As a new administration is about to take charge in Washington, DC, uncertainty abounds in Afghanistan. Since the signing of the Doha peace agreement in February 2020 between the US and the Taliban, Afghanistan has been wracked by violence, increasingly brutal even by the standards of the blood-soaked country. Targets have become increasingly more vulnerable – hospitals, maternity hospitals, gurdwaras, universities – almost no institution or location has been spared.
At the time of writing, rockets were being hurled at Kabul.
The United Nations documented 3,458 civilian casualties (1,282 killed and 2,176 injured ) in the first half of 2020, in a report released in July this year.
Why Is Trump Delaying Withdrawal Of US Troops?
One of the promises of the outgoing Trump administration had been to bring home all US troops stationed in Afghanistan by Christmas. Given the rising violence and uncertainty in Afghanistan, the administration is trying to speed up the withdrawal.
Some attacks, however, have been blamed on entities other than the Taliban – like the rockets that rained on Kabul last Saturday are said to be the handiwork of the Islamic State – Khorasan Province.
UN reports have documented that the Taliban continue to maintain ties with groups like the al-Qaeda.
While the Doha agreement called for reduction in violence in exchange for the troops’ withdrawal, that has not happened. The world is left wondering who and what the ‘peace agreement’ is all about, as withdrawal of US troops has left more devastation and death in its wake. On the other hand, in spite of misgivings and reluctance, the Afghan government on their part have fulfilled clauses of the Doha agreement which had called for the release of Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails.
The intra-Afghan talks, which began after many hiccups, have been stalled. US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad has been engaging in intensive shuttle diplomacy even during the pandemic, but intra-Afghan negotiations have made no headway.
Afghan leaders have called for a halt to the troops’ withdrawal. However, the Trump administration had won the 2016 elections on the back of promises such as ‘ending the war in Afghanistan’ and ‘bringing back American troops’. The 2020 elections made it imperative for the Trump administration to fulfil that promise and – as it delays in ceding defeat – it is hastening to bring back all troops.
A Regional Approach Seems More In Tune With India’s Objectives
Afghan leaders have come calling in Delhi, asking India to remain engaged with Afghanistan, but also making no disguise that they prefer India to keep a low profile. Indian consulates have winded up in that country. Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan paid his first official visit to Kabul since the Doha agreements were signed. While Pakistan’s ties and support for the Taliban are no secret, Mr Khan has also very recently acknowledged that the terror attacks in Pulwama were abetted by his country.
For India, the portents are ominous. While many believe that India has been marginalised, others maintain that India should remain engaged without spelling out the form that engagement should take.
Of course, engagement continues – at the recently-held 2020 Afghanistan Conference, India pledged USD 80 million dollars for 100 projects, besides the two billion that India has also invested in the reconstruction and capacity-building in the country.
However, at this juncture, a regional approach seems more in tune with India’s objectives – a stable Afghanistan, at peace with itself and its neighbours. India has been following this, by including Afghanistan in its dialogue with Central Asian countries for the last three years.
This year has been no different. The joint statement issued at the end of the dialogue in 2020 not only expressed their interest in the settlement of the Afghan conflict but also in strengthening cooperation for Afghanistan’s development and economic reconstruction through “implementation of infrastructure, energy, transit and transport projects.”
As a landlocked country, Afghanistan’s dependence on its neighbours is a given, and this makes regional approach to stabilising the country even more critical.
The US has long been a driver of such an approach with initiatives like CASA 1000 and numerous other initiatives. All countries in the region realise that Afghanistan’s advantage is its geo-strategic location – connecting Central Asia to South Asia. And all countries are threatened by an unstable Afghanistan.
That is why it is important for India not to give up on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.
How TAPI Gas Pipeline Incentivises Taliban & Pakistan To Seek Regional Peace
The TAPI pipeline, which measures 1,814 kilometers, is an ambitious project that is meant to transfer 33 billion cubic feet of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The landlocked Central Asian country of Turkmenistan possesses the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, which is also it’s almost only export and the major source of its revenue.
The other three countries on the other hand are heavily dependent on energy exports. The pipeline, therefore, is a much-cherished endeavour, which was first mooted almost two decades ago.
While the groundbreaking ceremony in Turkmenistan – took place only in 2015 and the Afghan leg of the project was inaugurated only in 2018 – it testifies to the fact that in spite of the acrimony between concerned states – between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Pakistan and India – they have not been deterred from understanding the benefits that the project promises.
Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari, who was representing India at the inauguration in 2015, had noted that TAPI was more than just a gas pipeline project; it was the first step towards an “economically integrated region stretching from the Bay of Bengal to the Caspian Sea.”
The vision is long-term and bold, even ambitious – but by no means impossible.
For besides promising energy security to the region, it also incentivises both the Taliban and Pakistan to seek peace in the region.
How TAPI Project Can ‘Change The Fortunes’ of Pakistan
Remarkably, the Taliban have also evinced interest in the project. At one time in the 1990s, they were in talks with UNOCAL for the construction of such a pipeline, given the enormous profits Afghanistan would take in through transit revenue.
In 2018, when the Afghan leg of the project was being inaugurated, the Taliban pledged to secure the pipeline as it viewed the project as an “important element of the country’s economic infrastructure and believes its proper implementation will benefit the Afghan people: “We announce our cooperation in providing security for the project in areas under our control”.
33 billion metric tons of gas is expected to flow in from Turkmenistan to South Asia, from which Afghanistan would get 16 percent and Pakistan and India 42 percent respectively.
Additionally, Afghanistan and Pakistan would also receive transit fees. The country would earn USD 500 million dollars as transit fees from the pipeline.
Recently, the Turkmen ambassador to Pakistan said that the TAPI project can change the fortunes of Pakistan as natural gas power generation is significantly cheaper than diesel and fuel oil, and would also stimulate industrialisation and investment. Besides, this project shall also bring a know-how for the region in terms of modern hi-tech equipment, technologies and so forth.
Crucial For India To Convince Pakistan Of Benefits Of Regional Connectivity, Peace & Stability
While the project has backing from the US – as part of its New Silk Route strategy – and the Asia Development Bank, Saudi Arabia has also evinced interest in participating in the project.
Falling gas prices makes the TAPI pipeline even more important to Turkmenistan.
The growing uncertainties in the region, with the ascendancy of the Taliban in Kabul being just a matter of time, make it all the more imperative for India, together with its Turkmen partners, to convince Pakistan of the benefits of regional connectivity which in turn demands regional peace and stability.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a widely-published journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)