The TAPI Pipeline and Paths to Peace in Afghanistan
When, on December 10th, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani returned to Kabul from Islamabad, he was greeted by a Taliban attack that killed more than fifty people at the Kandahar airbase and the resignation of his intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, who cited a “lack of agreement on some policy matters.” The previous day, Nabil had published a Facebook post that made it clear what those disagreements were. In Islamabad, Ghani had attended the annual conference of the Heart of Asia Process, a regional platform to support Afghanistan, co-chaired by Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif repeated a public assurance he had given before, that, far from supporting the Taliban, Pakistan considered that “the enemies of Afghanistan are the enemies of Pakistan.” Yet, at the same time, as Nabil pointed out in his post, Taliban operating with impunity from Pakistan were spilling “thousands of liters of our compatriots’ blood.”
At the October, 2014, Heart of Asia meeting, in Beijing, Ghani had agreed that Pakistan would be the next chair, in the hope that this would persuade Islamabad to coöperate with efforts to reduce the level of violence and press the Taliban into negotiations. When those efforts failed to curb the Taliban’s fierce 2015 offensive or to produce any effective peace process, confidence in the government plummeted. Spectacular bomb blasts in Kabul, in August, and the Taliban’s temporary capture of Kunduz, in late September, heightened tension further. Ghani’s attempted rapprochement with Pakistan had already earned him accusations of treason from former President Hamid Karzai. Popular hostility toward Pakistan ran so high in Afghanistan that Pakistani diplomats felt unable to leave their embassy in Kabul safely. Though the entire purpose of the Heart of Asia Process was to establish “a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan in a secure and stable region,” anti-Pakistan pressure on Ghani kept him from deciding to attend the Islamabad meeting until the last minute. A video conference with the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, discussions with the United States, and appeals from Pakistani Pashtun nationalists sympathetic to Afghanistan finally offered him sufficient political cover.
Four days later, when Ghani returned from Turkmenistan, where had attended a ground-breaking ceremony for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline, the reception was dramatically different. Ghani met with youth at the Presidential palace, and many provincial governments held celebratory public meetings. When (and if) completed, the pipeline will carry thirty-three billion cubic metres of natural gas per year from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to India. Optimistically scheduled to be completed in 2019, TAPI could earn Afghanistan four hundred million dollars a year in transit fees, as well as meeting enormous energy needs in Pakistan and India. Kabul may benefit even sooner from the power-transmission lines of a project named CASA 1000, scheduled to open in 2017, which will bring hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over Afghanistan’s mountains to Pakistan. As Ghani himself observed, social-media posts with the hashtag #TAPI, in English, Pashto, and Dari, welcomed the project and showed celebratory events across the country. Logar province, just south of Kabul, inaugurated a “TAPI Park” in the provincial center of Pul-i-Alam. The government organized most of these events, but it could not have done so if their message had not coincided with a public mood.
Building a natural-gas pipeline and building a peace process with Islamist insurgents might seem like quite different projects, but it was no coincidence that Ghani, Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif, and other leaders were crisscrossing South and Central Asia in support of both. On December 23rd, Ghani left for Azerbaijan and Turkey, stops along the proposed Lapis Lazuli Corridor, which would connect Afghanistan to the Mediterranean through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. That route would finally enable Afghanistan to connect to the sea without dependence on Pakistan, Iran, or Russia. By December 25th, Ghani had returned to Kabul to greet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had stopped on his way back from Moscow to dedicate the new Indian-built Afghan parliament building. That afternoon, Modi arranged an unannounced meeting with Sharif, in Lahore. On December 27th, Ghani received Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif in Kabul, where they “agreed to continue the peace process with groups of Taliban that are ready for negotiation and reconciliation and to act against those groups that resort to terrorist actions and violence.” According to leaks from Ghani’s office, he set three conditions: that the Taliban participate in talks as a group, not as an emirate or an alternative government; that the negotiations safeguard Afghanistan’s democratic institutions; and that Pakistan show its genuine commitment to the process by taking action by March, 2016, to prevent the Taliban from launching another spring offensive from their bases in Pakistan.
For twenty years, peace and connectivity have been the twin poles of an effort to halt endemic instability in the region, which above all requires a sustainable way to support the Afghan state. The July, 2012, Tokyo International Conference on Afghanistan issued a declaration on a “Partnership for Self-Reliance in Afghanistan” between the Afghan government and its donors, who committed themselves to working toward “a peaceful, stable and self-sustaining Afghanistan” based on “sustainable economic growth and development and fiscal self-reliance.” But the diplomats who drafted this declaration may not have realized how challenging that would be. When the imperial powers demarcated and subsidized the Afghan buffer state, in the late nineteenth century, they built fiscal dependence into the bargain.
