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The Pipeline of Peace and the Importance of Sharing

November 3, 2009

Hillary Clinton on her last visit to India was asked a very pointed question by one of the prominent Indian  TV journalist. The question was about American stand on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline. Mrs. Clinton shook her head and answered in monosyllables. It was a silly question put to the Secretary of State of a nation that has put thousands of lives and billions of dollars on line to get to the Central Asian oil cache. Either the journalist was totally ignorant of what she was asking or she was testing the American resolve on its stand against Iran as a nation and the proposed pipeline per se. India was always circumspect of any such gas pipeline that passes Pakistan without the endorsement of the western powers. This proposed pipeline was called the ‘peace pipeline’ by the Pakistan press. India found that her interests would be marginalized were India to go ahead with the IPI.

The fact of the matter is that the US and their western allies have been posturing for the long proposed TAP (Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline). The creation of the Taliban was to ensure the writ of one force so that  TAP could pass through and its safety ensured. There was no reason for conflict once the Soviets had departed, apart from the fact that the militia transformed into the ultra-orthodox Taliban with modern weapons, tanks and artillery at their disposal. The drug trade further fuelled an explosive situation.

Now that the west is in Afghanistan, one would have imagined that they would be able to control the country. The fact is that the ISAF has limited sway over the hinterland of Afghanistan. There are forces that would hate to see west control the whole of Afghanistan without any resistance. The proposed TAP had been earlier taken up by the now defunct Unocal (there was a serious attempt by the Chinese to take over Unocal before it merged with Chevron) against the Argentinean consortium Bridas. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister at that time and the present president Asif Ali Zardari was a key player in trying to broker a deal between the Taliban and the oil companies. The fighting intensified such that t oil companies withdrew from the project and chaos reigned. The appearance of the American and the Europeans in Afghanistan again led to an expectation and hope of making the TAP happen. But the Taliban have been active more than ever and Pakistan is loath to see them wither away.

I may add here that the proposed Trans Afghanistan Pipeline (TAP) is designed to tap into the Central Asian oilfields of Daulatabad and Turkmenistan and to get the oil and gas through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the burgeoning Indian market and to be shipped around the world from Pakistan sea ports of Gwadar and Karachi. If one thinks about it, this sure is a win-win situation for all, including the nations that the pipeline will pass through. Were this pipeline to fructify Afghanistan and Pakistan will not only get cheap oil as the transportation costs will be minimal after the initial gestation period, but they will also be able to claim a transit fees that could run into billions of dollars every year. For India also this is an attractive proposition as the pipeline will ensure uninhibited supply of oil and gas at very competitive prices. While the Krishna-Godavari Basin gas find by Reliance Industries is a significant one, it could cater to the eastern and the southern Indian market, the Central Asian TAP gas sources could feed northern and western Indian needs. The region could see a boost in trade and industrialization as the abundant energy could fuel the economy of the region.

The TAP could also be the source of peace in the region. The economics of the safety and security of the pipeline would be such that any conflagration would be a jolt to the economy of the region. Economics will lie heavily and this would be the reason for peace and tranquility in the countries it will pass through. The question is that if this is such an attractive proposition then why has it become impossible for the western companies to make this happen. The first and foremost is the fact that the Turkmenistan fields are not proven oil and gas reserves. But it is believed that there is a good oil cache which is an extension of the Central Asian gas fields. The second reason is that there are forces that would hate to see peace and prosperity in the region. An uninterrupted gas supply at lower than market prices will be a boon to India and that would trigger economic growth in a country that is doing pretty well, as it were. Then, such a gas pipeline will be reason enough for the two countries not to escalate any tension in the foreseeable future. Peace between India and Pakistan would be poison for such forces.

Pakistan has been running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. They are trying to play one against the other and are benefitting in the process. They are posturing that their army is fighting the Taliban when on the ground the reality is that the Taliban are gaining in strength. They are asking for funds from the west to fight the Taliban and are diverting those funds and more to the Taliban to keep them well fed. Pakistan has no option but to do what they are doing. Being faithful to any one party could spell disaster for them. They want to retain their nuclear power position and therefore this becomes imperative.

