Kabul’s Dark Nights and the Dream of a New Silk Route

This article was published by Global South Development Magazine

Kabul’s Dark Nights and the Dream of a New Silk Route

The electricity pylons that transmit electricity from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to light major regions of Afghanistan were blown up by extremists who operate in the northern region. The darkness in Kabul continued until the Afghan National Forces battled the insurgent group for more than 20 days to recapture the area and restore the electricity pylons.

On top of the electricity problem there is another challenge the residents of Kabul have to grapple with: disruption in access to the Internet due to fiber cable breakdown of Insta Telecom- a major internet service provider in Kabul.

Call it a new warfare technique/strategy or deterrence instrument, the extremists do not cease to exploit the disadvantages/or vulnerabilities of the government to enrage the National Unity Government team & inflict social and economic costs to the Afghan society. According to a startling report by AFP, the Taliban have demanded a “protection tax” in return for no-damage to telecom companies present in Taliban stronghold areas. The demanded “protection tax” equals to 10 % tax collected by the government. The telecom companies should pay 10 % of protection tax in order to keep their service running in areas controlled by the Taliban.

Extending their reach and targeting private companies to finance their war puts a serious question mark on their intentions for the much expected peace talks. These harsh realities therefore pose the imminent question: can the government ensure the security of mega investment projects such as the TAPI gas pipeline?

Construction on the TAPI project started in Turkmenistan on 13 December 2015.

With the deterioration of security situation in Afghanistan how feasible the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline project will be?

The project, named after countries Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, TAPI will play a vital role in revitalising Afghanistan’s prominence in the region, but only if the project gets completed. The pipeline will be designed to carry 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas annually. Both Pakistan and India through state-owned companies would purchase 42 % of that volume (13.8 bcm) each. In the meantime, Afghanistan would purchase 16 % of the gas amounting to 5.11 bcm. In addition, Afghanistan will be entitled to receive a transit fee 400 million for the use of its territory from each of the other TAPI buyers.TAPI-proposed-route

According to the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum the pipeline is expected to be 56 inches in diameter and will have a working pressure of 100 standard atmospheres (10,000 kPa). The initial annual capacity will be 27 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas. Thereafter the capacity will be increased to 33 bcm. The pipeline would run for nearly 1,735 km, including 735 km across Afghanistan and another 800 km through Pakistan. Gas will be drawn from the Dauletabad gas field, the pipeline will enter Afghanistan to pass through Herat, Farah, Nimroz, Helmand and Kandahar and the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Multan, before reaching India at Fazilka in the northern Punjab province.

In a recently published booklet by the office of president of Afghanistan the two projects TAPI and CASA 1000, are considered as sources of “Transformation of Afghanistan” expected to boost the national economy and create jobs. These two projects are at the top agenda of Unity Government for the country’s economic self-reliance.

On the day of the signing ceremony and days after people held celebratory rallies and welcomed the project across the country, pictures of some rallies which were shared on social media, one could see from the dressing that the rallies were organized by the government to show public support.

On the day the Multi-billion gas project was being signed where it met with public rallies and tremendous threading on social media the Taliban affiliated account on twitter, on 13 December, posted Sabiq Jihadmal ‏@Sabiq_JL  “#TAPIProject was signed 17 years ago between Islamic Emirate and Turkmenistan Govt, that was the starting not today.” And in second tweet he wrote: “90% of TAPI will pass in (through) territory under control of the Islamic Emirate, I don’t know from which address insane Ashraf Ghani is there”.

It’s true that the Taliban never opposed the TAPI project and during the 1990s, their involvement to negotiate with the US company Yonical, to provide security guarantees for a similar pipeline is a historical fact. The Afghan Government is indeed convinced that the Afghan Taliban does not oppose the TAPI project, as it is important for the financial stability of Afghanistan and, therefore, none of the groups intend to hamper the project. But it’s questionable under what conditions the Taliban will ensure the pipeline’s security?

Afghanistan’s Worsening Security Situation

Afghanistan’s more than a decade long experience with development reveals that infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges, in volatile regions were not immune to devastating attacks by the insurgents. Exploiting the weak negotiating position of the past and present government, and the ensuing coordination failures within the state institutions, the armed groups have extorted government money in exchange for the release of project and government workers. In some instances, the insurgent forces also killed many kidnapped workers. 

The past 13 years of experience of development projects highlights one thing for sure: whenever there are development projects specially in volatile areas, they have faced dire consequence of paying extortion money to armed groups to set free their workers. And still a number of engineers, NGO and aid workers have been kidnapped and killed.

Leaders from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan converged in Turkmenistan to launch the 1,814km TAPI. Photo AP.
Leaders from Afghanistan, India and Pakistan converged in Turkmenistan to launch the 1,814km TAPI. Photo AP.

