x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Central Asia grasps at a security lifeline

There are many reasons to root for the Tapi pipeline's completion. For one, any endeavour that brings Pakistan and India to the same table must be greeted warmly.

There were plenty of handshakes in Ashgabat at the weekend as Turkmenistan's neighbours rallied around the common goal of economic prosperity. In a region so often shaped by conflict, joint revelry for a mutually beneficial gas pipeline was a welcome sight.

The challenge now will be maintaining the momentum. Revival of the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, known as Tapi, was the reason for the weekend backslapping. Conceived in the mid-1990s, the ambitious effort aims to transport Turkmen gas through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and eventually on to India.

There are many reasons to root for Tapi's completion. For one, any endeavour that brings Pakistan and India to the same table must be greeted warmly. It's not often these nuclear-armed rivals cooperate so openly.

Equally positive are the opportunities to bolster the region's economic and political stability. As supporters see it, Tapi could bring security and jobs to Afghanistan while linking energy-deficient economies with hydrocarbon-rich Central Asian states. It's easy to envision such a future if the project's taps are ever opened.

Unfortunately, that remains a big "if". While the rough outlines have been inked, engineers must now find a way to lay a pipe through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas. Details on how this would be accomplished, or who will pay for it, remain vague.

Even the project's main backers have expressed scepticism. "The realisation of the project faces significant political and technical challenges," the Asian Development Bank conceded in a May 2008 assessment, "considering the volatility of the relationships among the concerned countries and the security situation in Afghanistan".

One can only hope these relationships will become less fraught over time. As a US diplomat told officials in Turkmenistan last month, the benefits of a completed pipeline are "worthy of the diligence demonstrated by these four countries so far". The US may have its own reasons to support the Tapi project - namely that it bypasses Iran, which Washington has worked hard to isolate over its nuclear programme.

But in this volatile region, sovereign interests often trump regional concerns. Common ground, no matter how tenuous, should be celebrated and encouraged.