Afghanistan TAPIng Turkmenistan Into Security
An Afghan delegation headed by National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib arrived in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat on June 24. The focus of discussion was on developing relations between the two countries and establishing peace in Afghanistan. The two parties emphasized the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, along with the power transmission and fiber optic communication infrastructure that will be developed along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan path.
Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy
Turkmenistan’s first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, designed the country’s current “positive neutrality” policy a few years after independence from the Soviet Union. The country joined no alliances, except for international economic organizations, and acted as a mediator for feuding parties. The underlying belief for this strategy is that no one could be angry with Turkmenistan if they chose to court everyone. To this end, the nation limited its participation in international organizations. It is currently not a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, reduced its ties to Russia’s Commonwealth of Independent States to an “associate member,” and refused to join Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. The Central Asian country sees its foreign policy mostly in terms of economic policy. With the fourth largest share of gas reserves in the world, Turkmenistan sees TAPI as a way of playing a role in global politics, as well as stabilizing Afghanistan.
TAPI is Turkmenistan’s ambitious pipeline project routing Turkmen gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and is sponsored by Turkmengaz. The pipeline, if completed, should be able to carry up to 33 billion cubic meters of gas per annum, and theoretically will be finished in 2020. Of this, India and Pakistan would purchase 14 billion cubic meters each, while Afghanistan would buy five billion.
However, the pipeline has a long history of opaqueness and uncertainty. The issue is further compounded by its route through war-torn Afghanistan and insurgent-plagued Pakistani-Baluchistan. Currently, only Turkmenistan and Afghanistan have done any construction on the pipeline. According to a report in the Times of Islamabad citing unnamed sources, Pakistan said it will break ground on the pipeline in October, though Pakistani dissatisfaction with the negotiated price for Turkmen gas may yet delay it (or abandon it). Theoretically, the Turkmen section is complete; on the other hand, additional pipe has been ordered, which casts doubt on whether the 133 mile Turkmen section is indeed finished. Further complicating this picture is the Iranian hostility towards the project, given their own (long-delayed) pipeline project (the Peace Pipeline) connecting Iran, Pakistan, and India. Tehran has also advocated employing gas swaps as an alternative to TAPI. The potential plan for this would be for Iran to buy Turkmen gas, then transfer the equivalent to Pakistan through preexisting gas infrastructure.
Turkmenistan and Afghanistan: Future Impact
Afghanistan’s security situation is important to Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan fears the spread of instability due to its long and unstable border with Afghanistan; it also has not been the friendliest neighbor to the Kabul government. Along the lines of its neutrality policy, the Turkmens handed over 150 Afghan security troops to the Taliban after they fled into Turkmen territory. This came only a few weeks after a visit to Ashgabat by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. At the same time, Turkmenistan is working to support the Afghan government in Kabul by offering to help find diplomatic solutions between the government and Taliban forces. While positive neutrality may have kept Turkmenistan out of any specific orbit of the Great Powers, it has not yielded dividends in Turkmen policy towards Afghanistan. Turkmenistan, while it says it wishes to establish peace in Afghanistan (important for its own stability), TAPI is more a tool to export Turkmenistan’s own gas than provide an economic lever towards peace in Afghanistan. However, given the many delays and uncertainties accompanying the TAPI pipeline, one shouldn’t hold one’s breath hoping the Turkmens will save the day in Afghanistan.
Photo: Workers stand near a gas pipe during the launching ceremony of construction work on the Afghan section of a natural gas pipeline that will link Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, near Serhetabat/Adobe Stock