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Editorial comment

Thoughts on Memorial Day, Afghanistan and TAPII’m writing this column on what is Memorial Day in the USA. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Memorial Day is a federal holiday, observed annually, to remember those who have died whilst serving in the US Armed Forces. For many it will be a day of quiet commemoration, church ceremonies and cemetery visits, for others there will be military parades, concerts, family gatherings and patriotic speeches. It is a time to remember the fallen, but also remember those who are still on duty in conflicts around the world. 

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In a reminder that war, and opposition to it, continues – a week ago, police clashed with anti-war protestors in Chicago, outside the NATO Summit. Thousands of protestors marched in downtown Chicago towards the venue for the summit to demonstrate against the war, with some Iraq veterans ‘returning’ their medals by throwing them in the direction of the conference. Police used force to hold back a small group of protestors who tried to cross security lines.

Leaders of 62 countries were meeting in Chicago to discuss global security issues and foremost the war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama conducted a one-to-one meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but did not meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. The summit closed amid frustration that no deal was agreed with Pakistan on Aghanistan supply routes (Pakistan has closed NATO supply routes to Afghanistan in protest over drone attacks and a US air strike last November. The US must now resupply its troops in Afghanistan through slower and more expensive routes from the north and Russia.)

Across the Atlantic Ocean, to the UK, and Labour Party leader Ed Milliband has recently visited Afghanistan, calling for greater national recognition of UK forces’ work in the country and for earnest international efforts to secure a lasting political settlement before NATO troops leave. Obama and NATO have set an ‘irreversible’ course to withdraw 130 000 combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

New French President Francois Hollande has also made a trip to Afghanistan. Hollande, who won an election earlier this month, defended his decision to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan two years early.

Against this political backdrop, the first contracts have just been signed for the 1800 km TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) natural gas pipeline.

India’s GAIL and Pakistan’s Inter-State Gas System Ltd have signed separate agreements with Turkmenistan for the purchase of gas. Afghanistan’s role is now primarily as a transit route: it has signed an MoU to co-operate as a secure route and has allegedly negotiated safe transport with the Taliban. India and Pakistan will each receive 38 million m3/d of natural gas and Afghanistan will receive 14 million m3/d.

TAPI was first conceived in the 1990s but has suffered years of delays. The proposed pipeline is supported by the US and is backed by the Asian Development Bank. The US greatly prefers it over its Iranian rival, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline, itself a victim of long delays.

Turkmenistan holds more than 4% of the world’s natural gas reserves (equal to Saudi Arabia and behind only Russia, Iran and Qatar). The TAPI pipeline will help Turkmenistan cut its reliance on exports to Russia, and will boost its annual gas exports to 180 billion m3 by 2030. India, which is expected to double its gas consumption over the next 25 years, desperately needs the gas (having been forced to buy costly LNG following falling local gas output).

Of course the project is a high-risk one – the pipeline’s route would take it straight through the region’s most turbulent areas, including conflict-torn Helmand and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan, as well as Quetta in Pakistan, where tribal unrest is common.

At an estimated cost of US$ 10 – 12 billion, the pipeline project will be costly and security will be a key issue. A 2018 start date is expected, but the handover of combat command to Kabul in mid-2013, as agreed by NATO leaders in Chicago, is the date to watch in the meantime.

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