Afghanistan’s development into an aid-dependent rentier state, during the first half of the Cold War, followed by thirty-seven years of hot war (so far) have only increased its aid dependence. The total domestic revenue of the Afghan state is projected to reach about 1.6 billion dollars in 2015, covering less than a third of recurrent government expenditures. Most development projects and security expenditures are implemented directly by donors, outside the government budget. Of the projected 5.1 billion dollars of total 2015 expenditure projected by the World Bank, 3.8 billion, or seventy-three per cent will go to security. The Afghan government contribution is estimated at four hundred and eleven million dollars, or about eleven per cent of the budgeted security expenditure. The Department of Defense estimates that in 2015 Afghanistan’s security forces will have required a total of 5.4 billion dollars, twenty-three per cent of Afghanistan’s estimated G.D.P. of twenty-three billion dollars. According to the World Bank, which counts only on-budget security expenditures, just five other countries have military expenditures of more than five per cent of G.D.P., the highest figure being the fifteen per cent spent by oil-rich Oman.
The first order of business to make Afghanistan more self-sufficient is to reduce the threat level to the state through an internationally backed political settlement with the Taliban and Pakistan. This was Ghani’s main goal in Islamabad, where he met with Pakistan, China, and the U.S. to discuss next steps in the peace process. Reducing the threat could make it possible to downsize the Afghan National Security Forces to a level that Afghanistan could fund from a sustainable domestic economy. After General Sharif’s December 27th visit, the next step will be a meeting of the “quad” that the two sides agreed would manage the peace process: Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S., and China. The four countries are institutionalizing this format as a steering committee for the process.
Even if the peace process should have some preliminary success, Afghanistan will be no closer to a productive economy than it was before 2001, despite billions of dollars of aid. That aid has privileged immediately visible results in the service of military objectives over creating conditions for long-term economic expansion. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “Most assessments suggest that Afghanistan’s economy will not grow rapidly enough in the next five years to allow the Afghan government to assume a significantly larger share of the cost of security.” War-related expenditures created a bubble economy, but without them demand is too small to drive economic growth or sustain the employment already created—witness the flight of much of the urban middle class, whose youth, with the help of smugglers who have opened up their own Lapis Lazuli Corridor, are washing up on Aegean shores and trekking north, across Europe, in search of security and a better life. This landlocked country can access the markets it needs for growth only through cross-border trade and transit, which require both investment in infrastructure and changes in Afghanistan’s relations to its neighbors.
Afghanistan’s only transit route to a deep-water port has been through Pakistan to Karachi. The 2010 Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), in part the result of the efforts of the late U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, facilitates that access, or at least will do so when fully implemented. Before 1947, though, Afghanistan enjoyed a land connection to India’s entrepôts via the Grand Trunk Road to Delhi, which is about a hundred kilometres closer to Kabul than is Karachi. Modi’s Christmas day, with breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Delhi, might have been designed to illustrate the point. The violence of partition and the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has kept that border closed since then. Holbrooke, for whom I worked as adviser during his tenure as U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, used to remark that India and Pakistan had to work really hard to keep their trade at its current low level—total bilateral trade amounted to one per cent of Pakistan’s G.D.P. and 0.1 per cent of India’s in 2014. Pakistan’s civilian leaders recognize how much their country stands to gain from opening the border, but to the military and hardline nationalists that would signal a normalization of relations with India and an abandonment of Pakistan’s national cause in Kashmir.
To support such coöperation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out the U.S.’s New Silk Road (N.S.R.) Strategy during the U.N. General Assembly in September, 2011. The U.S. included both TAPI and CASA 1000 in the N.S.R., but Washington did not offer the financing or security guarantees needed to implement them. In early 2015, however, suffering from the deep recession hitting Russia as a result of both international sanctions over Ukraine and the falling price of oil, the Russian state energy conglomerate Gazprom cut Russian gas purchases from Turkmenistan from ten to four billion cubic metres and failed to pay its bills. This came on top of a unilateral reduction in imports by Gazprom in 2009, which came with so little notice that it caused a pipeline explosion, temporarily halting the flow of all Turkmen gas to Russia. The resulting loss of much of its chief market pushed Turkmenistan to promise financing for TAPI, though at a level some doubt it can sustain.
Elsewhere, China has taken the lead. Already Turkmenistan’s biggest gas customer, through an East-West pipeline inaugurated in 2009, this year Beijing established the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, in which India is the second-largest shareholder (8.3 per cent, compared to China’s 29.8 per cent). China has announced plans to invest two hundred billion dollars, in just the next three years, in energy, transport, and other forms of infrastructure connecting China’s west and southwest to global markets. China’s Silk Road New Economic Belt will link China to Central Asia and onward to the Mediterranean and Europe. To the south and southeast, the Maritime Silk Road will connect major ports on the Indian Ocean, from Africa to Indonesia. The forty-six-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) announced by President Xi Jinping during his visit to Islamabad in April, 2015, will link the two into a single program, which the Chinese call One Belt, One Road: OBOR.
