened Pipelineistan, has yielded a definitive twist.

The US$8 billion,1,814-kilometer Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) was officially inaugurated on Friday, in full pomp, and with proceedings broadcast live on Afghan TV, on the Turkmen-Afghan border close to Herat.

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani hosted Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and India’s Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar.

Assuming there are no major glitches – and that’s a major “if” – TAPI should, in theory, be finished by 2020. So far, though, endless deadlines have come and gone.

TAPI simply cannot exist without Taliban approval. According to a statement by Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yusuf Ahmadi, “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.”

Another Taliban faction, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, also let it be known, via spokesman Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, that, “we will not allow any group or state to disrupt this project.”

All of the above is code for the Taliban getting their cut – which happens to have been the key point of contention ever since the first Clinton administration decided the then rulers of Afghanistan were worth doing business with.

So when spokesman Ahmadi claims TAPI was initially planned when the Taliban were in power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001, he’s correct. The Taliban were wined and dined in Houston in 1997, as I reported for Asia Times, but nothing came out of it. The haggling was all about transit fees.

For Kabul, the game from now on is about providing adequate security – from construction to operation. After all, this is a major job-creating project bound to involve 30,000 Afghan workers and yield US$500 million annually for Kabul in transit rights.

Rumors swirled in Herat about a bunch of unidentified jihadis, allegedly trained in Iran, planning to attack the inauguration ceremony. There has been no confirmation whatsoever that this is the case – either from Afghan or Iranian sources. Even President Ghani rejected the outlandish idea that Tehran would sabotage TAPI.

The rumors should be traced to a Pipelineistan mini-Cold War between TAPI and IPI – the competing Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, which, under pressure from the Bush and Obama administrations, was eventually reduced to IP.

A win-win situation

TAPI is a very good deal for Ashgabat – as it allows Turkmenistan finally to diversify its export markets instead of relying entirely on its major customer China. Gurbanguly, moreover, wants to turn TAPI into an energy/IT/connectivity corridor.

Washington supports TAPI – and not IPI/IP – because its main financial source is the Japan-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), and because it would be a key stabilizing factor uniting Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

From Islamabad’s point of view, both TAPI and IP are very much needed. TAPI will meet at least 20% of Pakistan’s natural gas requirements and 10% of its energy needs.

In economic and geopolitical terms, a steel umbilical cord running along the intersection of Central and South Asia can only be a win-win

What we have here is a major upward twist in terms of Eurasian integration. The in-progress Turkmenistan energy corridor will eventually link with one of the major Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), sharply increasing Central Asian connectivity.

Even New Delhi, despite its immense reservations regarding CPEC, is now hailing TAPI, via Minister Akbar, as “a symbol of our goals” and “a new page in co-operation” between the four nations.

Additionally, TAPI adds to India’s connectivity with Central Asia, via Afghanistan, as embodied in New Delhi’s investment in Chabahar port in Iran.

Ghani, for his part, said: “We hope our next generation will see this pipeline as the foundation of a joint position in our region which is aimed at improving our economy, providing jobs and increasing our security, all in our fight against extremists.”

But the key piece of the puzzle is his public recognition that Afghanistan, slowly but surely, may now be positioning itself – finally – as a connector between Central Asia and South Asia.

The next piece will come from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran making sure the war in Afghanistan is over for good.



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