Central Asia, making up for lost time

Published: September 14, 2011
The writer served as additional-secretary in the Foreign Office and is currently on the faculty of the National Defence University

The writer served as additional-secretary in the Foreign Office and is currently on the faculty of the National Defence University

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s visit to Kazakhstan on September 6-7, 2011 was a welcome step in the right direction. Central Asia is a vital energy-rich neighbouring region for Pakistan with which we have long-standing cultural and historical links restored after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Amongst the Central Asian Republics (CARs), Kazakhstan is the largest, with major petroleum and mineral reserves. Turkmenistan has the most gas reserves.

Kazakhstan plays an increasingly important regional and international role. It hosted the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in the Europe summit in December 2010, and this year it hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, the International Convention of Faith Ministries and the World Islamic Economic Forum. Kazakhstan is the major driver of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.

Pakistan was the second country after Turkey to recognise the CARs when they became independent at the end of 1991. There was euphoria in Pakistan as to the relationships and links we would forge with the CARs. The latter wanted to end their dependence on Russia for exporting energy and it was clear that we were in competition with the West, Russia, Turkey and Iran for accessing energy supplies for our own use.

Pakistan midwifed the Central Asian Gas Pipeline consortium, led by the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal) in the mid 1990s, to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan, leading to Pakistan. The plan was to create an energy corridor with a parallel oil pipeline, using un-utilised existing pipelines in Central Asia, stretching across Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In Ashgabat, the Uzbek president signed an agreement with the presidents of Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to inject Uzbek gas into the pipeline. The Afghan factions, who all welcomed the pipeline project would have realised, from the economic activity generated, that peace was better than war. The moderate Taliban faction would have prevailed and the subsequent history and suffering of Afghanistan would have been different. However, the United States turned its face and Unocal dropped the project.

Subsequently, it has been a lost decade and a half for Pakistan in terms of energy supplies from abroad. There were always three projects on offer, an underwater pipeline from Qatar, a pipeline from Iran and another from Turkmenistan. Seriously, negotiating with all three would have given leverage for a better price. It was obvious that the best pipeline would be the first one to be put in place.

However, we were not able to focus and to implement any project. Vested interests claimed that Turkmenistan had pledged its gas to Russia and its reserves were insufficient for a pipeline to Pakistan. While we procrastinated, China built a 7,000 kilometre pipeline from Turkmenistan, taking its gas to China.

It is still not too late. While the pipeline from Iran-Pakistan-India must go ahead, despite American reservations, as it is the most advanced so far, the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan (Turkmenistan-Afganistan-Pakistan-India) should also be relentlessly pursued as should liquefied natural gas from Qatar, which happens to be the largest producer of the product in the world. Ultimately, Pakistan and India will need more than one natural gas pipeline. It would contribute significantly to Afghanistan’s stabilisation, creating construction and security employment, transit royalties and gas for its industry. Pakistan is a slumbering giant and it’s time to wake up and make up for lost time in Central Asia.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Straight_Talk
    Sep 14, 2011 - 10:12PM

    The idea is fine but there is a real problem. USA is dead against any ties with Iran. I do not think India and/or Pakistan can overcome the US on this. We live in a unipolar world now where US foreign policy and their diplomatic language is very aggressive and conclusive. They don’t discuss. They just tell you what they would not let happen. I don’t see Pakistan having the strength to say no to USA.The key country here is Pakistan. Its location is central. If Pakistan says no to Iran the pipeline does not happen. As for the Central Asian Republics Russia will surely resist a slip to its hegemony. Then there is China which would like the pipelines of CARs to head eastwards. However the CAR thing looks more doable. Lets see how things shape up.


  • N
    Sep 14, 2011 - 10:22PM

    All this was happening in Muslim lands. Unocal the only company? Or is it convenient to blame others – in this case our favorite USA? When was the last time the various factions of Afghanistan ever agreed on anything and hold their end of the bargain? With partners like these need we have enemies!


  • Ali
    Sep 15, 2011 - 4:40AM

    always finding excuses to protect USA ? with comments like yours who needs Indians


  • Ali
    Sep 15, 2011 - 4:59PM

    We need to get that pipeline from Iran started soon!Recommend

  • MK
    Sep 15, 2011 - 8:42PM

    Definitely incompetence on part of Pakistanis, especially in securing Qatar pipeline. However there are some other facts about other two initiatives.
    Taliban had talks with US and Unocal in Texas in Dec 1997, however eventually they wanted to give the contract of Turkmenistan–Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline to Bridas, an Argentine oil company. Things changed when U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, moved into CentGas in 1997. In January 1998, the Taliban selected CentGas over Argentinian competitor Bridas Corporation. Unocal was part of consortium. But later pulled out of the project.
    On September 14 Unocal issued this statement “The Company is not supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan in any way whatsoever. Nor do we have any project or involvement in Afghanistan. Beginning in late 1997, Unocal was a member of a multinational consortium that was evaluating construction of a Central Asia Gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan [via western Afghanistan]. Our company has had no further role in developing or funding that project or any other project that might involve the Taliban.”
    Interestingly after US invasion of Afghanistan, two people came to prominence, Karzai as President and Zalmey Khalilzad as US envoy, both Ex Unocal employees. Things started looking good again for a little while. Afghanistan under Taliban as considered safe for such a project by a US company in 1997, but since then (10 years now) US and “Northern Alliance” has failed to secure northern Afghanistan for a pipeline to go through.
    As of Iran Pakistan pipeline we all know whey that cannot go ahead. Our uncle Sam does not like us talking us to Iran.


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