Smiling faces and rosy predictions were abundant in Ashgabat over the weekend, when top officials from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India signed a deal to build a natural-gas pipeline that promises to change the region's energy fortunes.
But while the four countries finally signed off on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline after 15 years of negotiations, the biggest obstacle remains in place -- ensuring security for a project that would wind through some of the most hazardous territory in the world.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the main challenge to the TAPI pipeline becoming operational in 2014, as planned, during the December 11 signing ceremony in the Turkmen capital.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari,left, Indian Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Murli Deopra, Turkmenistans leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Afghan President Hamid Karzai shake hands after a signing an agreement on the TAPI gas pipeline on D
Afghanistan, Karzai promised, would "put in efforts to ensure security both during construction and after completing the project." The country's Mines and Industry Minister Wahidullah Shahrani confirmed that, "five thousand to 7,000 security forces will be deployed to safeguard the pipeline route."
This "huge" project is not important just for Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is anxious to cash in on its huge natural gas reserves, and Pakistan and India are badly in need of additional energy resources. The recent heightened desire of all these parties to finally realize the project has propelled TAPI plans forward in recent months, but solely at the level of diplomatic and specialist discussions.
Annette Bohr, an associate fellow for the Russia-Eurasia program at the London-based Chatham House, notes that, "all of these actors very much wanting this pipeline, but nonetheless we have these security questions that have not improved but, in fact, have become worse if anything."Through Dangerous Terrain
TAPI's 1,680-kilometer route (given as 1,735 kilometers by some sources) originates in southern Turkmenistan, winds south through Afghanistan's Herat Province, and then arcs southeast until it reaches Kandahar Province. Kandahar was the spiritual capital for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, and the city and its surrounding areas remain the heart of the Taliban insurgency against government and foreign forces.
With construction slated to begin in 2012, these sections of the pipeline are the main areas of concern when it comes to security.
"Embarking on pipeline construction across Afghanistan in the midst of a continuing war between a NATO-backed government in Kabul and Taliban forces still operating effectively in much of the country," Bohr explains, "it's just not going to happen."
Afghan Mines and Industry Minister Shahrani expressed confidence that the ability of the pipeline to provide jobs and benefit local communities by supplying new sources of power and heating would be enough to gain the support of local residents. Shahrani said that once locals see the advantage of the pipeline they will shun the Taliban. But for that same reason, observers say, the Taliban would be likely to focus on preventing the pipeline from being built.
A young boy bicycles natural gas cylinders in India. The TAPI pipeline from India to Turkmenistan has promised as a way to support many developing countrys growing energy demand, but get the building the pipeline might prove too heavy a burden.
And the pipeline's security worries don't end in Afghanistan. From Afghanistan the pipeline would continue through Pakistan's Balochistan region, scene of a violent campaign for independence from Islamabad. Ethnic Baluchis have waged a campaign against the Pakistani government for years targeting officials, teachers, students, and generally all non-Baluchis who try to settle or work in the region. While there has been much talk about securing the TAPI pipeline in Afghanistan, little has been said about security along the line in Balochistan. Pakistani officials have proposed slightly altering the pipeline's route in Pakistan to take it through more secure Pashtun-inhabited areas of Balochistan.Question Of Funds
Bohr raises another issue that will come into play before the first section is laid -- finances. The Asian Development Bank has pledged to help finance TAPI but the bulk of financing the project will be left to private investors.
"We understand that the ADB backs this -- yes, but even in this agreement that was struck on December 11, we don't have details about funding in the framework agreement." But, Bohr questions, "Where this massive amount of money would come from and which bank would be willing to underwrite it, is another question."
That question will have to be answered before anyone will be able to say with certainty that TAPI will be built at all. And even with ADB backing, and presumably the support of the U.S. government and possibly the Indian government, the unanswered questions about security in Afghanistan and southern Pakistan will likely give potential investors pause when considering sinking millions and possible billions of dollars into the project.Hashem Mohmand of RFE/RL's Afghan Service and Ahmad Shah of Radio Mashaal contributed to this report