TAPI Pipeline Project and the US-NATO Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan. An interview with Ambassador Khaled Ahmad Zekriya

by Silvia Boltuc

Since the United States signed the Doha Peace Agreement with the Taliban group, numerous analyses and reports have been written on the future of Afghanistan. Now with the latest announcement made by the US President Joe Biden on the US and NATO complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan starting on May 1st, 2021 and ending by September 11th, 2021—marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—the future success in Afghanistan and Central Asia depends on regional cooperation and connectivity via TAPI natural gas pipeline project and other similar projects in the region.

The implementation and utilization of the TAPI pipeline not only plays a decisive role in supporting the Afghan national economic development, the peace process and security, but it is also deemed critical for the future prosperity of other states involved such as Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India. Since its promotion in the 1990s, regional experts and political analysts have widely discussed the importance of TAPI and have indicated that it will ultimately lead to prosperity and safeguard peace and security in Afghanistan, the region and beyond.

For years, the world of international affairs has been divided between supporters and detractors of the TAPI, but in recent times it seems that something dramatically changed when Turkmenistan started talks with the Taliban group and emphatically pushed the involved parties in TAPI to complete its construction (Gasdotto TAPI tra speranze future e interessi geopolitici).

Many observers and international media have often highlighted that the future of TAPI depends on the security and stability of Afghanistan and how the involved states might manage and control the TAPI infrastructure and guarantee the pipeline’s operativity.

ASRIE Analytica met with H.E. Khaled Ahmad Zekriya, the Ambassador of Afghanistan in Rome, Italy and discussed the future of the TAPI as well as the implication of the US and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Looking at the national security and the Taliban group activities, how is it possible to realize the TAPI pipeline project? Who are the current investors and future foreign investors that are interested in this infrastructural project?

First and foremost, the importance of the TAPI pipeline project for Afghanistan and the region cannot be denied. In view of the fact that TAPI has four different phases, and we have just completed the first two—the signing in December 2010 of the TAPI framework agreement, intergovernmental agreements and completed other pertinent documents relating to the Gas Sales and Purchase Agreement (GSPA) followed by the signing of the GSPA itself in 2012, where Asian Development Bank (ADB) was in charge of financing of all these gatherings, technical studies and drafting of these agreements—and currently in the third phase, ADB has been asked to continue as secretariat for the Special Purpose Consortium Company (SPCC) led by a commercial entity and finalizing GSPA related operational agreements, the ultimate goal is to start and manage the construction of TAPI on a timely manner (Phase Four). Pursuant to TAPI’s operativity, the responsible distribution of resources among the involved countries is of the next pivotal importance.

Talking about foreign investors, I should highlight that currently four countries are involved in TAPI pipeline project, namely Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In the future, after the peace process, things might change dramatically. In fact, since we cannot negate the strong relations that exist between China and Turkmenistan, I believe that in the post-peace scenario in my country, the Chinese will be very much interested in investing in some form or shape in TAPI.

As it relates to the US, as the former Trump Administration unveiled the ‘US Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity’,  the US began to show great interest in TAPI—as a regional signature project—to be fully implemented and of course, protected at the same time by the involved states. In the post-peace milieu in Afghanistan, we might see some US companies as interested parties to invest in this project as well.

The central issue that remains is how Turkmenistan is going to build consensus around this project, taking into account that Ashgabat at the moment is the key investor in the TAPI pipeline. Since I personally believe that TAPI is the ‘Personification of Turkmenistan’ and this project is going to be grand and multiconnected, the expected positive outcomes depend on how in the post-peace setting in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan will be able to actively engage other investors in his project.

Additionally, after the peace process in Afghanistan, things will be noticeably different in the region and the consortium itself might make some changes to create flexibility and consequently attract further investment. For instance, concerning Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, I think they might be interested in investing not only in TAPI but also in other similar projects in Central Asia.

