How realistic is TAP gas pipeline?
Suddenly, after the oil and gas prospecting companies were driven out of the Tribal Areas by the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine, the Pakistan government has awarded the contract for the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline to the United States’ International Oil Company (IOC), with an estimated cost of $10 billion. The company has revealed that the contract for the 2,200-kilometre pipeline, scheduled for completion within three years, has been bagged by it.
If “security” was the central concern with regard to TAP pipeline, it has suddenly been “resolved”. The “authorities” in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have apparently assured the security of the project. At least two states, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are in the mood to respond positively to American diplomacy as it moves to outflank two rivals in the region: old Iran and new Russia. In Turkmenistan, the new President of Turkmenistan, Mr Berdymukhamedov, may be amenable too, but it is hard to tell.
America has been opposed to the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, while Russia, which takes Turkmenistan’s gas at cheapo rates, puts it into its international pipeline and sells it at a high price in Europe, is opposed to Turkmenistan selling gas to anyone else. Moscow cannot have been pleased by this new chessboard move on TAP pipeline, but America has seen advantage in making the move after what happened to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. It may also be responding to Russia’s resumption of spy flights over American strategic sites.
Earlier this month, the $7.5 billion Iran-India-Pakistan (IPI) gas pipeline was all but abandoned after Tehran fired the oil minister who had reportedly agreed to sell gas to Pakistan and India “at a discount”. Although the dismissed minister Mr Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh recently rejected claims that he had agreed to sell the IPI gas at a 30 percent discount, and insisted that “no agreement on price” had been reached, the hawkish elements opposed to selling the gas to Pakistan seem to have won the day. This has come in the backdrop of Tehran rumours that America was active in Balochistan against Iran as a tit-for-tat for what Iran was allegedly doing in Iraq.
The news that Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan will soon sit down together and sign the security contract has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The situation on the ground is not too good for any construction project which can be easily targeted, and it is not certain if Russia will fail in its manipulation of Turkmenistan to counter the move. Its hold on the late President Niyazov was based on the latter’s need for revenues and non-feasibility of projects that could replace Turkmenistan’s dependence on the Russian international gas pipeline.
Under Mr Niyazov, Russia’s oil giant Gazprom had become Turkmenistan’s main economic partner, buying nearly 70 percent of its annual natural gas output and re-exporting it to Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Europe at great profit. As a kind of counterpoise to Russia’s growing dominance, Mr Niyazov had boycotted all Russia-led regional groupings like the CIS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Community, and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. He was also not kind to Turkmenistan’s 160,000 ethnic Russians.
President Berdymukhamedov changed all that recently when he visited Moscow and offered the hand of friendship to Russia, vaguely promising to work together with Russia’s friends in the neighbourhood, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and being more cooperative on the disputes Turkmenistan has with Russia over the oil and gas assets of the Caspian Sea. But Mr Berdymukhamedov has also made overtures to the Americans who favour Turkmen gas going to Europe through Azerbaijan with whom too Turkmenistan has a quarrel over the Caspian Sea assets.
But this is nothing compared to the complications that exist on the terrain through which the pipeline will pass. The geography of terrorist raids in Afghanistan forbids all construction projects. The NATO states have so far failed to build the infrastructure of roads needed to take their development projects into the troubled south and south-eastern Afghanistan. The reason for this failure has been the ferocity of Taliban-Al Qaeda operations which don’t look like abating any time soon. In Pakistan, the less said the better about the insurgencies taking place in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Balochistan. In the latter case, the pipeline, ending at Gwadar, is actually cited as one of the causes of the insurgency!
The Pakistan army has moved into the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan but its ultimate success there is not yet a foregone conclusion. Pakistan may be eying the TAP pipeline as one of the “balancing projects” to the nuclear deal America has offered to India while leaving Pakistan high and dry. Both India and Pakistan need gas; and TAP offers as much of a chance to avoid a more intense energy crisis in the region as IPI did. *
Second Editorial: Dispute over Sikh shrine is dangerous
The Evacuee Trust Property Board (EPTB) of Lahore is faced with the occupation of a Sikh shrine by a group of hooligans, but is hesitant — almost like the way Islamabad hesitated over the Lal Masjid affair — to take action against them. Therefore it is quite possible that before General (Retd) Zulfiqar Ali Khan, formerly chief of WAPDA, decides to act, the opposition clerics might escalate the incident into a national crisis. Is President Musharraf aware of the potential danger in this development?
The Sikh temple in Lahore’s Naulakha Bazaar is the remains of Bhai Taro Singh who was known to be a patron of the poor. He died in 1745, harassed by a local ruler. The Sikh community built a temple in his honour which is now in the custody of the EPTB as alien property. The hooligans, who have trespassed into the temple, have reportedly written Muslim slogans on it and locked the Sikhs out of it. They claim that this was the tomb of one Pir Kaku Shah, a claim not supported by the local Muslim community.
Whatever the facts, General Khan should take no more time in deciding the matter unless he thinks the Sikh shrine is no longer evacuee property after 60 years. *
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