Turkmenistan pushes forward with TAPI gas pipeline project

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

TAPI will stretch 1,840km. The Iranian regime fiercely opposes the project. [Alistair Hamilton]

TAPI will stretch 1,840km. The Iranian regime fiercely opposes the project. [Alistair Hamilton]

ASHGABAT -- Turkmen officials are working with their foreign counterparts to push forward with the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline.

Construction of the Turkmen section of the TAPI pipeline began in December 2015.

The pipeline's capacity could reach 33 billion cubic metres of gas per year. It is expected to run through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Multan and the Indian city of Fazilka.

All four countries stand to benefit. Turkmenistan desperately is seeking customers besides just China and Russia, which have been able to pay very low prices because Turkmenistan lacks alternatives. Afghanistan wants both natural gas and the transit fees for a pipeline traversing its territory. Pakistan and India have been plagued with energy shortages for years.

Pre-construction work, such as de-mining and land acquisition, on the Afghan section of the pipeline started in February 2018. Construction in Afghanistan is expected to begin in early 2021, according to a September report by Caspian News.

Construction of the Pakistani section is set to begin in 2020.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Vidhu P. Nair, India's new ambassador to Turkmenistan, on September 10 discussed "solutions for completing the construction of the transnational gas pipeline", state television channel Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) reported.

Berdymukhamedov on September 18 discussed the pipeline with Pakistani President Arif Alvi over the phone, according to TDH, the Turkmen state news agency.

The international engagement comes amid an increase in domestic discussions on the construction of the pipeline this year.

Forging onward

Turkmenistan's drive to advance TAPI work is no accident, said Vladimir, an economics correspondent from Ashgabat who asked not to be identified by his surname.

"In publicising what it has accomplished on its portion of the construction of the gas pipeline, it's as though Turkmenistan signalling to its partners that the time has come for you to move on from saying you support the project and understand its importance and start doing real work to lay down pipe," he said.

In discussing the construction, prospects, benefits and problems with the financing and security of the TAPI pipeline, Turkmenistan is demonstrating its commitment and desire for results, the analyst said.

"From Turkmenistan's perspective, on the whole, it would seem that they [Afghanistan, Pakistan and India] aren't doing enough to take meaningful action," he said.

This is what Berdymukhamedov had in mind during his phone call with Alvi when he expressed hope that construction on the gas pipeline would begin soon in Pakistan, Vladimir said.

"You could say that Turkmenistan is single-handedly taking on the entire burden of TAPI, while, unfortunately, the partners are remaining on the sidelines,” he said.

Turkmenistan is close to completing its 244km-long portion of the pipeline, according to Rovshen Khallyyev, a spokesman for Turkmengaz, which is serving as the leader of the TAPI Ltd. consortium that was formed in 2015.

"Meanwhile, [construction] work hasn't even started on the Afghan (774km) or Pakistani (826km) sections," he said.

Afghanistan is the weak link, although Turkmenistan is working to bolster Kabul's participation, according to Khallyyev.

Afghanistan is trying to end more than 40 years of war through peace talks. The ceaseless fighting has shattered its economy.

Turkmenistan's vigorous participation helped lead to a memorandum of understanding regarding the selection of land parcels on the Afghan part of the pipeline, he said.

"Turkmenistan is taking unprecedented steps to make its project partners more active and, most important, increase the confidence of foreign backers," Khallyyev said.

Turkmenistan's efforts will not be in vain and the TAPI gas pipeline will drive peace and stability in the region, predicted Vladimir the economics correspondent from Ashgabat.

For their part, the Afghan Taliban have vowed not to interfere with the project in areas under their control, he noted.

"There were many, many discussions about TAPI for 20-odd years, but it's only now that we're starting to see prospects that it will be built," said Vladimir.

Iranian opposition

Ashgabat is aware that TAPI is a competitor to the planned Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and that Tehran will do its best to interfere with the completion of the project, Khallyyev said.

The gas pipeline from Iran is almost 1,000km longer than TAPI, but Tehran is attempting to attract investors with the claim that its pipeline will cost about $3 billion (10.5 billion TMT) less to build, according to Khallyyev.

"Ashgabat commentators believe that Iran is using unacceptable gambits in the battle for the South Asian gas markets," he said.

He pointed to statements made in February 2018 by Mohammad Ayub Alizayee, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan.

Even though the Taliban leadership have pledged not to sabotage TAPI, Alizayee said that the Iranian regime trained and armed him and his men and directed them to attack the pipeline.

Rather than carry out that mission, Alizayee's unit surrendered to authorities.

"The Taliban field commander made that statement in 2018, when there was an announcement about the start of construction on the Afghan portion of TAPI,” Khallyyev said.

Over the course of more than 20 years, Tehran has never commented on TAPI, which suggests that the field commander was telling the truth, he said.

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