Indian diplomacy continues to face the challenge of engaging productively with international stakeholders whose common and competing interests in Afghanistan criss-cross frequently.

After relative calm since summer, two coordinated bombings the same day in December last — one in Kunduz, a northern Afghan city, and the other on the outskirts of Kabul — came as a sharp reminder that Afghanistan still has enough reserves of suicide bombers capable of disrupting its drive towards normalisation.

The December 19 attacks are unlikely to be the last the battle hardened militants, with deep cross-border roots, launched in Afghanistan. In the foreseeable future, the country is likely to suffer several paroxysms of violence as conditions for the start of genuine peace talks with the Taliban are yet to be established. The American-led NATO forces and their accompanying Afghan troops are nowhere close to dominating the country's military space, a prerequisite that can pave the way for productive dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban. Nation-building has also not gone far enough to inspire confidence among the Afghans to spurn the Taliban and bond decisively with their leaders and their supporters abroad. Despite nine years of war, Afghanistan's transition from a Taliban-led theocracy to a stable democracy continues to meander.

Amid this flux, India, which has high stakes in Kabul, needs to methodically chart its way forward to ensure that its core security and long-term economic interests are safeguarded. Indian diplomacy will, therefore, continue to face a huge challenge of engaging productively with international stakeholders, whose common and competing interests in Afghanistan criss-cross frequently. These foreign players with entrenched interests in Afghanistan are the United States, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Central Asian countries, including energy rich Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

After coming under pressure from Islamabad's concerted efforts to marginalise it in international diplomacy surrounding Afghanistan, New Delhi has found some new opportunities, though not without pitfalls, which it can use to its advantage. However, this would be possible only if India remains focussed on its core interests and is not drawn into fulfilling a larger regional geopolitical agenda of big powers, especially the U.S. The challenge before South block and the security establishment in the months and years ahead would be to embark upon a complex diplomatic exercise, where engagement with the U.S. on a limited but cogent agenda, chiefly concerning energy security and international terrorism, does not infringe New Delhi's freedom to manoeuvre to bond significantly and independently with the other major regional stakeholders, including Iran, Russia and the Central Asian Republics.

On December 11, India joined Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to sign a framework agreement to build a 1,680-km gas pipeline. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline will initially draw gas from the Daulatabad gasfield and convey it to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Subsequently, gas may also be sourced from the huge South Yoloten-Osman field which is still under development. India and Pakistan will each get 33 bcm annually. The pipeline project has the blessings of the Asian Development Bank and the U.S. “TAPI's route may serve as a stabilising corridor, linking neighbours together in economic growth and prosperity,” the State Department commented soon after the four-nation agreement was signed in Ashgabat.

The project, notwithstanding the support from the Americans, offers India substantial advantages which it may find imprudent to ignore. These gains are chiefly in the political arena and outweigh commercial considerations and obvious benefits.

Despite two decades of effort and several false starts, India is yet to find a strategic anchor in Central Asia. However, the TAPI deal presents India its first major opportunity to acquire a durable niche in this resource region, with which it shares deep historical bonds. Turkmenistan can not only pioneer India's long-term presence in Central Asia but also emerge as a bridgehead from where New Delhi can consider extending its regional influence. Turkmenistan's neighbour Kazakhstan, a country with a massive landmass, huge oil and gas reserves, and a relatively independent foreign policy has over the last few years been considered a possible candidate for supplementing TAPI gas flows.

Russia, which comes closest to being counted as India's “all-weather” friend, has been transparent in flagging its interest in the TAPI project. In late October last year, the Russian media quoted Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin as saying that discussions with Turkmenistan had been held on the Russian gas giant, Gazprom's “possible participation in the TAPI pipeline project.” The statement was apparently not well received in Turkmenistan. However, notwithstanding Ashgabat's reservations expressed in the public domain, President Dmitry Medvedev reinforced Moscow's interest in the project ahead of his December visit to New Delhi.

Secondly, irrespective of the regimes that come and go in Kabul, fulfilment of the TAPI project would impart an unprecedented depth to Indo-Afghan ties. The project would provide Afghanistan not only energy for its own development but also handsome dividends by way of a hefty transit fee. It is estimated that Kabul would annually receive a transit tariff of around $1.4 billion from India and Pakistan once the $7.6-billion pipeline is laid.

Thirdly, the implementation of the TAPI project is likely to ease the hostility between India and Pakistan. Access to the Indian market makes gas flowing through the TAPI pipeline cheaper for all stakeholders, including Pakistan. Simultaneously, energy sourced from Turkmenistan can support rapid expansion of industry in Pakistan, help spur entrepreneurship, and potentially encourage the evolution of a solid constituency among its business class, which has a vested interest in peace with India.

Finally, participation in the TAPI project would arm India with a rock solid argument to play a prominent role in Afghanistan. It would undermine the campaign that calls for a drop in India's high-profile role there.

While going ahead with the TAPI project, India should make sure that it does not alienate Iran. Facts of geography, shared energy interests, and Iran's cultural appeal among India's politically significant population segments call for a sustained engagement between New Delhi and Tehran. In the absence of geographical contiguity, Iran is India's gateway to Afghanistan. Both countries have already made considerable efforts in drawing a transit corridor that links Iran's port of Chabahar with Afghanistan's ring road system. The still fragile security situation in Afghanistan also demands that India and Iran sustain a comprehensive and active political and security dialogue with each other. This is necessary as the two countries could face a serious challenge to their interests in Afghanistan, once the Americans in keeping with their current plans hand over security to the Afghans by 2014. As in 2001, India and Iran, which exercise considerable influence among the Afghan Hazara and Tajik communities, may once again have to work together in case of the emergence of another major crisis, following the U.S. exit.

Notwithstanding the existing difficulties and impediments imposed by the Americans, India, at some point of time, may have to go ahead and source natural gas from Iran. From an energy perspective, the TAPI project is not a substitute for the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.

“From an Indian standpoint, TAPI and IPI should be seen as complementing each other and not as elements of a zero-sum game. There is enough demand in India to absorb gas not only from these two pipelines but also from various other sources including Myanmar and Bangladesh,” a former Petroleum Ministry official told The Hindu. According to a recent study by the global consultancy, McKinsey, India's natural gas consumption by 2015 is expected to double from the current level of 166 million cubic metres a day. Out of India's total energy consumption in 2025, the share of natural gas is expected to rise from 8 to 20 per cent.

With Turkmenistan, Iran and possibly Qatar as the nodal points for sourcing gas, parts of Central Asia and Persian Gulf can finally emerge as pieces of a vast West-East energy corridor along which a network of pipelines moves gas supplies towards energy-hungry India.

From a political standpoint, a gas deal would emerge as the centrepiece of Indo-Iranian ties, raising the relationship to an altogether new level that can insulate their ties from powerful competing pressures. Specifically, it would ensure that Iran becomes India's reliable partner in Afghanistan, capable of addressing serious crises that might arise in the country post-2014.

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