U.S. brings Silk Road to India

The significance of the signing of the intergovernmental agreement on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project (TAPI) on December 11 in Ashgabat cannot be overstated. It can only be captured if one says with a touch of swagger that TAPI has been the most significant happening in the geopolitics of the region in almost a decade since America invaded Afghanistan.

The heart of the matter is that TAPI is a Silk Road project, which holds the key to modulating many complicated issues in the region. It signifies a breakthrough in the longstanding U.S. efforts to access the fabulous mineral wealth of the Caspian and the Central Asian region. Afghanistan forms a revolving door for TAPI and its stabilisation becomes the leitmotif of the project. TAPI can meet the energy needs of Pakistan and India. The U.S. says TAPI holds the potential to kindle Pakistan-India amity, which could be a terrific thing to happen. It is a milestone in the U.S.' “Greater Central Asia” strategy, which aims at consolidating American influence in the region.

Washington has been the patron saint of the TAPI concept since the early 1990s when the Taliban was conceived as its Afghan charioteer. The concept became moribund when the Taliban was driven away from Kabul. Now the wheel has come full circle with the incremental resuscitation of the project since 2005 running parallel to the Taliban's fantastic return to the Afghan chessboard. The proposed commissioning of TAPI coincides with the 2014 timeline for ending the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's “combat mission” in Afghanistan. The U.S. “surge” is concentrating on the Helmand and Kandahar provinces, through which TAPI will eventually run. What stunning coincidences!

In sum, TAPI is the finished product of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Its primary drive is to consolidate the U.S. political, military and economic influence in the strategic high plateau that overlooks Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and China.

TAPI capitalises on Turkmenistan's pressing need to find new markets for its gas exports. With the global financial downturn and the fall in Europe's demand for gas, prices crashed. Russia cannot afford to pay top dollar for the Turkmen gas, nor does it want the 40 bcm gas it previously contracted to purchase annually. Several large gasfields are coming on line in Russia, which will reduce its need for the Turkmen gas. The Yamal Peninsula deposit alone is estimated to hold roughly 16 trillion cubic metres of gas. But Turkmenistan sits on the world's fourth-largest gas reserves and has its own plans to increase production to 230 bcm annually by 2030. It desperately needs to find markets and build new pipelines.

Thus, Ashgabat is driven by a combination of circumstances to adopt an energy-export diversification policy. In the recent months, the Turkmen leadership evinced interest in trans-Caspian projects but it will remain a problematic idea as long as the status of Caspian Sea remains unsettled. Besides, Turkmenistan has unresolved territorial disputes with Azerbaijan. In November, a second Turkmen-Iranian pipeline went on stream and there is potential to increase exports up to 20 bcm. But then, there are limits to expanding energy exports to Iran or to using Iran as a “regional gas hub” — for the present, at least.

Therefore, Turkmen authorities began robustly pushing for TAPI. The projected 2000-km pipeline at an estimated cost of $7.6 billion will traverse Afghanistan (735 km) and Pakistan (800 km) to reach India. Its initial capacity will be around 30 bcm but that could be increased to meet higher demand. India and Pakistan have shown interest in buying 70 bcm annually. TAPI will be fed by the Doveletabad field, which used to supply Russia.

Ashgabat did smart thinking to accelerate TAPI. The U.S. encouraged Turkmenistan to estimate that this is an enterprise whose time has come. Funding is not a problem. The U.S. has lined up the Asian Development Bank. An international consortium will undertake construction of the pipeline. A curious feature is that the four governments have agreed to “outsource” the execution and management of the project. The Big Oil sees great prospects to participate. The Afghan oilfields can also be fed into TAPI. Kabul awarded its first oil contract in the Amu Darya Basin this week. The gravy train may have begun moving in the Hindu Kush.

On the map, the TAPI pipeline deceptively shows India as its final destination. What is overlooked, however, is that it can easily be extended to the Pakistani port of Gwadar and connected with European markets, which is the core objective. The geopolitics of TAPI is rather obvious. Pipeline security is going to be a major regional concern. The onus is on each of the transit countries. Part of the Afghan stretch will be buried underground as a safeguard against attacks and local communities will be paid to guard it. But then, it goes without saying Kabul will expect the U.S. and NATO to provide security cover, which, in turn, necessitates a long-term western military presence in Afghanistan. Without doubt, the project will lead to a strengthening of the U.S. politico-military influence in South Asia.

The U.S. brought heavy pressure on New Delhi and Islamabad to spurn the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project. The Indian leadership buckled under American pressure while dissimulating freedom of choice. Pakistan did show some defiance for a while. Anyhow, the U.S. expects that once Pakistanis and Indians begin to chew the TAPI bone, they will cast the IPI into the dustbin. Pakistan has strong reasons to pitch for TAPI as it can stave off an impending energy crisis. TAPI is in actuality a Silk Road project connecting Central Asia to the West via Gwadar, which will make Pakistan the U.S. gateway to Central Asia. Pakistan rightly estimates that alongside this enhanced status in the U.S. regional strategy comes the American commitment to help its economy develop and buttress its security needs in the long-term.

India's diligence also rests on multiple considerations. Almost all reservations Indian officials expressed from time to time for procrastinating on the IPI's efficacy hold good for TAPI too — security of the pipeline, uncertainties in India-Pakistan relationship, cost of gas, self-sufficiency in India's indigenous production, etc. But the Indian leadership is visibly ecstatic about TAPI. In retrospect, what emerges from the dense high-level political and diplomatic traffic between Delhi and Ashgabat in the recent years is that our government knew much in advance that the U.S. was getting ready to bring TAPI out of the woodwork at some point — depending on the progression of the Afghan war — and that it would expect Delhi to play footsie.

Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found time to visit the drab Turkmen capital in a notable departure from his preoccupations with the Euro-Atlantic world. The wilful degradation of India-Iran ties by the present government and Dr. Singh's obstinate refusal to visit Iran also fall into perspective. Plainly put, our leadership decided to mark time and simply wait for TAPI to pop out of Uncle Sam's trouser pocket and in the meantime it parried, dissimulated and outright lied by professing interest in the IPI. The gullible public opinion was being strung along.

To be sure, TAPI is a big-time money-spinner and our government's energy pricing policies are notoriously opaque. Delhi will be negotiating its gas price “separately” with Ashgabat on behalf of the private companies which handle the project. That is certain to be the mother of all energy “negotiations” involving two countries, which figure at the bottom of the world ranking by Transparency International.

Energy security ought to have been worked out at the regional level. There was ample scope for it. The IPI was a genuine regional initiative. TAPI is being touted as a regional project by our government but it is quintessentially a U.S.-led project sheltered under Pax Americana, which provides a political pretext for the open-ended western military presence in the region. As long as foreign military presence continues in India's southwestern region, there will be popular resistance and that will make it a breeding ground for extremist and terrorist groups. India is not only shying away from facing this geopolitical reality but, in its zest to secure “global commons” with the U.S, is needlessly getting drawn into the “new great game.” Unsurprisingly, Delhi no more calls for a neutral Afghanistan. It has lost its voice, its moral fibre, its historical consciousness.

Finally, TAPI is predicated on the U.S. capacity to influence Pakistan. Bluntly speaking, TAPI counts on human frailties — that pork money would mellow regional animosities. But that is a cynical assumption to make about the Pakistani military's integrity.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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