Afghanistan: Pawn or potential queen?
It took decades for an agreement to get reached on the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline but commitment to bring the project to life in the spirit of what is written on paper is going to be a tougher test yet.
Regional actors such as China, Iran, Russian and Pakistan may not see TAPI fitting their strategy in the region and therefore may work to engineer its collapse against a backdrop of geostrategic competition, writes Javed Noorani.
The TAPI gas pipeline is an ambitious project which is set to connect the religiously and ethnically diverse geographies of South Asia with Central Asia, propelling them into gas-fuelled economies. At one end of the pipeline is Turkmenistan, a former Cold War era Soviet bloc still heavily influenced by Russia, and at the other end of the project is emerging regional power, India, an attractive market for gas.
Pakistan is undergoing economic expansion and to continue this trajectory, it requires sufficient and sustained energy. However, concerns have been raised due to availability amid rising global demand for energy.
Robert Looney in his essay for the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars says that Pakistan’s rather static oil, hydroelectric power and gas reserves have raised serious concerns as to the sustainability of the current economic expansion, as well as future economic growth. The gap between Pakistan’s energy use and the country’s ability to produce energy has widened in an alarming way in recent years.
Games and players
The politick around the region’s gas reserves in general and the TAPI pipeline in particular have both local and global actors gate-crashing to shop for the commodity and vie for associated projects.
Security energy seems to constantly find a prominent place within the NATO strategic discourse. As NATO continues its transition from a Cold War military alliance, energy security is playing an increasingly important role. NATO states, being the most developed countries with strong industrial bases, would continue to have the largest demand for oil and gas to sustain their economic engines. Saudi, a traditional oil supplier to NATO countries, still has 20 trillion barrel of oil.
NATO states, which consume 43 per cent of total oil and 42 per cent of gas production, will undoubtedly continue to receive oil from the Middle East but a sense of energy security also dictates its shopping excursion into the huge Caspian gas reserves to keep alternative energy sources. However, the Caspian region is still seen as a Russian sphere of influence.
The four Caucasus and Central Asian states, namely Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, produced 4.7 trillion cubic feet of gas, representing four per cent of the world’s total production in 2010. The Russian federation possesses 24 per cent of the gas reserves and largely dominates the gas market in the Caspian region to maintain its hegemony and thus use it as a diplomatic tool.
Despite over-committing itself to various gas exports - such as a deal to supply 30 billion cubic feet of gas to China, some to Iran and export to Kazakhstan though Russia - Turkmenistan has committed itself to pipeline some gas to European Union too. Not surprisingly, the US and European Union support Turkmenistan’s policy of multiple export routes.
China, India, Pakistan and Iran are locked into energy competition due to their industrial needs. China and India have growing economies which make energy an important element of their strategic imaginations. Pakistan’s energy needs are increasing by 10-12 per cent annually.
Isolated Iran is the third largest importer of gas despite and has the second largest gas reserves. Now, cash-strapped, it urgently needs an inflow of money to continue with its nuclear programme as the country’s political establishment seeks regional power status. As a result, the country’s leadership has desperately been trying to showcase Iran, Pakistan and India (IPI ) gas pipeline as a more economical and viable alternative to TAPI. Iran has already completed over 80 per cent of the work on the IPI pipeline running through its territory and has even offered to finance the Pakistani side of the pipeline.
Is Iranian investment and confidence in the (IPI) pipeline underpinned by Russian and Chinese assurance to the country? It is hard to imagine that it would otherwise invest so much money in a pipeline that still does not have a confirmed destination. However, an obstacle exists if India, the other buyer Iran is trying to attract, opts out of the project under heavy US pressure underpinned by the Indo-US nuclear deal.
This leaves China, which has already made big footprints in Iranian oil and gas fields in the shadow of the US-led Western isolation of Iran.
Dr. Christian Lin, visiting scholar at SAIS Centre For Transatlantic Relations, The John Hopkins University, writing about China’s silk road strategy in Afghanistan-Pakistan, states that China has invested over US$25 billion in the last decades in various Iranian oil and gas field development projects such as onshore Azadagan and Yadavarn and offshore South Pars, with the clear intention of increasing its oil and gas supply with liquefied natural gas (LNG) initially and eventually piped gas imports from Iran. So, if Pakistan agrees to the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, then it effectively finds a buyer in energy-hungry China.
Check and block
TAPI is promoted by the US to stop IPI and potentially IPC [Iran Pakistan China pipeline] if China is looped in as an end consumer for Iranian gas. This, along with other economic sanctions, may synergise to throttle the Iranian nuclear program and engineer the collapse of the Iranian regime internally. And there is the added benefit of diminishing a Russian monopoly over Caspian gas while ensuring sustained energy for US investment in India - considered a strategic partner in a new world order.
These geopolitical realities are reflected in the polarisation of the international structure itself. Recent US and Pakistani disputes over NATO attacks on Pakistani army posts at the border of Afghanistan often lead to suspension of transit facilities to NATO trucks transporting goods through Pakistan for international military forces. There have been consistent voices in the US Congress against partnership with Pakistan in its fight against the “War on Terror”. Pakistan has desperately been trying to cling to China and is ready to twist itself to keep its friendship intact to survive and sustain.
It is possible that Pakistan’s heightened needs for energy security and its isolation by the US will push the country closer to IP gas pipeline which may eventually become Iran-Pakistan-China (IPC) pipeline. Iran joining Pakistan and China will effectively lead China to navigate around India and thus, not only complete the triangle but allow Iran to emerge as an actor with greater strength to threaten the world with a blockade in the Strait of Hormuz. It is a powerful bargaining chip.