The published maps of OBOR show it going around rather than connecting to Afghanistan and India, but the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told the December, 2015, Islamabad ministerial of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul Processthat “China welcomes Afghanistan and other countries involved in the [Heart of Asia] process to actively participate in the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative and supports Afghanistan to integrate into the spring tide of regional development at an early date.” In private discussions, Chinese officials have said that “other countries” could include India. The photograph of President Ghani, Prime Minister Sharif, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, and Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari joining hands to inaugurate the construction of TAPI signals that Pakistan-India coöperation in Afghanistan is no longer taboo.
For the first time, there is a potentially significant economic payoff to overcoming disputes in this region, but the rocky course of President Ghani’s efforts to accelerate both a political settlement and regional coöperation illustrates the obstacles. Pakistan’s failure to restrain the Taliban’s military offensive, combined with the revelation, earlier this year, that the country concealed the April, 2013, death of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, convinced Kabul that Islamabad was still backing the Taliban militarily. Pakistan charged that the Afghan government could not decide if it wanted it to persuade the Taliban to join negotiations or to wage war against them. For the first time, a Taliban dissident group openly challenged the legitimacy of the group’s leader, while other groups carried out atrocities in the name of the so-called Islamic State. Taliban groups continued to take territory from the government in Helmand and elsewhere, sometimes fighting against and sometimes allying with foreign militants. The U.S., China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are soon to undertake consultations on how to relaunch the peace process, but continued Taliban military advances in Afghanistan, without Pakistani efforts to restrain them, could cause a breakdown at any time.
Not just peace but also connectivity is tangled up in political and territorial disputes. After Ghani’s visit to Islamabad in November, 2014, the Pakistani establishment dismissed Afghanistan’s request for transit trade with India, and Kabul withdrew its offer to help Pakistan connect to Central Asia. India officially objected to CPEC, characterizing it as a Chinese project about which it was not consulted and protesting that it runs through disputed territories. (CPEC runs through the Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan, lands that were possessions of the Maharaja of Kashmir before 1947, and which India claims.)
India is investing in another route. It is collaborating with Iran on a trade-and-transit corridor from Chabahar, an Iranian port on the Gulf of Oman, outside the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan, and into Afghanistan. The lifting of U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran, under the nuclear deal, could free up additional investment for this route and allow the U.S. to participate. Along with an eventual Lapis Lazuli Corridor, all of these routes could contribute to dynamism in a revived region, but only if a peace process with the Taliban lessens the political risk of investment. It will not happen automatically or easily, but these projects provide incentives for coöperation. OBOR, a gamble on which China has doubled down, gives Beijing a strong interest in assuring that Pakistan and Afghanistan coöperate to end the Taliban insurgency. TAPI creates incentives for India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to do the same. Putting these projects together and adding one more could change the face of the region: as a Pakistani political leader argued in a recent off-the-record discussion in Delhi, connecting CPEC to India would be “truly transformational.”
Peace and stability in Afghanistan does not require resolution of the Kashmir conflict and other Afghanistan-Pakistan issues, such as the status of the Durand Line, the 1893 boundary between the two countries that Afghanistan has never accepted. Such a resolution is, practically speaking, impossible. But Pakistan could look to its all-weather friend China for an example of how to get on with business despite frozen conflicts. In late October, NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where I work, sent a report on OBOR to the Chinese U.N. mission. On October 29th, after examining a map we had included, the mission informed us, “We can not accept a report with Taiwan and Mainland in different color.” Just more than a week later, on November 7th, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou shook hands in Singapore. China had become Taiwan’s top trade partner, accounting for about forty per cent of exports, or roughly a hundred and thirty billion dollars a year—equivalent to more than a quarter of Taiwan’s G.D.P. Neither China nor Taiwan has conceded anything on the issue of One China/Two Chinas, but both have nonetheless pursued mutually beneficial policies. TAPI, OBOR, and other regional projects provide economic incentives for India and Pakistan to suspend or limit pursuit of the Kashmir dispute, for Afghanistan to suspend or limit pursuit of claims on the 1893 Durand line, and the entire region to collaborate to end the Taliban insurgency. Other than powerful interests living off the war economy, most Afghans have no need of such incentives. As Jafar Haand, a broadcaster with the Voice of America Afghanistan Service, tweeted along with a photo of the newly inaugurated TAPI park, in Pul-i-Alam, “People in #Logar welcome #TAPI project. Imagine how #Afghans are #peaceloving nation and sick of wars.”
This article was originally published in the New Yorker on December 30, 2015