The fact is that the west needs to learn to be magnanimous, if they are serious about doing business in such a tricky situation. One needs to be pragmatic about the situation, whether it is Afghanistan or Iran. The western countries gave one of the first oil concessions in Iraq to the Chinese oil company. There is relative peace in Iraq now. The Americans and the Europeans must try and rope in both the Russians and the Chinese in Afghanistan for the proposed TAP if they are serious about seeing it fructify. The situation is getting explosive and the west may not be able to stay in Afghanistan for long. They also need to learn to live with situations that are less than ideal. A western style democracy in Afghanistan is some way off.  It is creditable that Afghans could vote and experience the power of democracy. It will take time for Afghanistan to mature enough to follow a democratic setup. Besides democracy may not be the ideal system for a country that has such strong tribal culture that is an island by itself.

If the TAP has to happen the west needs to have constructive dialogue with the other powers including Russia, China and India. TAP could be the pipeline of peace. The way the west is going about its business till now, the region could break up into fragments on ethnic lines and that would mean dissolution of nuclear Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Iran. It will be a jolt not only to the region but to the entire world.It is also accepted that the least number of governments that one has to deal with, the easier it is. A plethora of states in the region could make it so much more difficult for TAP to happen. A prudent approach will be to try and take everyone along and make TAP a reality. The much hailed Obama USP of community approach could well prove to be the answer to the problems. The region cannot afford to go up in smoke, when so much is at stake. Greed has to be replaced by pragmatism. Sheer power cannot win in these times. TAP could mean peace and prosperity in the region. That could well be the antidote to terrorism that the world is looking for. The upcoming Obama visit to Beijing therefore becomes so much more important. It is well known that Hu Jintao and Obama will discuss Iran, but I hope they do not leave Afghanistan and Iraq out of the equation. These are different times and the need of the hour is to engage all interested parties so that the world can move forward.  The western insistence on a run-off in the presidential election was just a way to buy time, and with Abdullah Abdullah dropping out White House needs to take a call on whether to increase troop levels. President Barack Obama may take the final decision on troop increase in Afghanistan once he is back from Beijing. The fabled Chinese wisdom will be on test as will the third American president to have received the Noble Peace Prize when in office. This will also mean giving concrete assurances about the goodwill for each other as also a surety not to step on each other’s toes. One cannot discount the other and get ones way. Besides, mankind deserves peace and progress. The two leaders and the two nations will be tested. I hope they have the will and the fortitude to move with the needs of times.

Update 13.11.2009: As President Barack Obama embarks on his four nation Far Eastern tour, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Great Britain has already upped the ante and demanded that NATO send at least another 5,000 men to Afghanistan. This was after he had a telephonic conversation with the Afghan president Hamid Karzai. It is very likely that the west is making noises to impress the hosts of the American president so that he can talk from a position of strength. Such orchestrated diplomatic and strategic utterances are not new. China will be vary of an increased western presence in Afghanistan. These are mind games. On the way to Japan, President Obama made a halt at a military base in Alaska and assured the troops there that any increase in troop levels in Afghanistan will be made only if absolutely necessary. The Associated Press reported Prime Minister Browns remarks on sending more troops to Afghanistan thus:

Britain’s prime minister said Friday that North American Treaty Organization nations may contribute 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan — offering key backing as the U.S. decides whether to increase troop levels.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched an impassioned defense of the controversial military campaign in Afghanistan during an interview Friday on the BBC, acknowledging that Britain needed to “adjust our approach” amid rising casualties.

The message for China and the rest of the world is loud and clear, that the west is not going to chicken out of the situation and that their commitment to Afghanistan is total. It will be interesting as to how Obama’s visit to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit in Singapore and to Beijing turns out.

Update 12.02.2010: The Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline has been shelved. Now Iran and Pakistan have decided that if India does not want to be a part of the IPI then they shall divert the pipeline to China. So the gas will be transported from Iran, via Pakistan to China through the treacherous Karakoram route. The west is fuming at the proposal. The Chinese have already tapped the Turkmenistan oil field and if they manage to get oil from Iran via Pakistan, the west will be livid. Another reason for a possible war in Iran and a regime change.

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