China’s energy needs are driven by its rapid economic growth. “The principle concern over energy security in China is the perception that the Chinese economy is highly dependent on a stable supply of energy and cannot tolerate the slightest interruption or shortfall,” writes Zha Daojiong, an associate professor of international relations and chair of the Department of International Political Economy at Renmin University of China.
Now, after the global financial crisis and in an environment of fierce competition for the world’s natural resources, this situation is intensifying. China has put its stamp in Sudan against the wishes of Western countries and it has so far turned a deaf ear to international concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.
US government officials have voiced concerns about China’s indifference and stated that China has appeared even more reluctant than Russia to take action against Iran on its shrouded nuclear program. US officials said they are particularly concerned that China has blocked their efforts to target freight-forwarding companies based in Hong Kong that reship goods, including prohibited weaponry, to Iran, according to media reports. As such, US efforts to promote TAPI based on its geo-strategies will be met with suspicion by global superpower China.
The odds in the current scenario are against the development of TAPI. Afghanistan is not secure which could be used as an argument by some of the countries participating in the project to withdraw altogether. The Iranian political establishment may magnify insecurity in Afghanistan to expedite this withdrawal of participating countries in TAPI and open itself to sell its own gas or be a transit country.
There is suspicion of Iranian agents active in the areas of Afghanistan demarcated for TAPI pipelines. Sources in Afghanistan’s south have on numerous occasions reported that senior members of Sepah Passdaran (The Iranian Revolutionary Guards) have visited some provinces along planned pipeline routes.
There has been evidence of Iranian weapons seized by international militaries based in Afghanistan, though it should be noted that weapons from NATO-affiliated countries are ubiquitous.
China, in its aggressive campaign to reach Africa, Asia and Latin America, may not like its main challenger, the US, to influence its neighbours according to US self-interest. China may play to stop India its rival from accessing gas through TAPI. It will be able to buy extra gas from Turkmenistan to address its energy insecurity cost-effectively and supply some of it to its Xingjaing province, with some rebellious Muslim population thus stabilising the region through industrialisation and connecting it to the Silk Road. To this end, Kashgar, part of Xingjaing, is one of those areas where a Special Economic Zone is being established.
Pakistan, in the light of its long term interest and fear of dependence on Afghanistan, may opt for the Iranian pipeline to have access to reliable gas supply and earn some money in transit.
Besides this, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline will give the two countries cover to suppress the people of Balochistan, who have roots in and disputes with both countries. TAPI will collapse in such a situation where all the major regional actors excluding India team up together against it. Such an event will rob Afghanistan of the chance for the project to contribute to the country’s stability through investment.
Afghan hydrocarbon experts from the 1980s pointed out that Afghanistan’s northern geology bears similar constructs as the gas rich fields in Turkmenistan.
There is every likelihood that Afghanistan’s gas reserves will compare and even rival Turkmenistan’s resources.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) carried out two surveys to identify the mineral resources of Afghanistan with the second identifying 12 potential sites. The Afghan-Tajik basin was subjected to intense seismic surveys using latest technologies to peep into underground formations. Reliable sources following the survey, shared on condition of anonymity, say that the early sign from the seismic survey show presence of huge gas deposits in Afghanistan.
Another source said that Afghanistan could have better reserves than Turkmenistan. No doubt, the discovery of the gas in Afghan-Tajik Basin will rekindle hopes of stability and security once again. Some sources, on condition of anonymity, said that the USGS had estimated gas reserves in Afghanistan’s north to be 25 trillion cubic feet. Moreover, the country may be home to reserves in Katawaz basin in the southeast.
With these kinds of deposits, Afghanistan can turn into a regional gas-bazaar and qualify to join the elite gas suppliers club. Chevron’s interest in the Afghan-Tajik basin and China’s National Petroleum Company’s eye-catching contractual terms in favour of the Afghanistan government for the Amu Darya oil deposits in the north of the country are clear signals that there is more to find. These companies are too big to come and invest in a mere 87 million barrels of oil. Some sources say Tajikistan has already been using diplomatic channels to bid for Afghan gas.
Failure of TAPI will amount to US failure in Afghanistan. One of the reasons for the US to put boots on the ground was to ensure the TAPI pipeline was made possible; US-based Unocal was competing with Bridas, a Brazil-based oil company, to build the pipeline. Unocal testified to Congress and said that such a pipeline was not possible unless an internationally recognised government was put in place in Kabul, as stated by Canadian energy economist John Foster writing in the Energy Security Journal.
Pinning so much hope in TAPI without understanding the regional giants which will at all costs seek to secure their interest is a giant misstep and a potential tragedy for Afghanistan. Though TAPI is beneficial for the four participating countries at the moment, the shifting geopolitics may take regional actors away from the project.
A more prudent path for Afghanistan would be to explore its own gas to supply to its households and industries and encourage indigenous investment. Gas can also be used for electricity generation and presents tremendous export potential. There is nothing more strategically beneficial for Afghanistan than building its own mines and understanding its neighbours’ strategies, which is critical to avoid being trapped into their game plans.
Javed Noorani is a researcher with Integrity Watch Afghanistan. His current area of focus is on the extractive Industry in Afghanistan. Noorani has MA in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding from Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution JMI, New Delhi. His research interest also extends into social and security issues as well. The views expressed are his own.