At the beginning, the Russian Federation seemed ready to cooperate with TAPI, but since this project dates back more than 25 years, at the time when TAPI was expected to be completed by 2019, the Russians expressed a slight interest in it. Now, due to the delays in the construction, we do not know what the Russian Federation stance is on TAPI. Considering that the Kremlin has a fraternal relationship with Central Asia, we might expect the Russian Federation to politically support TAPI although we do not know whether Russian entrepreneurs will invest in it.

Last but not least, as it relates to foreign investments in Afghanistan, one of the main reasons for the low level of foreign investment has to do with lack of electricity. Hence, national electrification by TAPI will not only encourage foreign direct investments (FDIs) in Afghanistan but will also increase domestic electric production from 20 to 30 per cent for public use. Pakistan and India that have the same necessity for energy will also benefit from TAPI.”

H.E. Khaled Ahmad Zekriya, the Ambassador of Afghanistan in Rome, Itay

How might this pipeline affect the regional dynamics considering that India and Pakistan are extremely interested in Afghanistan, but at the same time they are in conflict?

“Under the wise leadership of H.E. President Ghani, our foreign policy that is predicated on multilateralism and regional cooperation and connectivity and through bilateral, trilateral and regional formats and processes, including the utilization of energy, transport and transit development diplomacy, we have had major achievements in the region. I personally think that through TAPI, ‘interdependency’ and further ‘consensus’ will be established amongst the involved states (not dependency or co-dependency). Interdependency and consensus will further strengthen mutual trust and generate economic profit for all the stakeholders via projects such as TAPI.

Since the four involved countries in TAPI have agreed on gas share distribution, it is clear that no one will be disenfranchised. I have total confidence that the dynamics of TAPI will change once the pipeline is finished and becomes fully operational. At the end of the day, Pakistan and India are in dire need of energy, inevitably will coalesce by coming on board on this project. Undoubtedly, this would be a clear reaffirmation of interdependency between these two states.

Under H.E. President Ghani, as our government strives to boost regional connectivity and cooperation, where TAPI is considered an integral part of it, our strategy is concise and clear: First, our aim is to ultimately align Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) and its complementary processes and mechanisms with Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC). Secondly, by implementing TAPI and projects alike, we would like Afghanistan to be better connected with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Thirdly, one of the major manifestations of regional connectivity through TAPI, which is electrification, in the long run, it will ultimately lead to prosperity and security, including FDIs in Afghanistan. Fourthly, by creating ‘interdependency’ and ‘consensus’ amongst regional countries, it shall further strengthen mutual trust and generate economic profit for all the stakeholders including India and Pakistan. Lastly, our strategy is to create long term employment for the Afghans. For example, through TAPI around 10 to 14 thousand Afghans in fields of engineering, security, logistics and transportation will be employed. One can imagine the dividends coming from TAPI to Pakistan, India and the region.

Moreover, TAPI will assist Afghanistan to further strengthen its bilateral economic ties with Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India. If you consider the latest news about recent contact made between the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I believe that if there is a will, there is a way for these two nations to work together and through the use of TAPI and other connectivity projects, interdependence, mutual understanding, consensus, trust and cooperation could prevail between them. Furthermore,  the ongoing trilateral mechanisms (Afghanistan – U.S. – Turkmenistan, Afghanistan – US – Tajikistan, and Afghanistan – US – Uzbekistan) has made our natural and near neighbours realize that Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbours are keen on consolidating regional connectivity and cooperation. Therefore, realizing that Afghanistan is the ideal route for Pakistan and India to get energy transference and ultimately become energy sufficient, they must cooperate with each other in supporting an Afghanistan that is fully independent, self-reliant and at peace with itself and the region, even more so now that US-NATO forces are going to depart Afghanistan.”

Route of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistn-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline (Source: Voice of America)

Since there are many foreign state and private actors interested in Afghanistan, can you tell us how is it possible to guarantee an autonomous and independent national Government?