The Long War Journal which has been tracking the Taliban’s attempts to gain control of territory since NATO ended its military mission in Afghanistan in June 2014 claimed, in a report on 5 October 2015, that out of 398 districts in 34 provinces, 29 districts are under Taliban control in Afghanistan. And another 36 districts are contested while 335 districts are either under government control, or their status cannot be determined. Some of the districts under control of the Taliban are located in the three southern provinces of Afghanistan, Helmand, Kandahar and Farah. Recently a government official in the Helmand province raised deep concerns over the worsening security situation. Head of Helmand’s provincial council Karim Atal told Tolo News that the “situation is very bad in the Greshk district, and the government is weaker in the area, therefore a solution must be found otherwise TAPI cannot be Implemented in Greshk”.

This comes at a time when the Helmand deputy governor pleaded via social network to Ashraf Ghani to save Helmand. “Your Excellency, Facebook is not the right forum for speaking with you, but as my voice hasn’t been heard by you I don’t know what else to do. Please save Helmand from tragedy. Ignore those liars who are telling you that Helmand is secure, in the past few days about 90 Afghan forces have died.” But despite the plea, there was no immediate reaction from Ghani’s office. The defence ministry also rejected the troop death claims and denied that Helmand was at risk of falling to the Taliban.

Recently the Taliban claimed that one of the provinces where they are continuously taking over territory in this freezing cold is Helmand. They have managed to completely control Musa Kala and Nawzad districts of Helmand. Earlier they had also overrun the district of Khani Sheen along with its administration centre and military bases. The inability of the Afghan Forces was confirmed by the deputy governor of Helmand (Rasoulyar) who pleaded to President Ashraf Ghani in an open letter through a social media post that if immediate action were not undertaken the entire province of Helmand would be lost. He also admitted that over the past 24 hours over 90 army and police personnel had been killed and dozens wounded in the clashes raging in Gerishk and Sangin districts. On 23 December 2015 the district of Sangin in southern Helmand province also fell to the Taliban for the first time in 14 years.

TAPI’s Bleak Future?

As Kabul is going through its period of darkness due to blowing up of the electricity pylons in Baghlan province, with the increasing demand for gas in India and Pakistan will they endure to remain in a period of uncertainty? If the pipeline is blown up, will they wait till Afghan Forces secure the area so the pipeline could be restored? Although last month, Daud Shah Saba, the Afghan Minister for Mines and Petroleum, told Upper House in Kabul that a 7,000-member security force will be raised to guard the gas pipeline project. Will the 7000 security forces be able to patrol the 700 km of pipeline through one of the most unsecure and dangerous parts of Afghanistan?

TAPI is not the only way to fulfil Pakistan and India’s hunger for Energy. On one hand, Iran, Pakistan, India gas pipeline has not been forgotten. Whereas, on the other hand, with the relaxation of economic sanctions on Iran, India is hopeful about the $4.5 billion project to pump Iranian natural gas to India, envisioning the export of 31.5 million cubic meters of natural gas per day via an undersea pipeline originating from Chabahar Port in south-eastern Iran, traveling through the Sea of Oman to Ras al-Jafan on the Omani coast, and after traversing the Arabian Sea, ending at Porbandar in South Gujarat in India. The project, known as the Middle East to India Deep water Pipeline (MEIDP), is scheduled to be completed by 2022.

Subodh Kumar Jain, Director of South Asia Gas Enterprise Pvt. Ltd., which came up with the idea of the 1,200- to 1,300-kilometer underwater pipeline project, says that that’s the best energy option for India.

Again, TAPI’s future depends on the overall security situation in Afghanistan and whether it deteriorates in the future.

UNAMA, in a recently published report, documented the highest civilian casualties in 2015 exceeding the previous recorded level of casualties in 2014.The United Nations also says that 2015 may have been the worst year for conflict-induced displacement in Afghanistan since 2002. U.S. forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and Resolute Support (RS) commander General John F. Campbell says, “if we do not make deliberate, measured adjustments, 2016 is at risk of being no better, and possibly worse than 2015.”

The awfully precarious situation of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan is another worrying development. Along with the Taliban marching up attacks this winter, long after the period in which fighting has typically declined, other groups, such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province (ISIL-K) have also expanded their presence in Afghanistan.

The biggest of all this will be the future of the TAPI project, as the pipeline project passes through the heart of the Taliban area, a place where warring parties are known to hold up businesses for payoff to fund their war.

In the pipeline world this usually involves “insurance” payoffs like the Taliban has already asked the telecom companies in the form of a 10% protection tax. And once the militant groups take the proposed pipeline as a hostage, the ransom they ask is not going to be an easy one.

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