Uncle Sam, energy and peace in Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar
In the Orient, offspring don't rebuke parents, even if the latter are at fault
- especially in the post-Soviet space where Marxian formalism continues to
prevail as political culture. The sort of stern public rebuke bordering on
short shrift that Ashgabat administered to Moscow is extraordinary.
But then, Moscow tested Turkmen patience by trying to create confusion about
Ashgabat's policy of positive "neutrality" - building energy bridges to the
West alongside its thriving cooperation with Russia and China.
On Thursday, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry bluntly rejected any role for Russia
in the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project,
commonly known as TAPI. Ashgabat alleged that Moscow is spreading calumnies and
expressed the hope that "future statements by Russian officials will be guided
by a sense of responsibility and reality".
The reference was to a friendly and seemingly helpful statement by Russian
Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (who accompanied President Dmitry Medvedev to
the Turkmen capital last weekend) that Russian participation in the TAPI
figured in the latest Russian-Turkmen summit talks and "Gazprom may participate
in this project in any capacity - builder, designer, participant, etc ... If
Gazprom becomes a participant, then we will study possibilities of working in
The Turkmen Foreign Ministry said, "Turkmenistan views such statements as an
attempt to hamper the normal course of our country's cooperation in the energy
sector and call into question its obligations to its partners." It added that
there was "no agreement whatsoever" regarding Russian participation in the
The TAPI presents a knot of paradoxes and the Russians who hold the pulse of
the Central Asian energy scene would have sensed by now that Uncle Sam is close
to untying the knot, finally, after a decade-and-a-half of sheer perseverance.
The TAPI falls within the first circle of the Caspian great game. When it
appears that Russia all but checkmated the United States and the European
Union's plans to advance trans-Caspian energy projects bypassing Russia, a
thrust appears from the south and east opening up stunning possibilities for
Russia promptly began slouching toward the TAPI - which, incidentally, was
originally a Soviet idea but was appropriated by the United States no sooner
than the USSR disintegrated - against the backdrop of renewed interest in the
project recently among regional powers amid the growing possibility that Afghan
peace talks might reconcile the Taliban and that despite the Kashmir problem,
Pakistan and India wouldn't mind tangoing.
The TAPI pipeline runs on a roughly 1,600-kilometer route along the ancient
Silk Road from Turkmenistan's fabulous Dauletabad gas fields on the Afghan
border to Herat in western Afghanistan, then onto Helmand and Kandahar,
entering Pakistan's Quetta and turning east toward Multan, and ending up in
Fazilka on the Indian side of Pakistan's eastern border. An updated Asian
Development Bank (ADB) estimate of 2008 put the project cost for the pipeline
with an output of 33 bcm annually at $7.6 billion.
The signals from Ashgabat, Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi in recent weeks
uniformly underscored that the TAPI is in the final stage of take-off. India
unambiguously signed up in August. On Wednesday, the Pakistan government gave
approval to the project at a cabinet meeting in Islamabad. The ADB is open to
financing the project and is expected to be the project's "secretariat".
As things stand, there could be a meeting of the political leaderships of the
four participating countries in December to formally kick-start the TAPI.
The commencement of the TAPI is undoubtedly a defining moment for Turkmenistan
(which is keen to diversify export routes), for Afghanistan (which hopes to get
$300 million as transit fee annually and an all-round economic spin-off) and
for Pakistan and India (which face energy shortages).
However, the geopolitics trumps everything else. For the first time in six
decades, India and Pakistan are becoming stakeholders in each other's
development and growth - and it is taking place under American watch. The
rapprochement would positively impact the Afghan chessboard where Pakistan and
India are locked in a futile, utterly wasteful zero-sum game.
NATO enters energy business
The most important geopolitical factor, perhaps, is that the US is the
"ideologue" of the project and its Great Central Asia strategy - aiming at
rolling back Russian and Chinese influence in the region and forging the
region's links with South Asia - is set to take a big step forward.
India and Pakistan, traditional allies of Russia and China, are in essence
endorsing the Great Central Asia strategy. It signifies a tectonic shift in the
geopolitics and immensely strengthens the US's regional policies. India and
Pakistan are becoming stakeholders in a long-term US presence in the region.
