A Pipeline Project Stuck in Neutral

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If the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project ever gets off the ground, it will ferry 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year from the Galkynysh natural gas field in southern Turkmenistan to energy-hungry markets in Pakistan and India. It will also deliver some of that supply to Afghanistan, offering Kabul a rare chance to develop its economy. But TAPI has been sidelined time and again since its conception in 1995.

Nearly 15 years after the agreement to build the pipeline was signed, TAPI is still far from reaching fruition, though it has made some intermittent progress. The four countries behind the project — slated to come online in 2022, four years behind schedule — held a long-awaited groundbreaking ceremony in Turkmenistan in December 2015. The biggest factor undermining the pipeline's progress is the Taliban insurgency. Even so, the Taliban have also lent their support to the pipeline over the years. On Nov. 29, the group announced that it would be willing to guard the TAPI pipeline in an effort to promote similar projects in Afghanistan's national interest. First, however, the Taliban's 15-year war with the Afghan National Army would have to end. Judging by the spate of attacks that the group has launched around the country since September, peace appears to be a distant prospect.

Even if the fighting stops and the pipeline gets underway, the transit fees it generates will not be enough to boost Afghanistan's economic development as intended. Apart from its security problems, Kabul struggles with rampant corruption. Widespread government graft has aggrieved the public and, in turn, fueled the Taliban's recruitment campaigns. Afghanistan's troubles are not the only factor stalling progress on the TAPI pipeline, though. Despite their mutual interest in the project, India and Pakistan are no closer to reconciling their differences, chief among them the contested Kashmir region. So long as that dispute goes unresolved, the simmering hostilities between Islamabad and New Delhi will spill over onto transnational projects such as TAPI. The countries involved in the project will need to address the problems that have held it up if they hope to get it up and running by 2022. Otherwise, TAPI will be relegated to the realm of ambitious ideas.

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