Although political geography has historically brought different actors in our region, this time most states and organizations involved in Afghanistan came with the big goal of defeating transnational terrorism. As they arrived in 2001, with the assistance of Afghans they were able to remove the Taliban from power and began their operation against al-Qaeda. In 2005, due to numerous reasons, our country witnessed the resurgence of the Taliban group. Thanks to our international allies, Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and our robust foreign policy, we were able to manage this crisis accordingly.

Let me tell you some of the facts that have been realized by all the stakeholders in Afghanistan…And I think this realization will safeguard what we have achieved in the last two decades namely: our autonomy, national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic institutions and the republic.

First, everyone involved in Afghanistan has realized that we have a very strong national identity; though it is normal for every identity to be dichotomies or trichotomies. One could be a Sunni or Shiite, Pashtun or Tajik, Kandahri or Kabuli, but these dichotomies or trichotomies ultimately leads to one identity: the Afghan national identity.

Second, contrary to popular belief, Afghanistan is not a tribal society. If you travel in all parts of Afghanistan, if there is a grievance on any issue, the local population will only rely on the government authorities to solve it. In other words, they do not take their complaints to their ethnic elder or leader, instead, they go directly with their complaint to the government authority in charge of that locality. This is indicative of the fact that the local population supports the government apparatus and this national support for the government is key for the autonomy of all nation-states.

Third, since forty years of turmoil followed by factional war withered away various Afghan institutions, in 2001 we began their rehabilitation. As the US started its mission with the motto of nation-building in Afghanistan, based on a realization that the Afghan nation was strong, instead it shifted its focus and efforts on state-building. Through the assistance, cooperation and sacrifices both in blood and treasure by our international friends, including Italy, we were able to rehabilitate our governmental institutions and the rehabilitation of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) is a prime example of such institutional effort. In fact, today ANDSF despite enormous casualties is doing a great job in protecting our citizens and for that, we are indebted for their sacrifices. In fact, today the local population fully support and rely on the Afghan police and the military forces. In 2014, as President Ghani oversaw the responsible transfer of security operations from NATO forces to ANDSF, no one could have predicted that Afghanistan was going to hold, but we have been able to manage as today 98% of all military operation are being conducted by the brave men and women of ANDSF.

Fourth, on the economic front, we just inaugurated one of the most important projects in Afghanistan, the Kamal-Khan dam, where for years the construction of this project was postponed. Under H.E. President Ghani’s leadership, we are at a very important turning point in our water security initiatives and diplomacy—in the second half of the 60’s we signed the best water agreements with our neighbouring countries—and today, we are revisiting our glorious past by building on the past and going forward. Therefore, water security and diplomacy has become a very important pillar of our foreign policy, because Afghanistan as an agricultural country, must rehabilitate its agricultural sector in order to achieve self-reliance.

Fifth, in 1964 as we had the first constitutional democracy—a period considered to be a ‘Golden Era’ for our country—immediately followed by the formation of our first Republic, and in 2001 with the establishment of the Islamic Democratic Republic and ratification of our Islamic democratic constitution, the current notion of the Afghan democratic-republic polity has become institutionalized and part of our political culture. This enduring democratic legacy, which has become the basis for our current political system draws its strength from the support of our citizens. Therefore, this reality can not be negated by anyone, including the Taliban. As a democratic-republic polity, the transfer of power in my country can only occur through a democratic electoral process. At the moment, we are probably considered to be one of the best countries in the region as it relates to the freedom of press, speech and expression, democratic rights and privileges. Currently, we have a large number of TV stations, newspapers and other media outlets, where the freedom of speech gives our people the possibility of fully expressing their views and even freely criticize our government. Hence, it is unthinkable that the Afghan people will abandon these unalienable rights to go back to the dark days of the Taliban oppression or the factional war of the past.

Sixth, in view of the fact that the Afghan nation is mostly composed of young generation under 25 years of age (around 60 per cent of the population), where most of the educated ones speak English and are IT experts, their interconnection with the world and their vision for the future is based on the republican tenents and democratic values. Hence, a return to the Taliban’s anachronistic system is unacceptable by the large segment of our society.

