History Of The Afghanistan
Pipeline Project
By Evgeny Antonov
The Russian

No matter who comes to power in Afghanistan if the anti-Taliban operation succeeds, the first goal of a new government would be to restore the ruined economy. One of the ways of doing so is the construction of the Central Asian gas pipeline, a promising project that has been in works for almost ten years.
The idea to construct a trans-Afghani gas pipeline was born in Ashkhabad in the early 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly independent Turkmenia dreamt of becoming a "gas Kuwait": the country has approximately 2 trillion cubic meters of gas (30% of world deposits). The only problem was the fact that all the existing pipelines ran through Russia's territory. Obviously, Gazprom, the largest exporter of gas in the CIS, was not going to allow Turkmenian gas to be transported to Europe. Therefore, the idea to build a new pipeline emerged.
The Argentinean company, Bridas, developed the plan for the pipeline in 1994. The pipeline was to lead to the Pakistani port of Chaman. Islamabad became very interested in the project. The 1300-kilometer pipeline was to transport 1 billion cubic meters of gas a day. There was also a project for building a pipeline to India. China also expressed an interest in the $2 billion project.
Afghanistan was at relative peace when the project was being discussed. Turkmenian President Saparmurat Niyazov felt that the U.S. could help to guarantee the construction of the pipeline. He was able to find an American company that became interested in the project: Texan Unocal bought 54% of the consortium, while Bridas was simply dismissed.
However, the situation in Afghanistan has changed a great deal. In 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul. Members of the consortium had to negotiate with a new and unpredictable partner. According to Mike Thatcher, a PR director at Unocal, "we have been negotiating with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. We simply wanted to know when the war in Afghanistan would end and who would finance the project. There was no reply. When the Taliban gave refuge to Osama Bin Laden after he had organized the terrorist acts in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, we decided to quit the project."
There is, however, a different opinion. According to our diplomatic source, "Unocal was not really trying to push the project. The company was simply lying to Ashkhabad. The U.S. is not interested in the Central Asian pipeline. If it is built, Washington will be unable to control the gas market in the region. Unocal was simply an effective tool for preventing this project from being realized."
When there is peace in Afghanistan, the idea of the Central Asian gas pipeline is likely to surface again. In a recent interview, the Pakistani ambassador in Moscow, Iftihar Murshed, stated that "the key to solving the Afghani crisis is in economics. The construction of this pipeline could solve some of the economic problems in the region."
The only question is whether anyone will be willing to take part in such a risky project. Unocal refuses to do so. According to Thatcher, "we have left the consortium. Our company is a small one; we do not have many resources. As of now, we have a number of projects in Indonesia and China and we would not be able to begin any new ones within the next five years or so."
It is also quite unlikely that Bridas will return to the idea. No other company has expressed an interest in the project: the political risks are too high. The Central Asian pipeline that is destined to "pacify" Afghanistan will probably remain a paper project.
© National News Service Strana.Ru, 2000. RF Press

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