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Turkmenistan: Trans-Afghan Pipeline Plan Raises Practical Doubts

Prague, 27 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkmen government has signed an agreement in Ashgabat with a group of international companies on creating a consortium to build an export gas pipeline stretching almost 1,500 kilometers through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

If successfully completed, this pipeline will enable Turkmenistan to obviate the restrictions currently imposed upon it by the Russian gas giant Gazprom, which refuses to allow Turkmenistan to use its pipeline network to export natural gas to world markets.

But a spokesman for UNOCAL, the U.S. company that is the major shareholder in the consortium, has expressed skepticism that the project is feasible given the present instability in Afghanistan.

Talks on setting up the consortium have been underway for over two years. In early 1995, the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan signed a memorandum of understanding on building an export pipeline that would supply Turkmen gas to Pakistan. Later that same year, Turkmenistan signed an agreement with UNOCAL and the Saudi Arabian Delta oil company concerning construction of the envisaged pipeline. The Argentinian company Bridas then undertook a feasibility study on the project.

Attending the signing ceremony last week in Ashgabat (On October 25), Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov said that the $2 billion pipeline could contribute to a lasting peace in neighboring Afghanistan. Niyazov subsequently told Ekho Moskvy radio that he had reached an agreement with both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, which had endorsed the project and undertaken not to threaten the security of the pipeline. A Taliban delegation held talks in Ashgabat last week.

But a UNOCAL spokesman has cast some doubt on this arrangement. Richard Keller said in Islamabad on October 26 that "None of the Afghans are involved in the consortium and the deal doesn't make any kind of agreement with any of the Afghan factions."

And the Taliban's Information Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told Associated Press in Kabul the same day that his government is still conducting talks with Bridas and UNOCAL on the pipeline, but that it has not yet signed any formal agreement. It is not even clear whether the Taliban is empowered under international law to enter into such a contract. Teheran Radio on October 26 broadcast a commentary arguing that the pipeline contract is not legally valid or binding because it has not been signed by the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, which is still regarded by the UN as the legal government of Afghanistan.

Muttaqi for his part accused Iran of encouraging the anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan not to accede to any agreement that the Taliban side signed with regard to the planned pipeline. Muttaqi said that Iran wants to prevent the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan project being implemented in the hope that Turkmenistan will then proceed with an alternative plan to build a gas export pipeline via Iran to Turkey.

Former senior Turkmen government official Nazar Soyunov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on October 24, however, that this latter option is not economically viable. He said the cheapest export pipeline route would run north through Kazakhstan, then west through the Russian Federation and south through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey.

So the situation remains complicated. As to the October 25 agreement in Ashgabat on the trans-Afghan pipeline, Turkmenistan will have a 10 per cent stake in the consortium. The U.S. company Unocal has a 36.5 percent share, Saudi Arabia's Delta 15 per cent, and Gazprom 10 percent. The remaining 28.5 percent is shared between South Korea's Hyundai, Japan's Cieko and Itochu Corporation, Pakistan's Crescent Group and Indonesia Petroleum.

The cost of building the pipeline, which will run from Dauletabad in Turkmenistan to Multan in Pakistan, is estimated at $2 billion and could begin in 1998. The pipeline will have a maximum annual capacity of 20 billion cubic meters of gas, which corresponds to Pakistan's estimated annual requirement of 15 billion to 20 billion cubic meters. Construction is expected to take between two-and-a-half and three years.