Seventh, as Afghan society—a moderate society—has always strived to create a balance between traditionalism and modernization, we have vehemently denounced radicalism in all its forms and shapes along with its manifestations. Therefore, we stand united against Afghanistan becoming a rogue radical state ever again.

Eighth, as you may be aware that currently, Afghan women play an important role in our society, especially considering their presence in all branches of the government (for example, 30 per cent of MPs are women) and their rising role in other spheres such as civil society, business, education and journalism. Since Afghan women as a viable force can not easily be reckoned with, they will never go back to the dark ages of the 1990s where their rights were fully violated in Afghanistan.

If you take all these important changes in Afghan society plus the fact the people of Afghanistan are tired of having proxy wars fought in their own territory, and on top of it, you add the impact of TAPI and other regional connectivity projects that will ultimately lead to FDIs, you can easily understand that a bright future lays ahead for Afghanistan.

Based on what we have now in Afghanistan: strong nation, functional republic, robust democratic political culture and civil society, free press and media, solid presence of women in all three branches of the government, young educated generation, a judicial system with laws that protect women’s rights and human rights and strong ANDSF supported and loved by the Afghans, this guarantees an autonomous and independent Afghanistan.”

The Taliban has for years threaten the security situation in Afghanistan with negative consequences also on the TAPI project. In this context, do you think it is possible to rely on the Taliban’s promises regarding the safety of the project?

“I cannot really say yes or no. But, I can tell you that since Pakistan is very interested in TAPI, I believe that the influence Pakistan has on the Taliban, it is plausible that Taliban might be persuaded to support and protect TAPI for three main reasons: First, as around 8-10 billion dollars will be spent on the pipeline’s construction and maintenance by the involved states, including Pakistan, I am pretty sure, a large part of the profits generated by TAPI will be allocated for its security. Thus, it would be very difficult for the Taliban to damage this pipeline. Second, once every Pakistani becomes a recipient of the dividends of TAPI, Pakistan will most likely exert more presuure on the Taliban leadership not to deter the construction and operation of this project. Third, we cannot forget the US role in promoting and sustaining the TAPI pipeline project; this could further discourage the Taliban from hampering with TAPI.

US troops deployed and casualties in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020

What is the Afghan Government’s View on the situation after the complete withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban stance on peace talks with the Government of Afghanistan?

“Following the announcement of the complete withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan by the US President Joe Biden, where other NATO members under the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) also announced their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan fully respects their decision. We are grateful for their political, economic and military assistance and cooperation. Additionally, we pay tribute to the sacrifices made by the international community in the fight against transnational terrorism and the relative elimination of common threats over the past 20 years in Afghanistan.

With the complete withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, under our bilateral strategic partnership agreements with the US (SPA and BSA) and the Status of Force Agreement (SoFA) with NATO, a new chapter in economic, security and political cooperation between Afghanistan and the international community shall commence. In fact, the withdrawal announcement by our US and NATO allies came with the pledge of continued support, cooperation and assistance to Afghanistan. In recent days, further assurances made by the US President, US Secretary of State and other US and NATO officials as well as the world leaders is indicative of the continuous support for Afghanistan.

Let me be very clear that the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan does not mean victory for the Taliban group, rather it is a new chapter in overcoming the transition and achieving self-sufficiency in Afghanistan.

On the national front, as I alluded to earlier, Afghanistan has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. The intellectual and cultural order of the society has shifted dramatically; hence, the young and educated generation of the country is not compatible with the petrified, backward and extremist thoughts of the Taliban. Afghanistan has also made fundamental progress in the social, political, cultural, economic and security fields. Additionally, we have made significant and irreversible achievements in spheres of civil liberties, individual freedoms, human rights, women’s socio-political participation, inclusive government, infrastructure building as well as development projects and the formation of ANDSF. In fact, Afghanistan currently has 350,000 troops, out of which around 40,000 are NATO-standard special forces and commandos that are unparalleled in the region. In addition, the capacity of the Afghan Air Force is also developing rapidly.

