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Central Asia: Trans-Afghan Pipeline Discussions Open In Islamabad

Indian Oil and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora is leading New Delhi's delegation in the TAPI talks (epa) Officials from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan have opened a meeting in Islamabad to discuss a pipeline that would bring Turkmen gas to South Asia.

First proposed some 15 years ago, the project has never been carried out, whether due to instability in Afghanistan or strained ties between Pakistan and India. But the parties involved feel that now may be the time to finally carry out the project, which would benefit all four countries.

The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project certainly would help the consumer countries, Pakistan and India, while Turkmenistan could make billions of dollars from gas exports. But arguably it would benefit Afghanistan most by providing steady transit fees to fill depleted state coffers in Kabul.

However, the security situation in Afghanistan, long a major obstacle to TAPI, remains as much a problem today as it’s ever been.

"If we consider the present security situation of Afghanistan, I think it is too much to consider that this project can be done," Afghan analyst Waliullah Rahmani tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It will cross from Kandahar and Herat. The southern cities and provinces of Afghanistan are completely unstable."

Nonetheless, oil ministers, officials, and experts from the four countries have begun to discuss a range of issues regarding the proposed project during two days of talks in Islamabad.

Cost Estimates Vary

According to plans, the 1,680-kilometer TAPI pipeline would start in the Turkmen city of Dauletabad, pass through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, before entering Pakistan at Quetta and proceeding to the Indian border town of Fazilka. Six compressor stations are to be built along the route. Plans for the pipeline call for it to export some 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from the field annually.

Estimates of the cost for building the TAPI pipeline are some $6 billion. Some estimates of construction time have the pipeline completed no earlier than 2018. The Asian Development Bank is backing the project.

Rahmani notes that foreign forces operating in southern Afghanistan are still engaged in heavy fighting and predicts that if work started, the pipeline itself, as well as workers, would be certain targets for militants. But Rahmani says TAPI is certainly in the interests of the Afghan government and people, and he urges President Hamid Karzai to make stability in the regions along the proposed route a priority.

"This project is a big achievement for the economy of Afghanistan," Rahmani says. "President Karzai's administration should consider this project to be a big achievement and should work to stabilize the southern region of Afghanistan."

Turkmenistan has been pushing the project for years and even met with Taliban officials in the late 1990s to try to secure guarantees for the pipeline, which at that time did not foresee Indian participation. Turkmenistan's southern Dauletabad field is one of the few Turkmen fields that has been thoroughly checked -- by Unocal in 1997. The U.S. company estimated the field has 708 bcm of natural-gas reserves.

Turkmenistan not only stands to gain financially but could also secure its place as the gas hub of Eurasia if it can fulfill all the commitments it already has to Russia, the European Union, China, and Iran.

Pakistan As Possible Hub

For Pakistan, TAPI could provide both an energy resource and revenue in the form of transit fees to India. Pakistani officials, including President Pervez Musharraf, have been promoting their country as a possible hub for gas and oil from Southwest Asia and the Arabian Sea to China if road, rail links, and pipelines were built.

India's inclusion in the project makes it more viable. The New Delhi-based Indo-Asian News Service reported on April 14 that India "currently meets only 55 to 60 percent of its demand for natural gas." India had been an "observer" in previous talks about the pipeline project, but when Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Turkmenistan at the start of April for talks on the project, he declared that India had full member status.

Supporters of TAPI in Islamabad will be looking over their shoulders at other talks in the Pakistani capital this week. Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora is leading India's delegation not only in the TAPI talks but also in meetings with Pakistani officials on the IPI -- or Iran-Pakistan-India -- pipeline.

The IPI pipeline would be some 2,600 kilometers long, with an estimated cost of $7 billion. Iran estimates it can complete its section of the pipeline to the Pakistani border by 2013, though other estimates say Pakistan could start receiving gas from the IPI pipeline as soon as 2011. But potential investors may be frightened away from the IPI because of U.S. sanctions against doing business with Iran. The Asian Development Bank has yet to publicly support the project, either.

Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report