Leaders and senior officials from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and India have inaugurated the start of work on the Afghan part of a multibillion-dollar pipeline project that they hope will meet the region's energy needs.
The Afghan and Turkmen presidents, Ashraf Ghani and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, were joined by Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and India's Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar in Afghanistan's western city of Herat for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Afghan section of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) natural-gas pipeline.
"Galkynysh, the world's second-biggest gas field, will feed the TAPI pipeline," Berdymukhamedov told reporters gathered in a town near the Turkmen-Afghan border via a video link from Herat.
Turkmenistan holds the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves but has been heavily dependent on gas exports to China after Russia cut back on gas imports in the last few years.
The planned 1,800-kilometer pipeline connecting Central Asia with South Asia is to carry 33 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas annually for 30 years.
The total cost of the project, which is expected to take two years to complete, is estimated at $10 billion.
"A new chapter of economic growth and regional connectivity starts right here in the economic and cultural hub of #Afghanistan," Ghani wrote on Twitter after arriving in Herat on February 22.
Ghani and Berdymukhammedov were also expected to inaugurate work on the construction of a railway link between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
Heavy security will guard the pipeline construction through Afghanistan, said Jelani Farhad, a spokesman for the Herat provincial governor's office, on February 23.
Security personnel were deployed in sensitive areas across Herat for the opening ceremony, checking all vehicles entering the city.
"It's a golden day for Afghanistan today. It will help our economy and create thousands of jobs," Farhad said.
Backers of the TAPI pipeline say it will ease energy deficits in South Asia and help reduce tensions in the divided region.
Afghan officials say Kabul should earn some $500 million annually in transit duties and that the project should help create thousands of jobs.
However, security concerns over the project remain high as the Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to fend off the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO troops in 2014.
Turkmenistan started construction of its section of the pipeline in December 2015.
The planned underground pipeline is intended to carry 33 billion cubic meters of gas annually alongside Afghanistan's Herat-Kandahar highway, then through Quetta and Multan in Pakistan and ending up at the India-Pakistan border town of Fazilka.
It would start from the Galkynysh Gas Field near the town of Yoloten in Turkmenistan's eastern province of Mary.
Officials say 5 billion cubic meters would go to Afghanistan and India, and Pakistan would buy around 14 billion.
Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan have all repeatedly stated their commitment to the project despite the tensions that New Delhi and Kabul have with Islamabad.
Pakistan is accused of not doing enough to stop terrorist groups from using its soil for attacks against the neighboring countries, which Islamabad denies.
Highlighting security concerns surrounding TAPI, officials in Herat Province on February 22 paraded a group of 10 Afghan militants claiming to have been trained by neighboring Iran to sabotage events related to the planned pipeline.
Herat Governor Mohammad Asif Rahimi told RFE/RL that the insurgents changed their minds at the last minute and surrendered.
Iranian officials have not commented on the claims.
The pipeline would mostly run through parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban has a strong presence. However, the main Taliban organization in the country has declared its support for TAPI, calling it an "important project" for the country.
With reporting by Pajhwok, Tolo News, VOA, Reuters, and AP