OTTAWA Canadian Forces would support the Afghan National Army in providing security for a proposed natural gas pipeline through war-torn Kandahar if the Afghanistan government asks for help, federal officials said yesterday.
But the Canadian government has not been involved in any planning for the project, including the potential need to protect the pipeline from insurgent attacks, officials added.
Afghanistan agreed this spring with three neighbouring countries - gas-rich Turkmenistan and energy-hungry Pakistan and India - to construct a $7.6-billion (U.S.) natural gas pipeline to connect those markets by traversing the most violence-prone regions of the country.
In a report released yesterday, international energy economist John Foster said the pipeline could require Canada's assistance in providing security, particularly as Afghanistan has vowed to clear the route of land mines and insurgents before the proposed construction start date of 2010.
The United States is strongly backing the so-called TAPI pipeline, both to provide economic development in Afghanistan and as part of a broader energy-related geopolitical strategy. The Americans are eager to see the project proceed to prevent Iran from supplying Pakistan and India with gas through a rival project, and to reduce Russia's influence in the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan.
Mr. Foster said Canada risks being drawn - wittingly or not - into that "new great game" in which its forces are used to guard strategic energy infrastructure. He added, however, that the pipeline is unlikely to be built as long as the Taliban continued to battle NATO and Afghan forces in Kandahar and other southern provinces.
Federal officials said yesterday that Ottawa has played no role in planning the project, though Canada has endorsed the country's official development plan, which promotes both the gas pipeline and an aggressive effort to build power facilities in the country to provide rural electricity.
A senior defence official suggested that it is unlikely Canadian troops would be involved directly in providing security for the pipeline, but would support Afghan efforts to do so.
"We are supporting the [Afghan National Army], and if it becomes one of their priorities, then we'll support them in that priority," Colonel Gerry Champagne said during a briefing yesterday.
Another senior government official - who spoke on the condition he not be identified - said Canada broadly supports the Afghan effort to build a legitimate and stable economy, including projects like the TAPI pipeline. But Canada has not been promoting the pipeline as part of a broader geopolitical agenda, as the Americans have, he said.
Liberal Senator Colin Kenny - chairman of the Senate's national security and defence committee - said Canada has similar interests in the global energy market as the United States, and should not shy away from supporting U.S. geopolitical objectives. "I don't think we would be serving Canadian interests if we were ignoring American interests," he said.
Liberal defence critic Bryon Wilfert said the pipeline represents a welcome signal of co-operation between the participants - especially traditional rivals Pakistan and India - but will require a co-ordinated approach to security. He noted the British have supported the construction of a dam in Helmand province to provide electricity, and that facility has been the target of Taliban attacks.
"From an economic standpoint, it certainly would be very positive in terms of its construction, but with that, it's going to become a magnet for those who would want to stop progress and, of course, we know the Taliban have attacked similar projects," he said.
"So it's good news, but it means security is going to be even more of an issue."