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Pipeline opens new front in Afghan war

Canadian role in Kandahar may heat up as allies agree on U.S.-backed energy route through land-mine zones and Taliban hot spots

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Afghanistan and three of its neighbouring countries have agreed to build a $7.6-billion (U.S.) pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to energy-starved Pakistan and India – a project running right through the volatile Kandahar province – raising questions about what role Canadian Forces may play in defending the project.

To prepare for proposed construction in 2010, the Afghan government has reportedly given assurances it will clear the route of land mines, and make the path free of Taliban influence.

In a report to be released Thursday, energy economist John Foster says the pipeline is part of a wider struggle by the United States to counter the influence of Russia and Iran over energy trade in the region.

The so-called Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline has strong support from Washington because the U.S. government is eager to block a competing pipeline that would bring gas to Pakistan and India from Iran.

The TAPI pipeline would also diminish Russia's dominance of Central Asian energy exports.

Mr. Foster said the Canadian government has long ignored the broader geopolitical aspects of the Afghanistan deployment, even as NATO forces, including Canadian troops, could be called upon to defend the critical energy infrastructure.

“Government efforts to convince Canadians to stay in Afghanistan have been enormous,” he says in a report prepared for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-of-centre think tank in Ottawa.

“But the impact of the proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline in areas of Afghanistan under Canadian purview has never been seriously debated.”

In an interview, Mr. Foster – a former economist with Petro-Canada, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank – said he believes the TAPI project could provide major benefits for Afghanistan and the region generally. If the project proceeds – and serious obstacles remain – Afghanistan's national government could reap $160-million (U.S.) a year in transit fees, an amount equivalent to half the government's current revenue.

But he said the security issues remain daunting and the Canadian military could – wittingly or not – become embroiled in a “new great game” over energy security that is playing out in the region.

Acting Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson – who chairs the cabinet committee on Afghanistan – would not comment on the pipeline yesterday. When asked about the project earlier this spring, he said only that Canada wants to see Afghanistan develop a “legitimate and legal economy that can sustain a credible, viable state.”

Backed by the opposition Liberals, the Conservative government has committed to keeping the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan until 2011, although there is growing skepticism that the engagement will end at that point.

New Democratic Party MP Paul Dewar said the government needs to be more forthcoming about the four-nation project and whether Canadian forces would end up guarding the pipeline.

Though experts remain skeptical that the project will get off the ground, the four countries appear determined to prove them wrong.

With the backing of Manila-based Asian Development Bank, ministers from the four countries met in late April and agreed to start construction of the pipeline by 2010, and begin supplying gas by 2015, although critical financial issues must still be worked out.

At a donor's conference attended by a Canadian delegation last November, countries committed to “assist Afghanistan to become an energy bridge in the region” and to accelerate work on the TAPI pipeline “to develop a technically and commercially viable project.”

There was no public discussion of who would provide the security for the project.

The pipeline proposal goes back to the 1990s, when the Taliban government held talks with California-based Unocal Corp. – and its U.S. government backer – while considering a competing bid by Argentina's Bridas Corp. Those U.S.-Taliban talks broke down in August, 2001. India, which desperately needs natural gas imports to fuel its growth, later joined the revived project.

Last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the U.S. government has a “fundamental strategic interest” in Afghanistan that goes well beyond ensuring it is not used as a launching pad for terrorism, which was the original justification for the UN-sanctioned NATO mission of which Canada is a part.

That objective remains paramount, Mr. Boucher said, but he added that there is a “historic opportunity … of having an open Afghanistan that can act as a conduit for energy, ideas, people, trade, goods from Central Asia and other places down to the Arabian Sea.”

Stephen Blank, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle Barracks, Pa., said the U.S. government is particularly eager to provide an alternative to the proposed $7.5-billion (U.S.) Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, which those three countries have agreed to pursue.

“From the U.S. viewpoint, the idea of blocking Iran is of paramount significance,” he said.

As well, the United States is pushing the TAPI pipeline as one of several natural gas export options from Central Asia that would bypass Russia, which until now has maintained a stranglehold on gas exports from the region.

But Dr. Blank – who has written extensively on energy-related geopolitics in the region – said he doesn't believe the TAPI pipeline will be built any time soon due to security concerns.

Still, the project is seen as a key part of Afghanistan's strategic development plan, which Canada and its NATO partners have endorsed as critical to establishing its political stability.

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