ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — The leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan were in the capital of gas–rich Turkmenistan Saturday to push forward on ambitions to build a pipeline across their countries.
The pipeline, which would terminate in India, would bring huge amounts of gas to underdeveloped regions and could earn impoverished Afghanistan hundreds of millions of dollars in transit fees. But it would cross both Taliban–intensive stretches of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan's unruly tribal areas.
The leaders, along with Turkmenistan's president and India's oil minister are expected to sign a document expressing support for the project. The next step would likely be to seek proposals and bids from energy companies.
Efforts to get the pipeline — called TAPI after the countries involved — under way have intensified in recent months as Afghanistan seeks ways to kick–start its economy, while Pakistan and India explore how to slake their energy thirst.
The project has also won vocal support from the United States, which is strongly opposed to India and Pakistan drawing supplies from Iran through another proposed gas pipeline.
Turkmenistan, which is believed to hold the world's fourth–largest gas reserves, is eager to find new markets for its potentially gargantuan energy exports amid flagging interest from Russia, its traditional client.
Plans to build a pipeline transporting the former Soviet nation's gas to Western Europe to date remain hazy ambitions.
The visit by Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari comes after months of technical consultations. India is expected be represented at Saturday's signing by petroleum minister Murli Deora.
The TAPI pipeline would stretch some 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles) from Turkmenistan's Dovletabad field to the Indian township of Fazilka, just over the border with Pakistan. Its cost is estimated at about $8 billion.
Sections of the pipeline's intended path — across deep Taliban country in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province and then into Pakistan's restive tribal areas. That raises concern among experts about its near–term feasibility.
"The issue is not only security in the sense that you can't actually guarantee the safety of the pipeline, but actual construction is going to be difficult as well," said Maria Kuusisto, an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.
With the capacity to deliver more than 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually, TAPI would come as welcome relief for energy–parched nations along the route.
According to a preliminary breakdown, India and Pakistan would each stand to receive around 38 million cubic meters of gas out of the 90 million cubic meters shipped daily. Afghanistan would get the remainder.
Attempts to build a pipeline through Afghanistan date back to the mid–1990s, when the U.S.–led consortium Unocal was locked in fierce competition with Argentina's Bridas to win a deal to construct and run the route.
But as the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, those ambitions were shelved and remained so during the next decade's war.
Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has vigorously trumpeted TAPI, which presents an opportunity for to kburnish Turkmenistan's credentials as a bulwark of stability in the region.
Turkmen officials estimate that construction of the pipeline could generate around 12,000 jobs in Afghanistan and earn it several hundred millions dollars annually in transit fees.
Turkmenistan has sought to broaden its client base after Russia sharply cut back its imports from the Central Asian nation.
A 1,800–kilometer (1,080–mile) pipeline to China began pumping natural gas late last year.
Leonard contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.