The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline or TAPI is a 1,680 km (1,050 m) natural gas line originating in the Daulatabad gas fields in southeastern Turkmenistan. It crosses Afghanistan and continues on through Pakistan ending in Fazilka, a northwestern Indian city close to the India-Pakistan border. TAPI is one of the largest pipelines in the world projected to transport over 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas annually upon its completion in 2014.
The BBC reports that an intergovernmental agreement was signed on December 11, 2010 in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat by three presidents – Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan – and India’s energy minister, Murli Deora which set the project into motion. TAPI is a $7.6 billion gas pipeline backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) although originally assessed by Turkmenistan at $3.3 billion with some estimates as high as $10 billion.
The idea of a natural gas pipeline connecting South Asia to the energy abundant Central Asian countries has been around since the mid-90s, but the notion of any pipelines going through the Taliban controlled Afghanistan was not an option despite the interest expressed by the Islamists hoping to extract transit fees. As Andrew E. Kramer of the New York Times writes, “the plan was revived after the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and received backing from the Asian Development Bank, which financed feasibility studies.”
Sharmila Faruqui of the News nicely sums up the political background for TAPI. In March 1995 a memorandum of understanding between the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan for a pipeline project was signed. In late December 2002, a new deal on the pipeline was signed by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2005, the Asian Development Bank submitted the final version of a feasibility study designed by British company Penspen, and in April 2008, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan signed a framework agreement to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan.
As a major energy exporter in the region, Turkmenistan has been engaged in geopolitical and strategic balancing between China, Russian and the West. In 2010 Russia and Turkmenistan were locked in a price dispute, which led Russia to reduce its imports of Turkmen gas from more than 40 bcm to about 11 bcm. Russia also wants to tap into TAPI. During President Dmitry Medvedev’s trip to Turkmenistan in October 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin who accompanied Medvedev on the trip said that the Gazprom gas giant could join the project. Meanwhile, China already contracted to purchase some 40 bcm of gas annually and in 2009 provided Turkmenistan with a $3 billion loan for developing South Yolotan, the country’s largest gas field.
TAPI has a southern competitor, although not very likely to materialize, known as IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline). Iran has also been hoping to export its natural gas eastward from the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, one of the largest in the world. It is currently frozen due to the lack of international support although Pakistan keeps flirting with Iran about the subject. The U.S. has encouraged TAPI as an alternative to IPI.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Affairs Robert O. Blake Jr. on his recent trip to Turkmenistan on February 17, 2011 expressed U.S. government support for TAPI. At a press conference in Ashgabat he said “we think that good progress has been made, but certainly many difficult issues remain to be solved and the United States is committed to doing what we can to encourage this project and to facilitate discussions with our own companies and perhaps others to help this project to come to fruition.”
Even with many obstacles out of the way and solid plans put in place for its realization, TAPI is an ambitious project bordering on nothing short of a miracle, if achieved. It would deliver hydrocarbons to energy starved South Asian markets while potentially stabilizing the region. The Express Tribune writes that TAPI would bring economic benefits to Pakistan and Afghanistan, both in terms of the fees the project yields and the supply of gas that would bolster their economies and provide jobs. It would also expand economic ties between India and Pakistan, leading to greater engagement between the two countries.
Notwithstanding its potential, the pipeline is set to run through some of the most hazardous territory in the world – the Herat and Kandahar provinces of Afghanistan are the strongholds of the Taliban. It also passes through the volatile area of Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan as well as the tense border between India and Pakistan. Afghan president Hamid Karzai promised to “put in efforts to ensure security both during construction and after completing the project” while the country’s Mines and Industry Minister confirmed that, “five thousand to 7,000 security forces will be deployed to safeguard the pipeline route” when the construction starts in 2012. The government says it would bury the pipeline up to two meters underground there to ensure its safety.