(IPS) KABUL --
for the trans-Afghan
pipeline have advanced with the Asian Development Bank (ADB)
indicating that it is set to launch a preliminary report on the $2
billion project linking the vast gas field in
Turkmenistan to Pakistan, through Afghanistan.
The earlier contenders for the project, first mooted in the 1990s,
were the U.S. oil and gas company, Unocal, and its Argentinean rival
Bridas. Both had initially agreed to pay $300 million to Afghanistan
per annum as a premium for using the land.
But in December 1998, Unocal said it was withdrawing from the
Central Asia Gas (CentGas) pipeline consortium for business reasons
and no longer had any role in supporting the development or funding
of this project. Bridas, too, had withdrawn from the project and
analysts suggest this was due to security reasons.
But now, according to insiders, there are strong indications Unocal
could be favored by Afghan officials in the government of President
Hamid Karzai to return back to the development of the trans-Afghan
pipeline venture -- though the company's role is not exactly clear in
the ADB-led project.
Half of the 1800-kilometer-long pipeline will pass through Afghan
territory to supply gas from Dawlatabad city of Turkmenistan to the
Gawadar Port of Pakistan.
The trans-Afghan pipeline has been one of the most controversial
issues among western politicians, investors and major world gas
companies, including Unocal and Bridas, since 1995.
ABD officials say the primary plan of the project will soon be released.
Engineer Mandokhil, an advisor to the mines and industries ministry,
told Pajhwok Afghan News: "ADB's technical and economic study will
be completed and the three countries involved in the project --
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan -- will hold a meeting in
Islamabad at the end of November and then the final results will be
Oil analysts in the region say, whoever takes the project will
clearly reap millions of dollars each year from the venture. But
Afghanistan's security has been a major concern for the investors.
Mandokhil added that should India participate in the project, it
will give more momentum to the regional business.
Gul Ahmad Kamali, head of the energy and road projects with ADB,
said his organization's part in the pipeline project was to assess
the facilities, provide technical advisors, and conduct surveys.
Turkmenistan, the world's biggest producer of gas, is desperate to
get its huge gas reserves out to market and thereby boost up its
weak economy by presenting its gas petroleum supplies to south and
central Asian countries.
The trans-Afghanistan pipeline will first go to Gawadar Port of
Pakistan and then to India and the gas will then be transferred to
Bangkok through ships.
Hakim Taniwal, the former mines and industries minister, now
minister of employment and social affairs, told Pajhwok that the
three partners discussed at the seventh meeting in Islamabad how to
ensure security for the pipeline in all the three countries and to
specify the portion of India in this project.
Engineer Nazar Mohammad Mangal, the acting minister of mines and
industry, said Afghanistan has got more of a chance to get involved
in regional development and economic projects.
"I've just returned from India where I attended a conference of
South Asian Energy (SAE), and Afghanistan joined SAE in this
conference, so the windows of hope are open for us," Mangal said in
Salam Azemi, a former Unocal advisor, said the pipeline project was
very important for Afghanistan in terms of economic and regional
benefits and it will provide jobs for many Afghans.
Afrasyab Khattak, a Pakistan based regional analyst, said
implementation of the project was for the benefit of both
Afghanistan and Pakistan despite its past suspensions.
"Our region is very backward in economic development and if this
project is implemented, it will benefit our nation tremendously,
though, improper rivalry and some initial problems had impeded the
business, but it's a good time to take advantage of this," Khattak said.
Azemi also said Bridas had started the primary survey of the project
during the mujahideen government in the 1990s, but it suspended
plans because of the lack of security.
Iran once tried to pass the pipeline from its territory, but soon
failed because it was too expensive.
In 1995 it was thought that the former Pakistani president Benazir
Bhutto, Pakistani politician Nasrullah Babar, the Taliban regime,
and the Turkmen president Safar Murad Niazov, were on one side of
the argument trying give the project to the Argentinean company Bridas.
On the other side were Saudi Arabia's Delta Oil, Robin Rafael, a
senior official in the U.S. State Department, Prince Turki
al-Faisal, the then-Saudi intelligence chief, Zalmai Khalilzad,
South Asia advisor to the State Department, and moderate Taliban
officials, supporting Unocal.
Correspondents say Pakistan, then under Bhutto, was under pressure
from the United States to sign the pipeline construction agreement.
They also say the UN special representative to Afghanistan at that
time, Mahmood Misteiry, and his deputy were both sacked from their
jobs because the deputy was associated with Bridas.
During that period, Bridas attempted to take the project first but
the American company, Unocal, a well-reputed oil and gas company
with 108 years of history, won the bid. Unocal planned to train
professional Afghans at the University of Nebraska to run this project.
By October 1997, Unocal established the Central Asian Gas Pipeline
consortium to build the Turkmenistan-Pakistan segment of the
pipeline at an estimated cost of two billion dollars ($2.7 billion
if extended to India).
Construction was scheduled to begin as early as in 1998, but the
ongoing civil war in Afghanistan obstructed any opportunities for
financing the project.
After the U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan in August 1998, Unocal
suspended its involvement in the pipeline and officially withdrew
from the consortium towards the end of the year
The revised scheme, besides the $300 million annual income,
should pave the way for extension of a railway alongside the
pipeline, thousands of Afghans should find jobs, free gas should be
distributed to the areas through which the pipeline is passing, and
should ensure construction of electricity and road facilities in
Azemi says improvement of Pakistan-India relations and settlement of
the Kashmir dispute should be ensured before the project comes into
While there's talk of Unocal's return, some analysts have criticised
the company for its "bad history."
Bashir Ahmad Ansari wrote in his book, 'Afghanistan in the Blaze of
Oil', that Unocal has always been under public pressure over its
The strongest objection against the company was a 120-page protest
letter by 30 U.S.- based organizations on Dec. 10, 1998, submitted
to legal officials in California.
"Unocal's cooperation with the Taliban regime which was violating
all human rights, especially women's rights, forced most women's
organizations in the U.S. to make legal criticism against the
company," wrote Ansari.
"Thereby, the oppressed Afghan nation became a victim of the black
dinosaur of petroleum after being sacrificed by the Red Communism,"
added the author.
All the sides involved have been concerned about security in
When, for instance, the former Soviet Union extended a small oil
pipeline from the northern provinces to Kabul, it had holes in many
areas and people were known to steal the oil as it ran freely to the
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