By M K Bhadrakumar
In the Orient, offspring don't rebuke parents, even if the latter are at fault - especially in the post-Soviet space where Marxian formalism continues to prevail as political culture. The sort of stern public rebuke bordering on short shrift that Ashgabat administered to Moscow is extraordinary.
But then, Moscow tested Turkmen patience by trying to create confusion about Ashgabat's policy of positive "neutrality" - building energy bridges to the West alongside its thriving cooperation with Russia and China.
On Thursday, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry bluntly rejected any role for Russia in the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, commonly known as TAPI. Ashgabat alleged that Moscow is spreading calumnies and expressed the hope that "future statements by Russian officials will be guided by a sense of responsibility and reality".
The reference was to a friendly and seemingly helpful statement by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin (who accompanied President Dmitry Medvedev to the Turkmen capital last weekend) that Russian participation in the TAPI figured in the latest Russian-Turkmen summit talks and "Gazprom may participate in this project in any capacity - builder, designer, participant, etc ... If Gazprom becomes a participant, then we will study possibilities of working in gas sales."
The Turkmen Foreign Ministry said, "Turkmenistan views such statements as an attempt to hamper the normal course of our country's cooperation in the energy sector and call into question its obligations to its partners." It added that there was "no agreement whatsoever" regarding Russian participation in the TAPI.
The TAPI presents a knot of paradoxes and the Russians who hold the pulse of the Central Asian energy scene would have sensed by now that Uncle Sam is close to untying the knot, finally, after a decade-and-a-half of sheer perseverance. The TAPI falls within the first circle of the Caspian great game. When it appears that Russia all but checkmated the United States and the European Union's plans to advance trans-Caspian energy projects bypassing Russia, a thrust appears from the south and east opening up stunning possibilities for the West.
Russia promptly began slouching toward the TAPI - which, incidentally, was originally a Soviet idea but was appropriated by the United States no sooner than the USSR disintegrated - against the backdrop of renewed interest in the project recently among regional powers amid the growing possibility that Afghan peace talks might reconcile the Taliban and that despite the Kashmir problem, Pakistan and India wouldn't mind tangoing.
The TAPI pipeline runs on a roughly 1,600-kilometer route along the ancient Silk Road from Turkmenistan's fabulous Dauletabad gas fields on the Afghan border to Herat in western Afghanistan, then onto Helmand and Kandahar, entering Pakistan's Quetta and turning east toward Multan, and ending up in Fazilka on the Indian side of Pakistan's eastern border. An updated Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimate of 2008 put the project cost for the pipeline with an output of 33 bcm annually at $7.6 billion.
The signals from Ashgabat, Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi in recent weeks uniformly underscored that the TAPI is in the final stage of take-off. India unambiguously signed up in August. On Wednesday, the Pakistan government gave approval to the project at a cabinet meeting in Islamabad. The ADB is open to financing the project and is expected to be the project's "secretariat".
As things stand, there could be a meeting of the political leaderships of the four participating countries in December to formally kick-start the TAPI.
The commencement of the TAPI is undoubtedly a defining moment for Turkmenistan (which is keen to diversify export routes), for Afghanistan (which hopes to get $300 million as transit fee annually and an all-round economic spin-off) and for Pakistan and India (which face energy shortages).
However, the geopolitics trumps everything else. For the first time in six decades, India and Pakistan are becoming stakeholders in each other's development and growth - and it is taking place under American watch. The rapprochement would positively impact the Afghan chessboard where Pakistan and India are locked in a futile, utterly wasteful zero-sum game.
NATO enters energy business
The most important geopolitical factor, perhaps, is that the US is the "ideologue" of the project and its Great Central Asia strategy - aiming at rolling back Russian and Chinese influence in the region and forging the region's links with South Asia - is set to take a big step forward.
India and Pakistan, traditional allies of Russia and China, are in essence endorsing the Great Central Asia strategy. It signifies a tectonic shift in the geopolitics and immensely strengthens the US's regional policies. India and Pakistan are becoming stakeholders in a long-term US presence in the region.
