America, a Gas Pipeline Called TAPI, and Afghanistan
In the early days of the current conflict in Afghanistan, there was a fair bit of talk around the fringes to the effect that the whole invasion was some sort of play for Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves. I was a graduate student in the Boston area at the time, and I remember reading an analysis in the local “alternative” weekly (available online here) that persuaded me it was all half-informed conspiracy mongering.
So imagine my surprise when I came across a piece in the Toronto Star arguing that the planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline is a major influence on US policy towards Afghanistan. The author was someone called John Foster, and it turns out that John Foster is not some random conspiracy nut hiding out in his grandmother’s basement. Cambridge-educated, former lead economist of Petro-Canada, five decades’ and thirty countries’ worth of experience in energy policy and the oil industry – let’s just say it’s an impressive resume.
With that said, his article in the Star didn’t entirely make sense to me on a first reading. Foster certainly posed suitably dramatic questions:
With the U.S. surge underway and the British ambassador to Washington predicting a decades-long commitment, it’s reasonable to ask: Why are the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan? Could the motivation be power, a permanent military bridgehead, access to energy resources?
But the TAPI pipeline, as the name implies, is supposed to transport gas originating in Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – not to America or any other NATO country. Why should “the U.S. and NATO” be so excited about the project?
Although it’s less clear from Foster’s Star article than from a report he wrote for the Canadian Centre for Policy alternatives (PDF here), he clearly believes that the answer relates to a rival planned project called the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. (These projects certainly do have imaginative names.) The US has an open interest in economically isolating Iran if possible, and a pipeline transporting Iranian gas to Pakistan and India would compromise that isolation. If the Americans can persuade Pakistan and India to buy their gas from Turkmenistan instead, Iran will be frozen out. Just a routine case, then, of a great power trying to inflict economic damage on an enemy.
I certainly don’t believe (and I don’t think John Foster believes, although it’s sometimes hard to be sure) that America and other NATO countries are in Afghanistan only or even primarily for TAPI’s sake. Fighting Islamic terrorism, fighting the drug trade, and imposing what might be called Western values on Afghanistan are all important motives, and there may even be a kernel of genuine, friendly helpfulness (as opposed to cultural evangelism) in there somewhere. But Canadians should be aware that the TAPI factor is quite possibly a significant part of why America and NATO remain determined to “stay the course” in Afghanistan.
Coming soon: So maybe America does have plans to run a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan. But should Canadians care?