Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmenistan: President's Pipe Dream Lives On

A deal to build a gas pipeline across Central Asia has been signed - now all the Turkmen leader has to do is find someone to build it
By Nyazik Ataeva

Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov's dream of bringing wealth to Central Asia with a gas pipeline across Afghanistan is still alive - but only just.

Earlier this month, he signed an agreement with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf to construct a pipeline to carry an estimated 15 billion cubic metres of gas from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad field to Kandahar in Afghanistan and on to the Pakistan port of Gvadar on the southern shore of the Arabian Sea.

This may sound encouraging, but so far there is little evidence that any construction company is interested in building the proposed pipeline, nor have investors been rushing to put the estimated two to three billion US dollars it will cost.

A tripartite commission comprising officials from the three countries met in Ashgabat on July 9 to discuss construction plans. An official from the Asian Development Bank reportedly told the session that it is willing to finance a feasibility study.

The possibility of such a scheme was first mooted in 1994, when the Argentinean company Bridas conceived the idea of a trans-Afghan pipeline. Niazov, however, preferred to work with the United States. The Texas company Unocal was then hired to build the project, receiving 54 per cent of shares in the Central Asia gas consortium, known as Centgas, which was set up to oversee construction.

However, work on the 1,500-kilometre development was delayed due to the unstable situation in Afghanistan, and the interest of potential investors dropped sharply following the rise of the Taleban in 1996. Two years later, citing growing risks within the country, Unocal backed out altogether.

Niazov refused to let go of his dream, though. He saw the Afghan project as a way of getting gas on to world markets without depending on Russia, which now controls all Turkmen routes to the West.

To this end Niazov made overtures to the Taleban, personally befriending its spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and providing the student militia with diplomatic support against the opposition Northern Alliance.

The removal of the Taleban has not adversely affected Niazov, who simply began courting their successors, taking every opportunity to deliver his message - that a trans-Afghan pipeline would bring enormous benefit to all parties involved.

According to official Turkmen sources, investors from the United States, Japan, and China have shown interest in building not only the gas pipeline but also one for oil along the same route.

However, the identity of these companies is unknown. Russian organisations such as Gazprom and Itera, who had looked into the project at an earlier stage, have refused to comment.

And officials in the US have suggested that American firms are unlikely to be involved. "There are currently no new interesting projects in the region," said Leonard Cobern, an official at the US energy ministry. "ExxonMobil is leaving Turkmenistan. They did not find anything, and have realised that they cannot work in this country. Chevron Texaco is not involved in Turkmenistan, as it has begun serious projects in Pakistan and Azerbaijan."

Investors are clearly nervous about the volatile security situation in the region. While there are signs of growing stability in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taleban, the protection of that part of the pipeline passing through the country will remain a headache.

The current administration only controls Kabul and several small regions where the US, Britain and other countries have a military presence. It is unlikely that the American army would help secure such a development.

Furthermore, India and Pakistan have been teetering on the brink of war over the disputed territory of Kashmir. If fighting were to break out, the pipeline project would be left with nowhere to go.

Nyazik Ataeva is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan

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