The Taliban delegation to Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan: what future for TAPI pipeline after Taliban visit?

On 6 February 2021, a delegation from the Taliban visited the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. The meeting, held with Turkmenistan’s foreign affairs minister Raşit Meredow, related to the construction of the TAPI pipeline, which aims to connect several countries within the region. 

This article was originally published on Novastan’s French website on 24 February 2021.

Visits of this kind don’t happen every day: on 6 February, Taliban leaders held talks with Turkmenistan’s minister of foreign affairs Raşit Meredow. During the talks, both parties emphasised the importance of ensuring stability and peace in Afghanistan. In addition, they discussed the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline.

Turkmenistan has never ceased to support this initiative, which dates back to a memorandum signed in 1995. This pipeline would allow Turkmenistan to be less dependent on the Chinese market and diversify gas exportation routes to reach South-Asia countries. The TAPI pipeline project would pass through Afghanistan, Pakistan then India, a route which seems to attract endless complications. 

The Taliban (once again) vouches for the security of the pipeline

Following this meeting, the Taliban declared their support for the pipeline project, which they believe would contribute to development and prosperity in Afghanistan. In this respect, they reiterated intentions they had already expressed in 2016. The declaration included a pledge not to jeopardise the constructions of facilities and infrastructure that could benefit their country. The statement came not long after an attack on regional electric power infrastructure, connecting various Central Asia countries to the Afghan territory. 

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This declaration was made after negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which had started in September 2020 in Qatar, resumed in January. Their objective is finding a compromise to ensure the country’s stability. This northward expansion is an opportunity to gain legitimacy from the rest of the world and to be seen as consistent and essential contributors to the peace-making process. However, even if peace were achieved, it may not guarantee the construction of the pipeline. 

As the American media Eurasianet notes, given the dominant role that the Taliban play in the region’s security, Turkmenistan is directly affected by events that take place in Afghanistan.

In a RFE/RL analysis relating to the visit, the journalist and regional specialist Bruce Pannier evokes many details, including the Taliban’s practices over the past months. Contrary to what they had promised at the end of 2016, the Taliban destroyed strategic regional infrastructure, including electrical. So with this precedent of going back on pledges, it is difficult to see the Taliban as a partner reliable and consistent enough to ensure the success of the pipeline project. 

No US facilitation

One year after signing an agreement with the Taliban, the USA decided not to interfere in the talks between Turkmenistan and the Taliban. In a statement to the American magazine Newsweek on 19 February, the Department of State denied facilitating the recent meeting: “The United States played no role in the Taliban’s visit to Turkmenistan and has no position to share on those discussions.”

“The United States has long supported efforts by Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors to strengthen their connectivity, boost economic coordination, and improve regional transportation infrastructure, including energy infrastructure,” the statement added. Similarly, in October 2020, in a joint statement with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, the American government said it continued to support energy infrastructure in the region. 

It is possible that this meeting between the Taliban and Turkmenistan will succeed in pushing forward a project that has been stopped and started so many times. The decision to welcome the Afghan Taliban allows Turkmenistan to pursue a stable project and to reassure investors, including private Afghan, Pakistani and Indian companies, as well as the Islamic Development Bank

TAPI’s phantom construction

In effect, for practical reasons, construction has not progressed quickly, if at all. During the meeting on 6 February, Turkmenistan did not release an official date or any information regarding the financing of the project. The Afghan news outlet Tolonews explained that, as of January 2020, construction had not started in Afghanistan. The Diplomat reported that this was enough to curb the optimism of certain countries who, in 2016, hoped for completion by 2018.

In 2015, Turkmenistan organised a ceremony lavishly celebrating the start of construction of the Turkmen section of the pipeline. Now, many experts question whether this section has actually been completed, when it was supposed to be ready by 2019. Endlessly pushed back, the TAPI project could quite possibly never reach completion. 

Many factors cast doubt on the viability of this project, making former optimism seem outdated. In an April 2019 article, RFE/RL noted that Turkmenistan had ordered additional pipes to construction sites despite stating construction on its territory had already been completed. This led the American media to conclude that, taking into account the volume of material purchased, the installation was far from being finished. In this context, it is difficult to imagine how the Afghan construction could have started, as no prior preparation had been completed. 

Other obstacles

Even presuming that the Turkmen section has been completed, that doesn’t at all guarantee the certainty of the project on the other side of the border. From a political standpoint, the support coming from Pakistan and India has been dependent on Turkmenistan’s pledge to decrease the price of the natural gas it exports. 

Accordingly, Pakistan has explicitly said that its participation in this project depended on a reduction in gas prices. Last June, Islamabad expressed its intent to revise certain terms of the contract that tied it to Turkmenistan, especially the clauses concerning the responsibility of repair in the case of an accident that might take part on the Afghan territory. The German news source Deutsche Welle published an in-depth analysis on this subject, which suggested that Pakistan’s demands have not been observed for the moment and remain an obstacle, delaying completion of the pipeline. Many of the experts interviewed in the piece asserted that the meeting on 6 February could be used as leverage by the Pakistani government in upcoming negotiations.

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Finally, from a legal standpoint, The Diplomat reported that an Afghan law, voted into effect in 2019, delayed the start of construction. Whether the problems arise for security, legal or political reasons, the project seems to remain uncertain, facing both internal and external hurdles. While the meeting between Turkmenistan and the Taliban remained an attempt to prove commitment towards the project, the project is substantial in serving Turkmenistan’s interests. 

A crucial project for Turkmenistan 

The country, boasting some of the greatest natural gas reserves in the world, depends almost entirely on the sale of this commodity to uphold its economy. This situation becomes all the more problematic for Ashgabat which has, for the moment, only one major client, China. According to the American Trade Administration, in 2019, an overwhelming percentage of Turkmen oil was exported to the Chinese market via the Central Asian pipeline, shared with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The price of this oil was particularly low in 2016, after China negotiated a lower rate in exchange for investments in pipeline construction.  

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Even though Turkmenistan relaunched oil exportation to the Russian market in 2019, Gazprom remains just a minor contributor to the Turkmen economy. 

As such, the Turkmen government has every interest in ensuring greater security for its Afghan neighbour. For the Central Asian state, it would ensure that construction go ahead unhindered and, in the long term, secure the two countries’ shared energy infrastructure. This project has become even more critical as China has decreased Turkmen oil importation to favour their neighbours, as the Foreign Policy Institute, a US-based think tank, analyses in a 2020 report.

Zenon Bekdouche

Translated from French by Alice Coveney

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