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The decision has been taken: the famous trans-Afghanistan pipeline - the goal behind US support of the Taliban movement in the 1990s and also (according to many people) the real reason for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - will be completed by 2014.

After years of uncertainty and negotiation, on Monday last, in Ashgabat - capital of the ex Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan - the ministers of energy of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Turkmenistan signed a framework agreement for completing the construction of the ‘TAPI' pipeline (from the initials of the four countries involved) before the end of 2014.
A pipeline of 1,680 kilometres that will transport - at the rate of 90 billion litres per day - natural gas extracted from Turkmenistan's natural gas reserves in Daulatabad across western and southern Afghanistan (Herat, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar) before continuing to Pakistan and India.
The gas will be tapped all the way along its journey across the three countries: every day roughly 14 billion litres will end up in Afghanistan, 38 billion in Pakistan and 38 billion in India.
The TAPI, therefore, will not actually supply the energy markets of the West, as originally foreseen in the initial project drawn up by the Californian petrol company Unocal, which did not include India and planned to finish the pipeline in the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Gulf, from where it would continue its journey by sea.
But Western petrol companies will still rake in profits, by participating in the construction and operation of the pipeline, up to now sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), an international financial institute controlled by the United States and Japan. The cost of the project is estimated at roughly 8 billion dollars.
The involvement of the Italian company ENI is also highly probable, not only because the company run by Paolo Scaroni is already Turkmenistan's principal Western energy partner in developing its underground deposits, but also because a consistent part of the TAPI pipeline's course across Afghanistan runs through a territory controlled by Italian military forces: the western province of Herat.
Despite the enthusiasm aroused by last Monday's signing, the effective realisation of the pipeline in four years still seems unrealistic, given that the Afghan regions where it is due to pass are precisely the most unstable in the country.
Afghanistan's vice-minister of the Interior, General Munir Mangal, was present at the signing ceremony. He made a great show of confidence, guaranteeing that Kabul's security forces will be perfectly capable of protecting the pipeline from eventual attacks. But it's difficult not be sceptical.
The only situation which would permit the Afghan section of the pipeline to be built and to function securely would be the ending of the Taliban armed threat. But this will only come about if and when the Taliban have formally returned to power, at least in the Pashtun provinces - a hypothesis which is becoming increasingly fashionable in Washington.

 

Enrico Piovesana