Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on Wednesday, stressing the fragility of Afghan security ahead of US President Obama’s planned withdrawal.
While ISAF Joint Command Major Tim James commended Afghan forces to the BBC, saying “The Afghan national security forces have responded incredibly well,” it is important to realize that they are facing a resurgent Taliban. A Taliban once again infused with fury against the West, this time for the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2 in Pakistan.
Will US withdrawal open a door for the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan’s geostrategic position has landed it as the battleground for centuries between fighting powers searching for control over the land.
In today’s world, the large swath of land could prove vital in transporting Turkmen gas to Pakistan, India and onwards through pipelines and LNG terminals in Iran and Pakistan. Large powers such as China and India have been vying for control and influence by investing in the infrastructure – pipelines and highways – necessary for increased energy trade.
However, the insecurity of Afghanistan and the daunting task being left to underdeveloped security forces will severely limit the ability of outsiders to use Afghanistan as a key energy link connecting the Caspian Sea region to the East.
There are several projects under development or consideration that rely greatly on Afghanistan’s ability to establish peace and security within its borders, one of which is a pipeline transporting gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan -- and the Caspian region -- is positioned to play a significant role in supplying the world’s energy demands, both oil and gas. However, potential barriers to development of these resources, especially the financial, construction and security complexities of running these pipelines through several countries, are expected to prevent the full realization of the region’s exports.
The Caspian region’s share in global inter-regional trade is predicted to increase from 4 percent to 11 percent between now and 2035. Creating a variety of flexible export options will allow the Caspian region the greatest opportunities in the international marketplace. However, inefficient domestic energy policies, market trends and political instabilities of the region’s nations threaten the volume of gas that will be placed on the open market.
TAPI – which stands for Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – is one project that will no doubt be held captive to the security situation in Afghanistan.
This pipeline project aims to deliver gas from the Dauletabad field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India.
The project began in 1995 when Turkmenistan and Pakistan first inked a deal to build a pipeline. Though the deal has been signed and withdrawn several times, the ability to circumvent Russia, in order to export gas from Central Asia, has drawn the participating countries back to the table over and over again. In December 2010, the TAPI Summit in Ashgabat served host to the signing of the Intergovernmental Agreement between the four nations.
This pipeline will be financed by the Asian Development Bank, which has promised $7.6 billion in aid and, if built, would flood the region with jobs.
However, this pipeline would pass through Herat, Helmand and Kandahar, Afghanistan along with Quetta and Multan, Pakistan before reaching Fazilka, India.
This would become a central artery connecting South and Central Asia through extremely volatile regions.
Turkmenistan declared independence in 1991 as a democratic and secular state. It was granted Permanent Neutrality status by the UN in 1995.
However, current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov rules a single-party government with a new constitution, one that gives more direct power to the president – provincial and district governors who were earlier elected by people’s representatives will now be appointed directly by the president. Additionally, the new parliament is expected to echo the official line.
While Herat, Afghanistan lies within Northern Alliance territory, a group that has pledged support to this project, Kandahar is not only the birthplace of the Taliban in Afghanistan; it has remained the heart of the Taliban movement.
Helmand, located west of Kandahar region may also pose a significant threat from the Taliban. Despite varying accounts of the strength of the Taliban in the city and the region, the additional transit city of Quetta, considered the home of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan undoubtedly adds risk.
While the Taliban has not commented specifically with regards to this pipeline, they have attacked community development projects before. The aim is to be operational in 2015 though the Taliban may delay or completely prevent this goal from being achieved.
Threats in Afghanistan are underscored and shown through the example of the 218-kilometer highway between Delaram and Zaranj, Afghanistan. The construction of this road saw 1 person killed by the Taliban for every 1.5 kilometers of road lain.
In the end, almost a dozen Indians and 130 Afghans died building this road.
It is this road that will eventually connect to the Chabahar Port in Iran, giving land-locked Afghanistan access to an open-sea port.
It is important to highlight that Indian development projects use Indian money and local Afghan workers – these projects not only provide the end result, a school or bridge for example, but also boost the economy as villagers take ownership in conception and execution of projects.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has promised 7,000 troops to guard the pipeline along with promoting protective ideas such as burying the pipeline.
However, this idea would complicate the engineering aspects, especially detecting and repairing leaks once operational.
Also, many have criticized the plausibility of actually utilizing 7,000 troops from a military still very much developing. Local communities will also be paid to guard the pipelines.
Hizb-e-Islami, an insurgent group in Afghanistan, has pledged security for this pipeline. This group is separate from the Taliban, led by the former Prime Minister, Gulbadin Hekmatyar. Along with the Northern Alliance, they will work in favor of such community development projects.
It is important to remember though that they often operate outside the law and as such, stability even in those areas is not guaranteed.
The attack Wednesday in Kabul casts a dreadful shadow of what challenges are to come for Afghanistan after the US fully withdraws its troops.
However, looking at pipeline and highway construction projects, it is clear to see that Afghanistan has promise to become a great energy and goods transit hub, if security and governance can be established despite attacks such as this.
(Mary E Stonaker is an independent scholar, most recently with the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She can be contacted at email@example.com)