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America, a Gas Pipeline Called TAPI, and Afghanistan

August 14, 2009

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?


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11 Comments leave one →
  1. todgor permalink
    November 24, 2010 2:53 pm

    “fighting the drug trade”

    Ha! The Taliban had the opium production down to 70 tons a year in 2001 before our invasion. And like the last time we were there, sure enough, the production began to ramp up to new highs, somewhere like 3500-7000 tons a year. So yes, it is not just about a gas pipeline, war is big business and so are drugs.

    “Unfortunately, they (NATO) are doing nothing to reduce the narcotic threat from Afghanistan even a tiny bit,” and that the coalition forces were “sitting back and watching caravans haul drugs across Afghanistan to the former Soviet Union and Europe.”

  2. ono permalink
    December 19, 2009 7:11 am

    “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”

    You have got to be joking.

  3. Mietzsche permalink
    December 2, 2009 7:31 am

    “Imposing what might be called Western values on Afghanistan.”
    A part from the fact that “diffusing” would work better that imposing in any case, that noble (?) aim is no more on the agenda. Not even on the fake one made up of pompous words for people who think that it is impossible that “America and other NATO countries are in Afghanistan only or even primarily for TAPI’s sake.” No reference at all to democracy or human rights in Obama’s speech yesterday. The new/old only excuse to hide the actual geopolitical and strategic interests in the region is now American security… people are disillusioned about the possibility of exporting (or as you would say imposing) democracy by now, but (guess what?) they’re still scared to die.
    I haven’t got much time, so very briefly: 1. European countries follow (more or less entirely) what their main economic, commercial, financial and military ally sets as the priority 2. The implications of controlling the energy sources from Central Asia to South and East Asia go well beyond Afghanistan and Iran… the strategic alliance with India and the geopolitical rivalry with Russia and China are at stake. 3. 100,000 soldiers (after the new increase) to try to attain this major geopolitical result are just a bit more than nothing for the US establishment in the long run (to keep little Vietnam out of the communist sphere of influence they had more than 500,000 troops at one point on the ground). Of course there are pros and cons (what an articulated way of reasoning), but in the context of the 21st century global balance of power, the Afghan game is one the States cannot afford to lose, regardless of the cons (which are more for Obama than America as a system, the latter being the one that really takes decisions on peace and war).
    What your little post, which I found by chance while looking for updates regarding the TAPI negotiations, makes me realize is that the problem is only partially the lack of news on the true reasons behind the war. The problem is the lack of will to believe in a different truth other than the mainstream one. If even well-educated young people like you do not understand or accept the false nature of the so-called Western democracies despite clear evidence of their true objectives and values… well, you come up with a good conclusion and don’t forget the pros and cons…

    • corsullivan permalink*
      December 6, 2009 11:36 am

      Thanks for the comment on my “little post”. I’m not sure I quite understand your apparent contempt for pros and cons. You can call them benefits and costs if you think this sounds more intellectually respectable, but surely weighing them up and then choosing a course of action is the very essence of rational decision-making. But anyway.

      I have to admit that I still don’t see the overwhelming geopolitical interest that would induce the US establishment to commit tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan over a period of years, only for the sake of a pipeline project that (1) might never be feasible anyway, and (2) would not supply resources directly to America. Rivalry with China and Russia? Maybe the TAPI pipeline would lessen the incentive for Turkmenistan to sell its gas to these powers, but Russia at least has abundant reserves of its own in any case. Strategic alliance with India? Well, they’ll get their natural gas anyway, the only question being whether it comes from Turkmenistan or Iran. If I were Indian I would probably actually prefer the Iranian route, as being safer and more stable (although perhaps not by much, given the possibility that Iran might have trouble with Israel).

      Also, I don’t agree that the number of US troops involved is “just a bit more than nothing”. The US military maintained huge numbers in Vietnam only by using conscription, which isn’t politically viable in this situation. Maintaining the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan is putting the apparatus under genuine strain, although of course this will get better as forces return from Iraq. However, keeping the troops in the field is just plain expensive (they’re saying $1 million per soldier per year, at least for the new allottment of 30,000-odd), and there’s also a political cost to pursuing an increasingly unpopular war.

      I don’t dispute that the US and other Western powers look out for their own material and strategic interests (what sensible country wouldn’t?), or that they lie about things. But to assume that they lie about everything, or that their interests are defined purely by access to natural resources, is just the mirror image of the most extreme, stupid platitudes about freedom, democracy and the American way.

  4. November 30, 2009 6:18 am

    “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.”

    These are not really motives but useful cover stories for keeping us bought into sacrificing troops and spending billions on maintaining this ‘conflict’ for as long as they need to.

    It does seem quite simplistic to think that all this is done for control of energy resource but not when you think of the scale and potential for the few at the top to make a lot of money while eliminating the competition and maintaining control of the world enegy supply, now that sounds like it is worth the effort 😉

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 30, 2009 12:08 pm

      The problem with suggesting that the Afghan mission is ALL about natural gas is that decision-making by governments is rarely so one-dimensional. Every action has multiple consequences that need to be taken into account, and maintaining the economic isolation of Iran is actually a fairly peripheral interest for some countries with troops in Afghanistan. Even the United States, which does care about this, will have a substantial list of pros and cons associated with maintaining a presence in Afghanistan. I suspect the possibility of building a gas pipeline is indeed one of the major pros, and I’d like to see this more widely discussed, but to say it’s the only factor is – to use your own word – simplistic.

  5. reneethewriter permalink
    August 16, 2009 2:28 pm

    Fascinating and first rate – and droll! Thanks, Cor. I look forward to the next installment.

    Of course, as might be expected, i hope we can continue our discussion in deconstructing the “big picture” reasons for Canada’s involvement in A/Stan, as you’ve summarized:

    “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.”


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