Equally, NATO is set to take on the role of the provider of security for the
TAPI, providing the alliance an added raison d'etre for its long-term presence
in Central Asia. NATO's role in energy security has been under discussion for
some time. Russia used to robustly contest the concept, but its thoughts are
mellowing as the reset with the US gains traction.
Broadly, the NATO position was outlined by the alliance's former secretary
general Jaap de Hoop Schaffer in January last year when he said:
pipelines is first and foremost a national priority. And it should stay like
that. NATO is not in the business of protecting pipelines. But when there's a
crisis, or if a certain nation asks for assistance, NATO could, I think, be
instrumental in protecting pipelines on land.
long-term "strategic cooperation" agreement between NATO and Karzai's
government which is expected to be signed at the alliance's summit in Lisbon on
November 19 now assumes an altogether profound meaning.
Besides, the TAPI is also a "Western" project, as several NATO countries
involved in Afghanistan's stabilization - the US, Britain, Canada, France,
Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Norway - are also members of the ADB and TAPI
is piloted by the US and Japan, two major shareholders in the ADB.
More important, the BP Statistical Review 2009 puts Turkmenistan's known gas
reserves so far at a staggering 7.94 trillion cubic meters (TCM). A 2008 audit
of the gigantic South Yolotan-Osman field in western Turkmenistan by the UK
firm Gaffney, Cline & Associates estimated the reserves of this field alone
at anywhere between 4 to 14 TCM of gas. Many more fields in Turkmenistan are
yet to be audited. Without doubt, the propaganda that Turkmenistan lacks gas
reserves to supply markets beyond Russia and China stands exposed.
And the curious part is that South Yolotan-Osman - and the gas reserves in
Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan - can be linked to the TAPI and a TAPI
branch line can be very easily extended from Quetta to the Pakistani port of
Gwadar, in which case Europe can finally tap Central Asian energy reserves
directly, dispensing with the Russian middleman.
Obama has style
Quite obviously, the TAPI meshes well with the Afghan endgame. Karzai used to
work for Unocal before he surfaced in Kabul as a statesman in 2001, and Unocal
originally promoted TAPI in the mid-1990s. "Good" Taliban were all along
enthusiastic about the TAPI project provided the US traded with them as Afghan
The US initially warmed up to the Taliban in the early 1990s as a stabilizing
factor that could put an end to the chaotic mujahideen era and help facilitate
the transportation of the Caspian and Central Asian energy to the world market
via Pakistani ports. Senior Taliban officials were hosted by the US State
Department and things were indeed going spectacularly well until militant "Arab
fighters" began influencing the Taliban leadership and spoiled everything.
The Americans dithered far too long in according recognition to the Taliban and
Osama bin Laden grabbed the window of opportunity. Nonetheless, there is reason
to believe that the contacts continued all the way up to the eve of the
al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks.
The "good" Taliban are in business again. NATO aircraft ferry them to Kabul so
that they can urgently talk peace.
From the beginning, the US saw the TAPI's potential to bring Pakistan and India
together and also bind the two South Asian adversaries to it, thus providing an
underpinning to its overall Asian strategy. Moscow and Beijing would have a
sense of unease about what is unfolding. The recent Moscow commentaries display
some irritation with New Delhi. Last weekend there was an unusually preachy
opinion-piece on India's "Chechnya" - Kashmir.
The plain truth is that the TAPI revives the Silk Road, which can also unlock
Afghanistan's multi-trillion dollar untold mineral wealth and transport the
hidden treasures to Gwadar port for shipment to faraway lands.
If George W Bush were handling Barack Obama's job today, he would probably
thread into his forthcoming November visit to New Delhi a regional summit where
the TAPI gets formalized as a historic American initiative in regional
But that isn't Obama's style - descending from the skies wearing a windbreaker
and proclaiming premature victory from the deck of an aircraft carrier. He
trusts "smart power".
Obama would intellectualize the TAPI as the harbinger of peace in one of the
most destitute regions on the planet - which it indeed is. He would then
probably sit down and explain that what seems a setback in the Caspian great
game is ultimately for China's and Russia's larger good. A "stable" Afghanistan
is in their interests, after all.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.