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Afghanistan Poses Regional Conundrum

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

The chaos engulfing Afghanistan, as the Taliban movement recaptures more territory in the lead-up to the imminent withdrawal of US troops, is a major worry for the wider region. A risk is that instability could spread into Central Asia and threaten energy supplies across the region. Russia, China and Iran are set to play more central roles, fearing the impact a Taliban takeover could have on their own security.

A look at the most recent map published by the Washington-based FDD shows the Taliban occupying most of the areas around its western and northern borders with Iran and Central Asia, and increasing chunks of land around the frontier with Pakistan.

Since the map was published, the Taliban has reportedly overrun the strategic town of Kunduz in the north, which leads on to its main border crossing with Tajikistan. Fears are growing that the Taliban will soon make a push for Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, and then switch its sights to the capital, Kabul, where the US-backed government is preparing for the worst.

All the external players, including Russia and China, accept the reality that the government in Kabul cannot stop the incursions without continued US military support. With American troops set to pull out of the country at the end of this month, as decreed by President Joe Biden, few are betting on the government keeping hold of the territory it currently holds.

Hopes that the two sides will agree to share power are fast receding. Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA who was in charge of US forces in Afghanistan until 2011, described the outlook as “very, very grim indeed” and said the security situation was “increasingly dire.” Reports of the Taliban massacring dozens of civilians in the south have added to the sense of gloom.

In this power vacuum, both regional stability and trade are at stake, especially to the north in Central Asia, which has had its own battles in the past with homegrown jihadists. One of the most fretful of Afghanistan’s neighbors is Turkmenistan, which of all the five Central Asian republics has spent the most time, effort and money pursuing closer trade ties with Afghanistan.  

Energy has taken center stage: To help monetize the country’s giant onshore gas reserves, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov has been pushing for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) pipeline that would run 1,600 kilometers southward to the Pakistan-India border, with an eventual capacity of up to 33 billion cubic meters per year.

More than a decade since negotiations began between the various parties, the $7 billion pipeline is no closer to being built. The Asia Development Bank has supported Tapi from the outset but, like other multilateral lenders, will not finance a project with such high levels of political risk. Assurances by the Taliban that they won’t interfere in the transit of Turkmen gas across Afghan territory are irrelevant.

There is a growing feeling that the pipeline will remain just a concept, as was the case in the late 1990s when Unocal -- now part of Chevron -- tried to get a similar project off the ground. “I don’t think there’s anyone besides the Turkmen president who believes it will ever get built,” a source who worked for years on the project says. The authorities in Pakistan and India, which would buy most of the gas from Tapi, are not exactly brimming with enthusiasm.

Neighbors' Concerns

Turkmenistan will be hoping the blowback from the Afghan crisis does not affect flows of its pipeline gas to China, which is its largest market by a country mile. Three parallel pipelines -- A, B and C -- with a combined capacity of 45 Bcm/yr, carry Turkmen gas across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to western China, and go nowhere near Afghanistan. But the Chinese may have to reconsider plans to build a fourth Central Asia-China pipeline, D, along a different route that's even closer to the Afghan border and runs via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Although it has by far the shortest border with Afghanistan of the neighbors, China is concerned that the withdrawal of US troops will open up a safe haven for Uighur separatists looking to destabilize its western region of Xinjiang. In public, Beijing has held firm to its policy of non-interference in Afghan affairs and put the emphasis on boosting trade ties, especially in developing Afghanistan’s minerals.

Behind the scenes, the Chinese have sought and received assurances from the Taliban that they will not allow any Uighur militants to settle in territory under its control and that they will not join the West in criticizing China’s treatment of the Uighurs.

Russia, which still bears the scars of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89, is also concerned about the potential spillover effect on its own security. In a show of strength, its armed forces have carried out a series of joint military exercises with Uzbekistan, a regional ally, near the Afghan border.

Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, went against the grain by saying the Taliban’s territorial gains could be beneficial, as they could deter extremist groups from using Afghanistan as a base from which to destabilize Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran. The Russians would view a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan with trepidation, however, and may be forced -- once again -- to step up support for warlords in the north who helped drive the Taliban out of power after the attacks in the US on Sep. 11, 2001.

Like Russia, Iran is horrified at the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a Sunni Muslim theocracy that could threaten its majority-Shia population. The Iranians do not want a rerun of 1999, when it massed some 300,000 troops along the border to keep the Taliban at arm’s length.

Nevertheless, Tehran has favored engagement over confrontation and has hosted delegations from the government and Taliban in recent weeks. Iran may also see an opportunity to work with the US on resolving the Afghan crisis. But so deep is the mistrust between Washington and Tehran that this is unlikely to happen to any meaningful degree.

Of all the regional players, Pakistan has by far the most complex relationship with Afghanistan. Its army and intelligence services helped nurture the Taliban after it emerged in the mid-1990s, with strong financial support from the Saudis. Islamabad also sees Afghanistan as a strategic buffer against India, even though the Indians have only a small presence in the country. And much of Afghanistan’s fuel and other supplies go along Pakistan's Khyber Pass.

Mitigating against this is Pakistan’s fear of being swamped with Afghan refugees, which is already happening, and an upsurge in violence in the border areas. Pakistan has also lost the trust of the US, which continues to see it as a destabilizing force in Afghanistan and a key supporter of the Taliban. Underlining this is the fact that Biden has still to pick up the phone to speak with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Paul Sampson is a senior correspondent at Energy Intelligence based in London.

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