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The Pipeline That Could Keep the Peace in Afghanistan
As the U.S. leaves Afghans on their own, the gas project might help stabilize the region.

Oct. 21, 2013 7:10 p.m. ET
One of the most ambitious and frustrating geopolitical projects on the planet is now within reach—if the U.S. leads in its development. The project is TAPI, a proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The stakes are high. When U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, the pipeline and the cooperation needed to maintain it may be the best hope for regional stability.

The future success of Afghanistan, and relations among Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the U.S., are just the beginning of potential benefits. Without the pipeline, Iran will be able to manipulate its neighbors more. America’s ability to balance the growing influence of China and Russia in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and U.S. credibility throughout the region, also may depend on TAPI’s completion.

The idea of shipping gas eastward from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan was first proposed immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Deals were signed with American and Argentine firms, but the project went nowhere. Hopes revived after the U.S. helped topple the Taliban regime in late 2001, and energy-poor India asked to join the project in 2008. Despite decades of tension between Pakistan and India, the two countries have cooperated on TAPI for five years.

Clearly, a project of this scale faces serious questions. The initial question of whether Turkmenistan had enough gas to supply Pakistan and India—and meet its contractual obligations to provide gas to China and Russia—was laid to rest in 2006 with the discovery of Turkmenistan’s giant Galkynysh gas field, the second-largest on earth.

Others question whether Afghanistan will ever be peaceful enough so a pipeline can be built across its territory. Yet any future Afghan government will likely defend TAPI if it provides the estimated $300 million to $400 million annually in tariffs. The key will be for Kabul to give some of the receipts back to the provinces. Even the Taliban would back the pipeline if their leaders believe some benefits will flow to their fellow Pashtuns in southeastern Afghanistan.

Then there is the price. Will investors put up the estimated $12 billion to $16 billion needed to build the pipeline? Analyses by the Asian Development Bank have concluded that the project is marketable, and several financial institutions have already expressed interest. However, a major international energy firm, or a consortium, must first commit to it.

Here’s where the U.S. comes in. In recent years, both Chevron and Exxon-Mobil have expressed interest in TAPI. But there is a sticking point. Turkmenistan says it won’t sign an agreement on TAPI until the U.S. government indicates that it is firmly behind the project. Two years ago, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow received a letter backing Chevron’s project from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But he knew that there had been not a word of support from the National Security Council or White House, let alone the U.S. president. This led to suspicions in Ashgabat that Mr. Obama was hanging back.

Some say this silence was caused by Turkmenistan’s bad record on democracy and human rights. But there are winds of change as thousands of Turkmen students sent abroad for study are now returning with new ideas from the larger world. Whether they enter government service, business or education, they are bound to have a liberalizing effect. Meanwhile, a refusal to back TAPI would deny the U.S. any possibility of influencing Turkmenistan in the future.

Now the silence from Washington has ended. Earlier this month, President Obama sent a letter to President Berdimuhamedow emphasizing a common interest in helping develop Afghanistan and expressing Mr. Obama’s support for TAPI and his desire for a major U.S. firm to construct it.

There remains a lot of distance between a general declaration of support and a deal to build TAPI. A framework agreement between the two countries is urgently needed that covers gas and oil issues. This, too, must be signed by both presidents, and not, on the American side, by some lower official.

Washington cannot wait another five years for further action on TAPI. After the U.S. military withdrawal next year, the government of Afghanistan will have few legitimate income streams. TAPI can provide Kabul with hundreds of millions of dollars annually and create an estimated 50,000 jobs for Afghans. It will do so in a way that gives three of the key states in the region—Pakistan, India and Iran—a strategic interest in Afghanistan’s success. Progress on TAPI will also jump-start many of the other trans-Afghan transport projects—including roads and railroads—that are at the heart of America’s “New Silk Road Strategy” for the Afghan economy.

The White House should understand that if TAPI isn’t built, neither U.S. nor U.N. sanctions will prevent Pakistan from building a pipeline from Iran. This supposedly “shovel ready” project will enrich Tehran and greatly enhance Iran’s voice in Afghanistan and the region. If Washington drops the ball on TAPI, China, India or Russia will be tempted to take it up. That will generate tensions among these often competing nuclear powers and leave the U.S. on the sidelines. Russia has already begun pressing India to make it a partner in TAPI.

Strong U.S. support for TAPI is essential. President Obama’s meeting this week with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a good place to begin. Other opportunities must be seized or created to move TAPI swiftly forward. Only in this way will peace and prosperity come to a region too long embroiled in conflict.

Mr. Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His book “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age” will be published this week by Princeton University Press.


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