South Asia pushes for Turkmen pipeline but troubles loom
The risks are huge, but so are the potential rewards, as plans advance for a pipeline carrying natural gas from central Asia to energy-hungry south Asia through the wilds of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Kabul: The risks are huge, but so are the potential rewards, as plans advance for a pipeline carrying natural gas from central Asia to energy-hungry south Asia through the wilds of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Next year`s withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan opens a new chapter in a geopolitical battle of alliances and rivalries that echoes the 19th-century "Great Game" when Britain and Russia vied for supremacy over the same territory.
Stretching 1,700 kilometres from the gasfields of Turkmenistan to the fast-developing northwest region of India, the pipeline is an ambitious infrastructure dream that could transform the region`s fortunes.
Pakistan and India are desperate to boost their energy supplies, and the pipeline also offers a lucrative money-earning opportunity for Afghanistan as international aid funding declines in the years ahead.
All three countries have signed contracts with Turkmenistan, where one-sixth of the world`s natural gas reserves are believed to be deposited deep underground.
But Turkmenistan, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, is an isolated autocracy, and it is proving a hard negotiating partner in the crucial months before the NATO military pull-out is completed by the end of 2014.
"We always talk about Afghanistan as a bridge between central and south Asia, and this would be the first example to be implemented and prove we can do regional integration," said Abdul Jalil Jumriany, policy director at the Afghan mines ministry.
"Right now the ball is in Turkmenistan`s court. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, all of them have thrown in their support as much as they can."
The challenges are formidable: not just strained regional relationships and the tough physical terrain, but also instability in remote areas where governments in Kabul and Islamabad have little control.
The route goes through the Taliban heartland of Kandahar in south Afghanistan and then through the volatile Pakistani city of Quetta and the fringes of the Baluchistan badlands, where separatists are fighting a low-level insurgency against government forces.
"I bet we will not have security issues," said Jumriany, as pressure increases for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, who are now fighting the Afghan army in the field as much as US troops.
"When we start the construction of this pipeline, it will be beneficial for everybody in the region. Everything is moving in a positive way."