by Eltaf Najafizada
After decades of talks, Afghanistan finally broke ground last month on a $7.5 billion gas pipeline that will run through areas controlled by the Taliban. Even more surprising: The militant group is backing the project.
The Taliban “deems it its responsibility to revive foundational economic and reconstruction work in the country and asks international construction companies to help the Afghans in this regard,” Zabihullah Mujahed, a spokesman, said in a statement last month, noting that talks on the pipeline dated back to when the Taliban governed the nation.
The endorsement from a group that has fought the U.S.-backed government in Kabul for the past 17 years raises a slight hope for a political settlement even as violence continues to rage. President Ashraf Ghani last week presented his most comprehensive peace offering yet to the Taliban, which controls or contests nearly half the country. He’s open to recognizing the group as a political movement and would help remove international sanctions.
“After the project’s completion, it will have some sort of positive impact on peace talks between the Taliban and the government,” said Harun Mir, a political analyst in Kabul. “The Taliban who live there can benefit too and that may open the gate for talks.”
The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline will eventually carry an annual 33 billion cubic meters of gas, creating thousands of jobs and generating more than $400 million in annual revenue for the cash-strapped government in Kabul. State-owned Turkmengaz, Afghan Gas Enterprise and GAIL India Ltd. are among companies working on the project.
The Afghan section of the pipeline -- about 500 miles passing through some Taliban-controlled areas -- is scheduled to be finished in two years. It will then reach Pakistan before crossing its heavily fortified border with India.
Ensuring security will be crucial as its runs along a highway in southern Afghanistan that has been beset by frequent attacks. Its success also hinges on regional cooperation among countries that have less than rosy relations.
“We will have no any enmity relations with any country in the future,” Ghani told a hundreds-strong audience in Herat at a ceremony attended by Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and M. J. Akbar, India’s junior external affairs minister. “We just want to secure our national interest.”
Ghani didn’t detail security arrangements and only briefly suggested that local authorities would be responsible for the pipeline’s safety.
Ghani’s government has expressed skepticism of the Taliban’s intentions. The administration won’t make payments to the Taliban and it’s “premature” to trust their assurances, according to Dawa Khan Menapal, a presidential spokesman.
“Families, friends and relatives of Taliban can use it as well -- so it’s their responsibility to protect and defend any national projects,” Menapal said.
Ghani has a lot riding on the project’s success. His administration has struggled to implement any meaningful economic gains in the midst of worsening violence across the country.
John R. Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, tweeted last month that the project will “energize regional cooperation” and “become an important source of revenue.”
That optimism is being pared with realities on the ground. The conflict killed or wounded more than 10,000 civilians last year, according to the United Nations. In January, the Taliban claimed attacks in the capital that killed and wounded hundreds. Islamic State has also slowly extended its reach in Afghanistan.
“Even if the Taliban has said they won’t cause problems, there are many other militant groups that could,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Also “the Taliban could well change its mind.”
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are also at a nadir amid mutual allegations that both nations support terror groups striking each other. It’s also questionable whether India will rely on a pipeline that passes through its northern arch-rival.
“The present circumstances of heightened India-Pakistan tension and worsening conditions in Afghanistan make the project even less viable than it was a few years ago,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.