It should be noted that in the past two decades, the regional dynamic has changed dramatically as well. Our natural and near neighbours have invested enormously in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan and are tied politically, economically and socially with Afghanistan. Therefore, the revival of the Islamic Emirate regime by the Taliban in Afghanistan is unacceptable to them.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is concerned about the developments in Afghanistan and any change in the region will affect that country. The revival of Islamic Emirate by the Taliban with their pedantic extremist religious ideologies will be seen as a direct threat to Iran’s national security. India as an emerging economic power and a strong democracy that has a prominent role in regional and international politics will not tolerate the creation of the “Islamic Emirate”. Russia that has a fraternal relationship with the Central Asian Republics is vehemently opposed to the Taliban regaining power, because it knows well that with Taliban in power, comes insecurity and mayhem in Central Asia, which will ultimately have bleeding effects on Russia. Let us not forget as Central Asia has made significant political, economic and security strides since the 1990s, they too are fully opposed to the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. China, which is considered to be one of the great regional and world powers is very sensitive to the developments in Afghanistan and the region. The return of the Taliban will strengthen other entities identified by the Chinese Government as having involvement in violent attacks such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (URFET) and the Uyghur Liberation Organization (ULO).

Given these new changes, including the impact of regional development and connectivity, certainly regional consensus will prevent the Taliban from reestablishing their totalitarian Islamic Emirate regime in Afghanistan. This was clearly expressed in the Joint Statement of the Moscow Summit on the non-acceptance of the ‘Islamic Emirate’.

As it relates to the Taliban and the peace talks with the Afghan Government, let me give you some facts on an enumerated manner.

First, with the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban no longer have a legitimate claim for continuing their war, because their so called Jihad that was declared against the infidels should end with the departure of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Thus, the continuance of the bloodshed by the Taliban against the people and government of Aghanistan is deemed null and void.

Second, though the US-Taliban Doha Agreement emboldened Taliban to make illegitmate claims, but at the same time proved that the Taliban’s main intention was never to make peace, rather seek political power through violence in Afghanistan. By not seizing the opportunity to achieve progress in the Doha talks and claiming the false defeat of ANDSF and being victorious over the US and NATO forces, is indicative of their unwillingness to pursue peace instead of war.

Third, by taking advantage of the peace talks, against their commitments, Taliban have retained their connections with Al-Qaeda and 20 or more terrorist groups by providing them support and safe havens. At the same time, a great number of Taliban prisoners that were released from the custody of the Government of Afghanistan are back on the battlefield. Their attacks, especially their targeted killings of civil society activists, journalists and doctors in Afghanistan continues till this day.  Moreover, the Taliban continue to perpetuate and strengthen the war economy through organized crime, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, kidnapping and money laundering on global scale.

Fourth, as it relates to other peace summits and formats, Taliban’s stance at the Moscow Summit clearly reflected their emphasis on violence and support for the continuation of the war. Recently, by boycotting the Istanbul Summit and escalating violence, the Taliban’s will to reject an inclusive political system, eliminate the achievements of the last two decades and suppress the citizens of Afghanistan has become more clearer.

If the Taliban’s aim is to establish the Islamic Emirate through war and their false claim of defeat of ANDSF and being victorious over the US-led global coalition forces is not managed wisely, it will strengthen the spirit of extremism and terrorism in the region and world at large. Eventually, this will consolidate Taliban and their affiliates’ will and false illusion of assuming total power through violence. This is a serious threat against the security of entire world.

Our message is clear: Afghanistan stands ready and is determined to work closely with the international community in the fight against the Taliban, their affiliates and other terrorist groups as well as combating and addressing other common threats such as extremism, narcotics and organized crimes. At the same, we are ready to resume talks with the Taliban as long as there is a sincere effort by their part toward peace making in Afghanistan.

If Taliban believe that they can repeat the scenario of 1990s by turning Afghanistan into a safe haven for terrorists and extremist groups, they are dead wrong.”