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AFGHANISTAN: Pakistani Strife, Blow to Central Asian Gas Project

Daud Khan - Pajhwok Afghan News*

KABUL, Aug 30 2006 (IPS) - Ambitious plans to revive the Trans-Afghan Pipeline (TAP) plan could be wrecked by an upsurge of anti-government violence in neighbouring Pakistan where this week thousands of people have joined supporters of a tribal leader to protest his killing by the military.

On Tuesday, explosions and gunfire were reported after more than 10,000 people attended memorial prayers for Nawab Akbar Bugti who was fighting for greater autonomy for his gas-rich but underdeveloped province of Balochistan.

Bugti, a former governor of the province, was killed on Aug. 26 when Pakistan forces attacked his mountain cave hide-out with helicopter gunships and ground troops.

With about six million people, Balochistan’s population is almost half that of Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi. But in mineral wealth it is the richest. Islamabad has been planning a deep sea port at Gwadar and a road link through Afghanistan to Central Asia from the province.

Also TAP, which will carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to India through western Afghanistan, would pass through Balochistan. The alternative route through Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province has been dogged by security concerns which have been heightened by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s southern provinces.

Last week, news reports in Kabul said the nearly 2,000 km gas pipeline deal was in the final stages of approval with the Asian Development Bank (AsDB), the lead development partner, revising the framework agreement to include India in the project. Without the huge India market, the project which is estimated to cost between 2 and 3 billion dollars (one estimate pitches the final cost at 7 billion dollars) may not be profitable.

Up to 30 billion cu. metres of natural gas could be piped annually from the Dauletabad fields in South East Turkmenistan to consumers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The project will take about three years to be implemented after the cooperating countries take all key decisions.

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has stated his belief that the pipeline which will pass mainly through this war-ruined country, could generate 100 to 300 million dollars per year in transit fees for the country, while creating thousands of jobs.

But domestic security concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan could stymie recent progress on the two-decade-old plans to pipe natural gas from Central Asia to South Asia. Balochistan has been in ferment since 2004 when the struggle for greater national rights, financial resources and against the establishment of military camps in the province turned into an armed uprising led by a force of trained and semi-trained tribesmen, which calls itself the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

While Bugti, the slain Baloch leader, was not part of this armed struggle, Pakistani authorities have maintained he gave tacit support. Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission has documented widespread violations by security forces in Balochistan but Islamabad has maintained they were required to secure domestic gas installations, which have often been targeted by Balochi rebels.

India is seeking to incorporate special clauses in the agreement to ensure that gas volumes contracted to it would not be disturbed in case Pakistan required higher quantities than originally contracted for Gwadar port. This, and financial difficulties in the utility sector in India, could pose additional problems for construction of the TAP line.

On Dec 9, 2003, the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan had signed a protocol on the pipeline. Until early this year when India’s participation was publicised, little progress had been made. Last week, a top Indian official in Delhi confirmed the participation of a high-level team in the TAP meeting next month as a “partner in the project”, according to Indian news reports.

With the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline bogged down, officially, over pricing – political commentators speculate that it may be strong opposition from the United States that has made India put the deal on the back-burner û New Delhi has given priority to the TAP project, which may be easier to implement.

Afghanistan’s security remains a stumbling block to the pipeline. Fighting between remnants of the previous Taliban government and U.S. military and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has only become fiercer in nine lawless southern provinces.

Without the foreign troops, Afghan security forces would not be able to provide security to TAP which will be an obvious target of rebel attacks. Kabul would need to assure its partners and investors that it could extend its legal and physical authority throughout the pipeline route before the project can take off.

Due to its location between the oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian Basin and the Indian Ocean, Afghanistan has been a potential energy transit corridor. During the mid-1990s, the U.S.-based Unocal had pursued a possible natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad-Donmez gas basin via Afghanistan to Pakistan, but pulled out after the U.S. missile strikes against Afghanistan in August 1998.

*By arrangement with Pajhwok Afghan News

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