The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline, has been hailed as a “peace pipeline” with the potential to develop cooperation between regional rivals and strengthen economic development throughout the region. While India quenches its increasing energy needs and Turkmenistan expands the market for its extensive natural gas reserves, Afghanistan and Pakistan additionally receive shares of the profits. Politically, the project seeks to reduce tensions between Pakistan and India by creating a win-win economic situation. Stakeholders would also have reason to increase security in Afghanistan, reducing violence in the war-torn nation. With Pakistan supporting the Taliban in order to check India’s influence in Afghanistan, the pipeline could encourage Pakistan to push the Taliban towards peace.
Construction on the Afghan section of TAPI has recently begun, but still faces a significant obstacle in the Taliban. The pipeline will run through territory held by the group, raising security concerns. The Taliban, however, have previously said they would support the pipeline and its development. On the surface, then, the project seems set to unite regional powers as well as warring factions within Afghanistan. This optimistic view, however, fails to consider the overarching strategic objectives of the actors involved. Rather than developing stronger, more peaceful connections between competing players, TAPI could serve to only heighten tensions and regional competition by weakening the Afghan state.
Within Afghanistan, the pipeline could very well bring peace — but unfortunately with strings attached. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan recently extended a peace offer to the Taliban during the recent Kabul Process Conference. The Taliban have yet to respond, indicating they could potentially come to the negotiating table. The government’s peace offer, however, yields significant concessions to the Taliban. Under the deal, the government would return Taliban prisoners, recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party, and fully integrate them into the Afghan state. Importantly, these terms include all of those for which the Taliban have previously pushed, with the noticeable omission of foreign troop withdrawal. The willingness of Afghanistan’s government to meet so many demands coincides with construction of the TAPI pipeline, with Ghani stressing the significance of the pipeline in the same statement as his peace offer. As such, the TAPI pipeline has clearly raised the Taliban’s bargaining power. With the pipeline regarded as vital to Afghanistan’s development through its ability to bring in much-needed cash and jobs, the Taliban can demand more compensation for their cooperation.
A legitimized Taliban, while potentially decreasing violence, could fracture Afghanistan and hinder future development of the state. As an institutionalized political party, the Taliban would still maintain significant control in certain areas. As a group inclined towards self-preservation, the Taliban would oppose total control by the central government, instead maintaining some degree of independence and ultimately degrading state strength and impeding long-term development. Lebanon’s government, for example, consists of a collection of several political parties, including Hezbollah, that hold a significant degree of autonomy at local levels. As a result, Lebanon has poor public service provisions, such as healthcare, that generally require planning and implementation at the national level to be effective. Efforts at reform have failed, complicated by both internal political actors and foreign powers competing for influence The proposed peace deal could send Afghanistan down a similar path by institutionalizing the Taliban, allowing them to entrench themselves within the country’s government. State capacity will likely suffer as a result, while any future efforts to completely erode Taliban autonomy will only face resistance. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has made enormous strides as a legitimate political institution, and has won great gains in Lebanon’s recent May 6 election; the Taliban could end up follow a similar trajectory under the offered peace deal. Even if the Taliban reject any peace deals and continue their insurgency, they can still hold the pipeline hostage to force further financial compensation from TAPI’s stakeholders.
The Taliban are central not only to Afghanistan’s prospects at peace and development, but to India-Pakistan relations as well. Pakistan fears a pro-India Afghanistan as it would become surrounded by Indian influence; Pakistan views an unstable Afghanistan as a preferred alternative and has thus supported the Taliban to further its interests. Should the Taliban become legitimized, Pakistan will have a more direct channel through which to influence politics in Afghanistan. As a result, the Pakistan-India rivalry will not disappear in Afghanistan, but rather evolve into a diplomatic battlefield. While fractured, Afghanistan will become a more significant prize in the minds of Pakistan and India as peace allows the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin looking outwards. Both countries will in turn look to gain favor with major actors in Afghanistan. With a stable (if weak) Afghanistan a more important geopolitical player, the potential political situation precipitated by TAPI offers an additional point of friction between Pakistan and India that could damage relationships even further. A similar scenario will still play out should the Taliban reject peace, with the pipeline strengthening the Taliban even in war, thereby giving Pakistan a more powerful ally through which to counter the Afghan government supported by India.
The TAPI pipeline also directly heightens Afghanistan’s importance for India, as India will need to ensure the security situation in Afghanistan for the pipeline to operate. This could become problematic for the India-China relationship as the geopolitical contention between nations develops. While not a stake-holder in TAPI, China displays a growing security interest in Afghanistan to prevent the spillover of insurgency and terrorism into its own territory, in addition to economic interests in Afghanistan’s minerals. Beijing has increased its military aid to Afghanistan, with some reports of Chinese interest in establishing its own military base in the country. India has so far provided mostly economic aid to Afghanistan due to a disinclination towards military engagement but has recently increased its training support to Afghanistan’s armed forces. The TAPI pipeline will almost certainly stimulate further Indian involvement in Afghanistan, bringing India into conflict with China as it does with India and Pakistan.
As others argue, TAPI serves as a US-backed energy project that counters a pipeline deal between Russia and China and may fuel competition between a US-India cohort and China. With TAPI designed in part to reduce demand for Iranian energy reserves and to improve India’s energy and economic situation, the pipeline solidifies the US-India relationship. In this regard, the Russia-China pipeline mirrors TAPI. Taken together, the cultivation of these opposing relationships increases the competition and potential for conflict between US-India and Russia-China.
Despite TAPI, the fundamental disagreements between involved states remain. India and Pakistan still dispute control over Kashmir, while India and China are rising powers competing for influence. China’s increasing strategic and economic partnership with Pakistan further distances both nations from India. Within Afghanistan, the Taliban cannot be expected to withhold utilizing the pipeline to further their own aims. TAPI will provide economic benefit to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, but the pipeline may not bring harmony as promised. Opposed by an empowered Taliban, Afghanistan will struggle to build state capacity even if it achieves some measure of peace. A strengthened Taliban in Afghanistan consequently intensifies the jostling of power between India and Pakistan. Afghanistan’s amplified strategic importance means India-China relations could also suffer. TAPI generates a curious yet tragic conundrum, with economic gain coming at the expense of elevated regional tensions and worsening prospects for building a strong Afghan state. With the pipeline already under construction, TAPI stakeholders have already made their decision, but they should not expect the pipeline alone to produce peace. Rather, TAPI should be viewed by stakeholders as an important first-step towards further cooperative endeavors with less potential for politicization. Without eliminating the roots of competition between regional players or further consolidating economic and strategic ties, TAPI may only further fracture the region.