Equally, NATO is set to take on the role of the provider of security for the TAPI, providing the alliance an added raison d'etre for its long-term presence in Central Asia. NATO's role in energy security has been under discussion for some time. Russia used to robustly contest the concept, but its thoughts are mellowing as the reset with the US gains traction.
Broadly, the NATO position was outlined by the alliance's former secretary general Jaap de Hoop Schaffer in January last year when he said:
Protecting pipelines is first and foremost a national priority. And it should stay like that. NATO is not in the business of protecting pipelines. But when there's a crisis, or if a certain nation asks for assistance, NATO could, I think, be instrumental in protecting pipelines on land.Clearly, the long-term "strategic cooperation" agreement between NATO and Karzai's government which is expected to be signed at the alliance's summit in Lisbon on November 19 now assumes an altogether profound meaning.
Besides, the TAPI is also a "Western" project, as several NATO countries involved in Afghanistan's stabilization - the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Norway - are also members of the ADB and TAPI is piloted by the US and Japan, two major shareholders in the ADB.
More important, the BP Statistical Review 2009 puts Turkmenistan's known gas reserves so far at a staggering 7.94 trillion cubic meters (TCM). A 2008 audit of the gigantic South Yolotan-Osman field in western Turkmenistan by the UK firm Gaffney, Cline & Associates estimated the reserves of this field alone at anywhere between 4 to 14 TCM of gas. Many more fields in Turkmenistan are yet to be audited. Without doubt, the propaganda that Turkmenistan lacks gas reserves to supply markets beyond Russia and China stands exposed.
And the curious part is that South Yolotan-Osman - and the gas reserves in Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan - can be linked to the TAPI and a TAPI branch line can be very easily extended from Quetta to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in which case Europe can finally tap Central Asian energy reserves directly, dispensing with the Russian middleman.
Obama has style
Quite obviously, the TAPI meshes well with the Afghan endgame. Karzai used to work for Unocal before he surfaced in Kabul as a statesman in 2001, and Unocal originally promoted TAPI in the mid-1990s. "Good" Taliban were all along enthusiastic about the TAPI project provided the US traded with them as Afghan interlocutors.
The US initially warmed up to the Taliban in the early 1990s as a stabilizing factor that could put an end to the chaotic mujahideen era and help facilitate the transportation of the Caspian and Central Asian energy to the world market via Pakistani ports. Senior Taliban officials were hosted by the US State Department and things were indeed going spectacularly well until militant "Arab fighters" began influencing the Taliban leadership and spoiled everything.
The Americans dithered far too long in according recognition to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden grabbed the window of opportunity. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that the contacts continued all the way up to the eve of the al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks.
The "good" Taliban are in business again. NATO aircraft ferry them to Kabul so that they can urgently talk peace.
From the beginning, the US saw the TAPI's potential to bring Pakistan and India together and also bind the two South Asian adversaries to it, thus providing an underpinning to its overall Asian strategy. Moscow and Beijing would have a sense of unease about what is unfolding. The recent Moscow commentaries display some irritation with New Delhi. Last weekend there was an unusually preachy opinion-piece on India's "Chechnya" - Kashmir.
The plain truth is that the TAPI revives the Silk Road, which can also unlock Afghanistan's multi-trillion dollar untold mineral wealth and transport the hidden treasures to Gwadar port for shipment to faraway lands.
If George W Bush were handling Barack Obama's job today, he would probably thread into his forthcoming November visit to New Delhi a regional summit where the TAPI gets formalized as a historic American initiative in regional cooperation.
But that isn't Obama's style - descending from the skies wearing a windbreaker and proclaiming premature victory from the deck of an aircraft carrier. He trusts "smart power".
Obama would intellectualize the TAPI as the harbinger of peace in one of the most destitute regions on the planet - which it indeed is. He would then probably sit down and explain that what seems a setback in the Caspian great game is ultimately for China's and Russia's larger good. A "stable" Afghanistan is in their interests, after all....