TAP: Forever in the pipeline

It may make economic sense, but geopolitics will ensure that the trans-Afghanistan pipeline will remain little more than a pipedream for the foreseeable future

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Helmand Province, through which TAP proposes to traverse
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Matthew Jones
On 14 February 2012 09:48

In an immensely strong field, perhaps the stupidest assertion made by Michael Moore in his demagogic 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 was that US motivation for the war in Afghanistan did not lie in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon but in the desire to construct a natural gas pipeline running from the Caspian, through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Moore pointed out that executives from US company Unocal had met with a delegation of Taliban leaders in 1997 to discuss the pipeline, before a Caspian drilling contract was awarded to a Dick Cheney-led Halliburton.  

A simple piece of fact checking shows that Unocal withdrew from the project following the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies, and no doubt much to Moore’s disappointment, no American company has been involved in any Afghanistan pipeline proposals in the ten years since 9/11.

Yet, as wrong as Moore was in his assertions, the idea for a Trans-Afghanistan pipeline has never disappeared and in the past two years the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have solidified their plans to construct a 1,040 mile long pipeline at an estimated cost of $7.6bn.

 

And why not, the economics certainly make sense? An impoverished Afghanistan could benefit from much needed energy, and from the transit revenues – thought to amount to as much as $300m a year – from having a pipeline traverse its landscape. Moreover, the government in Ashgabat is eager to diversify its exports away from Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom by gaining additional markets for its enormous gas supplies, while Pakistan is experiencing a rapidly escalating demand for natural gas.

The governments of the three countries hope that the pipeline could come into operation as early as 2016 with a hesitantly scheduled capacity of 27-33 billion cubic metres per year. Yet there are numerous reasons why the pipeline will certainly not be built by the proposed date, and perhaps not even in the next decade.

Firstly, and most obviously, the pipeline will run not only through the war-torn provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, but will also have to cross near to Taliban-infected parts of Pakistan and possibly through areas in which Baluch nationalist groups operate. Pipelines have long been a target for terrorist organisations and protecting them can be a notoriously difficult undertaking. But given the colossal length of the pipeline and the regions it has to pass through, the task would seem impossible whilst chronic instability persists in the region.

A pipeline constantly operating at below capacity because of terrorist actions is not a successful one. Just ask the Colombians who have seen the Caño Limón pipeline targeted more than 1,000 times by Marxist guerrilla groups over the past two decades, leading it to be nicknamed “the flute”.

Secondly, the proposed final destination of the pipeline is India, with its enormous population and rapidly rising energy demands, yet the Indian government continues to flip-flop on their involvement. Even if India does commit to the project, it is difficult to imagine smooth negotiations with Pakistan given the state of perpetual animosity that exists between the two countries.

A final sticking point is likely to be funding. Whilst the Asian Development Bank has agreed to support the project, there has been no agreement on who will provide the financing. Moreover, the various nations involved are yet to reach a deal on the delicate issue of transit fee payments. Though an upcoming meeting in Dubai is set to tackle the issue it is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

While the economics of connecting one of the world’s largest natural gas resources to one of the world’s fastest growing natural gas markets appears to work, geopolitics will ensure that the Trans-Afghanistan project remains a pipedream.

Matthew Jones is an Energy Analyst working in London

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