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TAPI: An Idea Whose Time Hasn't Quite Yet Come

A Turkmen gas-compression facility (file photo)

A Turkmen gas-compression facility (file photo)

It's been a dream on a map for more than a decade, a project that could provide thousands of badly needed jobs and a reliable source of energy that could benefit millions in instable areas of southern Asia. TAPI -- the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline -- has proven as elusive a quest as any in the long history of the region.

Recently there have been renewed efforts from all parties, starting with the source of the gas: Turkmenistan, home of the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world. Of late, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has spoken often of TAPI. He has contacted the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India since the start of September to arrange meetings in New York and Ashgabat.

Berdymukhammedov is calling for a summit of TAPI leaders in Ashgabat in December. He has already instructed officials at home to "take all necessary measures" to see that there are purchase agreements ready to be signed by that time. Before that, he is due to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, specifically to discuss TAPI, and there are reports the two may be joined by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Also, the latest session of the steering committee for TAPI is due to meet in Ashgabat on September 20, the first meeting of the committee since 2008.

The media in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India have also been more active in reporting on TAPI in the last few weeks.

It's not only TAPI countries who believe the pipeline can be built. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has already said it stands ready to help with construction of the 1,700-kilometer pipeline, which would carry some 31 billion cubic meters of gas out of Turkmenistan supplying Afghanistan and Pakistan -- plus provide them with transit fees -- on the way to Fazilka, India. The ADB's help is particularly welcome since the price tag for the project is upward of $8 billion.

But desire and financing have never been the major obstacles to seeing TAPI built. The main problem is bringing a major pipeline through the Afghan-Pakistani border area. Twice this past summer there were explosions along the oil pipeline from Iraq to Turkey that temporarily shut down the route. It's a lesson TAPI countries and would-be investors are surely pondering now.

Concerning the last, if the situation permitted there would likely be no lack of companies willing to participate with their governments' blessings. TAPI has a competitor: IPI. IPI is the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, currently stalled due to a near-total lack of international support. But it's a project that Pakistanis continue to discuss with Iranian officials every now and again.

-- Bruce Pannier