A version of American's favorite pastime is about to be played out in Central Asia. In late May, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan will meet to discuss the Trans-Afghan pipeline, a 1600-kilometer project that would transport natural gas across Central Asia. The region's recent tumult adds a new element of uncertainty to the proceedings: teams of players wait in the wings. Alliances, side deals, and appeals to the UN have all been bandied about, and the possibility of excluding the US from the proposal--a thought which not so long ago would have been unheard of--is a real one. The new Great Game has a line-up of major and minor league players that are in transition.
The pipeline is also known as the Central Asia Gas project, or Centgas, and it is slated to run from Daulatabad, Turkmenistan, through Herat, Afghanistan, on to Multan, in Pakistan, and then finally to India. It has been pursued, in various forms, for the last 10 years, and was originally estimated to cost $2.4 billion. It has involved a wide array of people and organizations, many of whom will be present or at least discussed at the tripartite summit of Pakistani President Musharraf, Turkmen President Niyazov and Afghan Interim Chairman Hamid Karzai, which is scheduled to take place in Islamabad, Pakistan. The prospect of foreign sponsorship for the pipeline will of course be high on the agenda, since firms with the prerequisite expertise and resources will be needed for construction, and knowing who they are will determine the future course of action. Conspicuously absent, of course, will be the Taliban, who were once among the pipeline's major boosters.
During the last decade, the US oil firm Unocal commanded the CentGas consortium, controlling 46.5 percent of the project's shares. Other partners included Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia (15%), Turkmenneftgaz(7%), Itochu Oil of Japan (6.5%), the Crescent Group of Pakistan (3.5%) and Hyundai Engineering of Korea (5%). At the project's outset, an additional ten percent had been reserved for Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, but Gazprom later declined participation, and it shares were folded back into Unocal, increasing the California company's stake to 54 percent. But then Unocal suspended its own involvement, and formally withdrew in December 1998, when the US government's control over the Taliban began to weaken.
Flash forward to the post September 11 era, and the usual and unusual suspects are still waiting for the game to begin. The United States now is a heavy presence in the region, and while few doubt that its primary purpose for intervening was to avenge the terrorist attacks of last fall, few also doubt that other motivations--among them Central Asia's massive oil and gas reserves--have played a role.
The U.S. military buildup in Central Asia may be the largest U.S. presence internationally since the Vietnam War, and in addition to our newfound positioning in the region, it appears likely that by 2003 there will be a U.S. or NATO military presence in most of the15 former Soviet republics. The American influence is further bolstered by both Chairman Karzai, head of Afghan Interim government, and Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan. Both are former employees of Unocal, and both acted as consultants-turned-henchmen in an effort to cut through red tape and help the Centgas Consortium get its project underway.
One need only look at a map of Central Asia and thrust push-pins in every location where US troops are deployed. The US currently has bases in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Afghanistan, the Kandahar Airport is covered, as is the Bagram Air Base. Mazar-i-Sharif Airport, in Kabul, and five US aircraft carriers and warships in the Arabian Sea have also been set into play.
Now view the pattern. The pins suggest that the US is strategically safeguarding the proposed routes of oil and gas pipelines, covering all the region's potential energy byways, and also preventing Iran from developing one of its own.
For some reason, however, the brakes have been applied. The pipeline work hasn't begun. It is possible that the Bush Administration, sensitive to criticism about its close ties to Big Oil, wants to prove the international press wrong, and show that the US intervention in Afghanistan is solely focused on fighting terrorism--that fossil fuel interests do not play a role. On April 28, when Donald Rumsfeld was asked by Tariq Saeedi at a press conference in Turkmenbashy if the security situation in Afghanistan was now stable enough for American oil and gas companies to invest in the Trans-Afghan pipeline, he replied: "Yes, the situation has improved dramatically...however I am not going to comment on what companies might or might not do with respect to the pipeline."
In the weeks since, neither Unocal nor any other American company has shown any interest in stepping up to the plate. While this hesitancy may please the spin doctors in Washington, it has disappointed Turkmenistan, which has been counting on pipeline investment, and which has made an appeal to the UN to gain international support and global attention for it. Thinking the sporadic and continued violence might be investors' main deterrent, the nation asked for security guarantees for the pipeline within Afghanistan, where the situation is most unstable. It is doubtful, however, that the UN will assist the pipeline in any way, except perhaps as an advisor.
Recognizing this, Turkmen President Niyazov invited the Ukraine to participate in the project. On May 1, as quoted in Jang of Karachi, he stated: "I said to President Kuchma of Ukraine, let's take part in (the pipeline project) together. You have pipes, builders, compressors and good technology."
And it does. The Ukraine says it can do the project at half price. The country has factories lying idle; it has large diameter pipes that are inexpensive; and it has extensive experience in construction, as evidenced by the recent contract it won to renovate two million kilometers of gas pipelines in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps more significantly, if, because of Ukrainian participation, the price tag of Trans-Afghan pipeline comes down to US $1.2 billion, there is a strong possibility that Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Afghanistan can form a partnership without any external support. America, in other words, might not be needed.
It is unclear, to say the least, how the Bush Administration would react to such a development. Certainly it never intended to make oil and gas routes safe for interests other than its own. But the possibility of this is real, if remote, and bears further scrutiny.