The leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the vice president of India gathered near the Turkmen city of Mary on December 13 to launch the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
It was reminiscent of December 14, 2009, when the leaders of Turkmenistan, China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan gathered in Saman-Depe, Turkmenistan, near the Uzbek border, to launch another gas pipeline.
There is a very big difference in the two launches, however.
The 2009 event in Saman-Depe marked the actual start of gas supplies from Turkmenistan, through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to China. The pipeline (the first of four) in this case was complete.
The 2015 event was more about a hope that many feel is misplaced. Not one section of pipe has been laid and there are formidable obstacles in financing and hazards along the proposed route.
To understand how difficult it would be to construct the 1,814-kilometer TAPI pipeline to eventually carry some 33 billion cubic meters of gas from southern Turkmenistan all the way to Fazilka, India, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, a panel discussion, to review the situation for TAPI as construction begins in Turkmenistan.
Moderating the panel was Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir. Participating from Ottawa was Dr. Robert Cutler, a senior research fellow with the Institute of European, Russian & Eurasian Studies at Carleton University. William Byrd, senior Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former country director for Afghanistan at the World Bank joined the conversation from Washington. And I was, of course, delighted to throw in some comments of my own.
The idea of TAPI has been around for two decades. From the Majlis to the Qishloq Ovozi blog, we've covered some aspects of this topic in recent months, so to keep things "fresh" here, we'll summarize earlier information and concentrate on newer developments.
The route is fraught with peril, as Byrd noted. "Certainly the security situation is really worrisome and the pipeline route actually goes through some of the more insecure parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the south areas, which basically the Taliban has a large degree of control over and also over areas where individual warlords have some influence."
And for the last few years, the security situation in northern Afghanistan, just across the border from Turkmenistan has been deteriorating rapidly. Questions about security for the pipeline start less than one kilometer inside Afghanistan from the Turkmen border. In 2015, militant groups -- Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- briefly captured villages right on the border with Turkmenistan.
And, Byrd added, the situation does not improve much when the route exits Afghanistan. "Let's also not forget," he said, "the pipeline goes through a pretty insecure part of Pakistan as well, [Balochistan] where there's been separatist movements for many decades and so you can't even say for sure that the pipeline is completely secure in parts of the Pakistan route.
Byrd suggested that, for TAPI to be built, some sort of arrangement with the Taliban, as well as the Afghan government, would be necessary, though it was noted during the discussion that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had pledged a 7,000-strong force to guard the pipeline and its construction.
Now to newer, non-security obstacles.
At various times during the TAPI project's history major international companies have expressed an interest in joining, and possibly managing, the project. That is no longer the case due largely to reasons just mentioned above.
So Turkmenistan's state gas company Turkmengaz has promised to contribute 85 percent of the cost of building the $10-billion pipeline.
Cutler asked, "For a country like Turkmenistan in which the gross domestic product is about $45 billion what sense does this make?"
Cutler also questioned the timetable. Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov confidently predicted at the TAPI launch that the pipeline would be functional by 2019.
But Cutler pointed to construction of the East-West pipeline, which runs from fields in eastern Turkmenistan to near the Caspian coast. "TAPI is more than twice as long and it will cost five times as much," Cutler said.
"Now recall that this [East-West pipeline] was announced in 2008 or so; it took seven years for this to be constructed," he added.
Cutler also reminded us that the East-West pipeline was internal, located solely inside Turkmenistan, whereas TAPI passes through four countries.
As Cutler explained, "You're going to need an organizational design, you're going to need specialists, you're going to need experts, it's not even clear, honestly, that the Turkmenistan government…has access to…the expertise that they would require for the construction of the pipeline."
And that is only the technical part of the project. Cutler also suggested that the $8.5 billion the Turkmen government has pledged translates to an obligation to raise that money by luring international investment into the project.
But, as Cutler said, "it's equally unclear, equally doubtful, that they [the Turkmen government] have the negotiating skills that would be required to craft a credible, legal, institutional, and organizational-infrastructural framework [for a pipeline project]."
And, concerning funding, Byrd said that, in his opinion, "the interesting thing is not related to Afghanistan but why, if this is so beneficial for India and Pakistan, why they're not contributing almost anything at all."
As it currently stands, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are actually obligated to each come up with five percent of the project's cost, so $500 million per country.
Cutler also explained that the estimated cost of the project, today, is $10 billion. "The costs of these projects tend to grow over time and not to diminish," and he recalled that in 2008 the cost of TAPI was estimated at $7.6 billion.
The discussion was not all gloom and doom, however. Valid points about the importance of the project to the region were discussed and that importance provides some guarantee that TAPI will not be forgotten any time soon. The panel discussed in greater detail all these topics and other matters.
An audio recording of the talk can be heard here.