Building a natural-gas pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India (TAPI) was the main topic of conversation when Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov went to Kabul to meet with the Taliban's interim government on October 30-31.
Since coming to power 15 years ago, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been fixated on completing TAPI. But the authoritarian ruler's attention might be better turned to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), which looks more attractive to its European market than ever before.
Due to a lack of pipelines connecting Turkmenistan to other markets, this period of record gas prices on world markets is quietly passing the Central Asian country by -- a shame for cash-strapped Ashgabat and its destitute citizens since it holds the fourth-largest proven reserves of natural gas on the planet.
A Salesman In Kabul
Meredov met with Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, acting Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, and acting Defense Minister Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Atop the agenda of their meetings was -- as Muttaqi said of his meeting with Meredov -- "Important issues such as TAPI, railroads, and electricity."
Yaqoob tweeted: “I am directly responsible for overseeing the security of the TAPI project...[and] we will not hesitate to make any sacrifices for the implementation of this national project."
TAPI was an important issue when Turkmen officials met with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government as well as that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, and with representatives of the Taliban when it ruled the country in the late 1990s.
The Afghan government has been promising since 2010 to create a special force of some 7,000 troops to guard the TAPI pipeline.
The Taliban even promised to guard TAPI in 2018 when they were battling government forces.
The pipeline aims to carry some 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from fields in Turkmenistan more than 1,800 kilometers through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
Pakistan and India would each receive 14 bcm and Afghanistan would receive 5 bcm, which would be a huge increase for Afghanistan compared to the country's recent annual use of less than 200 million cubic meters.
Additionally, it was reported during Meredov's recent meeting with Taliban representatives that Afghanistan could earn some $500 million in transit fees annually, though Meredov said in November 2017 that Afghanistan would earn some $1 billion from transit fees.
When the price of gas briefly shot to more than $1,000 per 1,000 cubic meters in October this year, officials in Turkmenistan must have broken out in a sweat.
Twenty-five years ago, Turkmen officials were trying to get their only gas customer at that time -- Russia -- to pay $40 per 1,000 cubic meters instead of $32.
But even if the security situation in Afghanistan becomes more stable under the Taliban, there are still significant problems with financing the approximately 775-kilometer stretch of TAPI through Afghanistan.
The estimated cost of the total project is some $10 billion, though that estimate is a decade old.
In a recent article for the Atlantic Council, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan Steve Mann wrote that even with an improvement in security inside Afghanistan, "the ascent of the Taliban will do nothing to address the project’s dire flaws, including financing, bankability, and pipeline ownership and operation."
He added that "On top of that, the severe [economic] sanctions on the Taliban introduce a new deal-breaker."
India might now be out of the project entirely as New Delhi's relations with Islamabad have never been good and are even worse with the Taliban.
The Kazakh and Uzbek foreign ministers have also visited Kabul since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in mid-August, and Meredov's visit may have also been aimed at firming Turkmenistan’s ties with the new Afghan authorities.
Pivot To The TCP?
But it is odd that Turkmenistan is making an effort to revive TAPI while the possibilities of constructing the TCP seem to have improved significantly.
The TCP aims to carry some 30 bcm from Turkmenistan across the bottom of the Caspian Sea to the pipeline network in Azerbaijan and eventually to Europe.
The European Union has been hoping for years to see the project realized as part of its Southern Gas Corridor (SGC).
With the record gas prices at the moment and fears that the EU is becoming too dependent on Russia as Nord Stream 2 reaches completion, a boost in gas volumes from a different supplier should be seen by the EU and Turkmenistan as a golden opportunity -- especially as some of the key obstacles to the TCP's construction have been removed.
One was the dispute between Turkmenistan, on the east side of the Caspian, and Azerbaijan, on the west side, over three oil and gas fields located halfway between the two countries in the middle of the sea.
That decades-old dispute was resolved in January.
There was also the problem of needing a pipeline that stretched from Azerbaijan to Europe, but the 1,841-kilometer Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) that runs through Turkey was completed in 2018.
The TANAP project foresees expanding pipeline capacity to some 60 bcm annually.
But Azerbaijan does not have enough gas to provide such a volume, so TANAP would have to include Turkmen gas to reach that level.
The SGC pipeline network was completed at the end of 2020, and gas from Azerbaijan's Caspian field Shah Deniz 2 is already being supplied through the SGC and TANAP to Greece, Albania, and -- via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline -- to Italy.
All that is needed is to build the roughly 300-kilometer TCP at an estimated cost that ranges from $5 billion to $8 billion.
A U.S. company called Trans Caspian Resources just proposed an option that would carry smaller volumes of gas but be operational within two years.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan Allan Mustard attended the recent Oil and Gas of Turkmenistan International Conference and suggested an alternative: the Caspian Connector. It could carry some 10-12 bcm of gas annually and, using existing infrastructure, be built for $500 million-$800 million.
But one major obstacle remains.
Russia and Iran have raised environmental concerns over the construction of a pipeline along the bottom of the Caspian Sea, despite the fact that Kazakhstan has already done so in the northern part of the Caspian. And Russia has constructed longer and deeper pipelines across the bottom of the Black Sea to Turkey and, in the case of Nord Stream 1 and 2, across the bottom of the Baltic Sea (some 1,222 kilometers), making the two lines the longest underwater pipelines in the world.
There was little, however, that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan could do in the face of Russian and Iranian resistance.
Turkey is a rising power in the world again with its influential roles in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, not to mention the military support it gave Azerbaijan during the recent conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. It has even recently supplied armed drones to Ukraine, one of which Kyiv recently used to destroy some artillery of the Moscow-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
Ankara has shown its willingness to stand up to Moscow and Tehran, and if Turkey increases its public support for the TCP that could convince Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to move forward with the project.
But obtaining Ankara's support might be the problem for Turkmenistan.
Turkmen officials are urging Turkish authorities to shut down protests in Turkey against the Turkmen government that are led by migrant laborers. It is also seeking to have the activists deported to Turkmenistan.
Ankara was apparently upset when one Turkmen protester was forced into the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul and beaten in early August.
The Turkish government has been sensitive to such incidents since Saudi journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
There is speculation that Turkey’s reluctance to shut down anti-Turkmen government protests on Turkish territory has led to Ashgabat’s hesitancy in accepting Ankara's offer to join the Turkic Council, which comprises Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
But Turkmenistan needs to move on its proposed gas pipelines if the country is ever going to cash in on its extensive gas reserves.
While TAPI seems no closer to being realized than it was 25 years ago, the TCP or some form of it -- with a guaranteed market of paying customers -- could be completed in the near future.