Afghans may find peace in the pipeline

Two massive natural gas schemes could bring stability to a troubled area
Click to follow
Two massive new pipelines are being planned to carry natural gas through the embattled territory of Afghanistan, from Turkmenistan in Central Asia to Pakistan and India.

Although Afghanistan is still regarded as unstable, two corporations - one from the United States and one from Argentina - have tabled plans to build pipelines to carry billions of cubic metres of gas from the former Soviet republic to southern Asia.

If one or both of the companies succeed, it will be the first large-scale private investment by the West in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

The plans follow the discovery of a colossal deposit of 750 billion cubic metres of natural gas at Yashlar in Turkmenistan. Besides the potential commercial advantages to anyone with the courage to invest, Western diplomats see the pipeline plan as a way of stabilising Afghanistan and the entire central Asia region.

One pipeline is proposed by the Bridas Corporation, an oil and gas company which has an Argentine director, and is based in the British Virgin Islands. The other is proposed by the American Unocal Corporation, teamed with the Delta Oil Company of Saudi Arabia. Both propose four-foot diameter pipes 800 miles long crossing Afghanistan and avoiding the most rugged mountains.

At present, the two corporations are in dispute. Bridas is pursuing two separate legal actions - one against Turkmenistan and one against Unocal, for its "tortuous interference" in a plan to export the Yashlar gas to Pakistan. Bridas set up a joint venture with Turkmenistan to develop Yashlar in 1992. But in 1995, Turkmenistan granted Unocal rights to set up a consortium to build a pipeline from the Turkmen-Afghan border to Multan.

Malcolm Hurlston, representing Bridas and speaking from Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan, said that in February 1996 Bridas had signed an exclusive agreement to build the pipeline with the Taliban, the Islamic group then controlling large parts of the south of the country. "This year, Bridas has visited the different parties in Afghanistan and has confirmed the agreements with them to go forward with the project without waiting for the end of hostilities," he said.

Last month, Bridas also won a deal to upgrade the existing gas pipeline system in Kazakhstan, which forms part of the former Soviet network and carries Turkmen gas to Russia and on to Western Europe.

Yesterday, Mr Hurlston said he had been in negotiation with all three warring factions in Afghanistan, although the route envisaged passes through the area controlled by the Taliban, which controls Kabul and most of Afghanistan.

The Bridas pipeline is planned to run from Mary in Turkmenistan through west and south Afghanistan to Sui in Pakistan, from where it is hoped it will link with existing pipelines into India. It will require six compressor stations to keep the gas flowing, and will cost $2.5bn (pounds 1.6bn). The Unocal proposal envisages a similar pipeline, ending nearby at Multan, at a cost of $1.9bn with the extension to northern India costing $600m.

The final decision to proceed will depend on a lasting peace in Afghanistan - something anticipated by the two corporations. The West has a strategic interest in exploiting the oil and gas resources of the area. If Afghanistan, which has been at war for 20 years, is to become stable, diplomatic sources said yesterday, a dollar-earner - oil and gas - or a pipeline carrying them - will help.

Britain also takes a wider view of south-Asian security. If India and Pakistan, with their vast and growing populations, are dependent on each other for access to the oil and gas deposits of central Asia, they are less likely to attack each other.

Turkmenistan's Minister for Industry and Mineral resources, Gochmurad Nazdzhanov, said on Tuesday that his country had 6.5 billion tonnes of oil and 21,000 billion cubic metres (more than 20 times the Yashlar pocket) of gas. He said his government had taken "concrete steps" to attract investment in the oil and gas sector.

Until now, experts have been sceptical about the prospect of exploiting oil and gas in Afghanistan, or taking central Asian oil and gas out through it, because of the cost and the area's instability. American prospectors found small quantities of oil and gas in Afghanistan in the 1930s, but the route out was always seen as via the Caspian Sea. However, potential instability in Russia, along with increasing energy demands in India and Pakistan, have altered the picture.