This piece was originally published by The Mantle.
By Ed Hancox
There was an announcement quietly made in mid-December that could finally be the game-changer needed to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. The announcement wasn't made by Barack Obama or General David Petraeus and didn't involve sending more troops into the battlefield; rather it was made by a bank and involved a pipeline. On December 11, regional leaders signed an agreement and the Asian Development bank announced that it would spend approximately $8 billion to build the so-called TAPI pipeline across Afghanistan; TAPI will bring natural gas from the massive reserves in Turkmenistan though Afghanistan to users across Pakistan before ending in northwest India (T-A-P-I, get it?). A side note here – the TAPI pipeline shouldn't be confused with the alleged Caspian Sea pipeline that has been the source of so many “War for Oil” Internet conspiracy theories; under that storyline, the US invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban balked at a US offer to build a pipeline across Afghanistan to bring oil from the fields of the Caspian Sea down to ports in Pakistan, bypassing Russia and Iran in the process; that the supposed former Unocal executive Hamid Karzai was installed as president of Afghanistan is further confirmation of this plan in the minds of the conspiracy theorists (the Caspian Sea pipeline idea was briefly considered, then dropped in the mid-90s; while Unocal disputes that Karzai was ever an employee).
But unlike the fictional Caspian Sea pipeline, TAPI has been under active consideration for more than a decade – a route across Afghanistan has already been selected, with the Turkmen eager to sell their gas on one end and with Pakistan, in the middle of a major fuel crisis, eager to buy on the other. The funding from the ADB will make the project possible; projections – perhaps overly optimistic – say that gas could be flowing through TAPI by 2014. More than any troop surge or counter-insurgency strategy, TAPI has real potential to bring some meaningful level of peace and development to Afghanistan. Here's why:
Pakistan needs the gas. As mentioned, Pakistan, with a growing population and developing economy, is facing chronic fuel shortages. Along with TAPI, Pakistan has also been trying to make deals for Iranian natural gas, so their need for fuel is pretty serious. The proposed route for TAPI cuts across southern Afghanistan, the stronghold of the Taliban. A pipeline makes a pretty tempting target for insurgents since it's big and can't move out of the way and even a brief disruption in service usually causes real headaches for the people waiting for the product at the end of the pipeline (see Iraq and Nigeria for examples). It's hard then to imagine that a pipeline across the Taliban heartland wouldn't be getting blown up with alarming regularity.
But the Taliban has close ties with Pakistan; American officials pin their failure to defeat the Taliban on support from Pakistan that undoes any gains from the COIN strategy and that the Taliban forces are able to duck across the border to “safe havens” in Pakistan when things get too hot. It is impossible to know how much, if any, operational control Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, has over the Taliban; but it is clear that forces within Pakistan have a lot of influence over the Taliban. So if a pipeline vital to Pakistan's national interests is built across southern Afghanistan, it is logical to assume they'll tell the Taliban to back off, weakening the Taliban movement in the process, or cut their support to the Taliban if they don't do as their told – either result ends up diminishing the Taliban's role and conversely improving the prospects for stability in Afghanistan.
It is a real development project for Afghanistan. The current American strategy of paying local workmen a few dollars a day to dig a well or build a one-room schoolhouse might make for a warm and fuzzy human interest story for the press back home and might inject some money into the economy on a very temporary, very macro level, but it is not a comprehensive development strategy. What Afghanistan needs is to build an economy that is based on something other than drugs and arms smuggling or foreign donations. Construction of an 1,800-kilometer pipeline is the kind of keystone project that can help to establish a functioning economy for the nation. In addition to receiving transit fees for use of the pipeline, a volume of the TAPI gas (some estimates are around 8%) will be available for Afghan use, meaning towns and villages can install natural gas-fired electric generators, bringing a reliable source of power to a wide strip of the country and allowing small businesses – from light manufacturing, to commercial and retail endeavors – to spring up across the nation. Best of all, since these new businesses would be built and run by Afghans, they have a much brighter future than one-off projects funded by foreign largesse.
It signals buy-in by regional powers. TAPI strategically unites India and Pakistan by tying them together in the supply of a needed resource; working together on the pipeline project should help to reduce tensions between the two historic enemies. One perceived rationale for Pakistan's continued support of the Taliban is to prevent a pro-Indian government from rising in Afghanistan, thus putting potential enemies on two sides of Pakistan. TAPI should lessen this concern since an Afghan government would have to work with both the Pakistani and Indian governments for the success of the project (if Pakistan pulls out, TAPI loses its main customer and Afghanistan its source of revenue). Pair this with another pipeline project cutting across Afghanistan's far north to bring Turkmenistan gas to China and suddenly three of the regional powers now have a vested interest in seeing Afghanistan not as a pawn to be played off against the others, but rather in promoting stability there so that the gas will keep flowing.
Of course none of this is set in stone, TAPI still has to be built – a daunting challenge given the physical terrain of the countryside alone – and operated, and the project's backers will have to deal with the notoriously corrupt and inefficient Afghan government in the process. A lot could, and likely will, go wrong; but TAPI presents Afghanistan's best hope for peace and stability in a long, long time.
Ed Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Rickz.