The release of new estimates showing that Afghanistan may possess substantial reserves of oil and gas may shake up Central Asia's increasingly competitive energy contest and alter the region's geopolitical balance.
In March, the US Geological Survey and the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industry reported that Afghanistan's resource base was much greater than previously believed. According to their findings, undiscovered petroleum resources in northern Afghanistan range from 3.6 to 36.5 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas, with a mean of 15.7 TCF. Estimates of oil range from 0.4 to 3.6 billion barrels (BBO), with a mean of 1.6 BB0. Estimates for natural gas liquids range from 126 to 1,325 million barrels (MMB) with a mean of 562 MMB. These estimates represent an 18-fold increase in the country's potential oil resources, and more than triple the natural gas resources.
If accurate, the news could mark the turning point in Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts. Energy exports could generate the revenue that Afghan officials need to modernize the country's infrastructure and expand economic opportunities for the beleaguered and fractious population. The announcement also has potentially profound geopolitical implications. Central Asia as a region has tilted strongly toward Russia since the Andijan events in Uzbekistan in May 2005. With Afghanistan solidly in the US camp, Kabul's emergence as an energy exporter could boost American efforts to regain lost ground in its geopolitical rivalry with Russia.
Today, there are two pipeline projects involving Afghanistan that would connect Central Asian exporters and South Asian markets. One is a projected Iran-Pakistan-India line (IPI) and the other is a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India line (TAP). Naturally, these contrasting plans have helped spur geopolitical maneuvering in the region. Given the US policy goal of trying to stymie Iran's energy exports wherever possible, Washington opposes the IPI line and supports TAP. The latter also could enhance Washington's new strategy of reorienting Central Asian energy to South Asian markets in order to steer Central Asian states away from Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/business/articles/eav050406.shtml
Russia, for its part, supports the IPI line and Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled conglomerate, has even offered to help build it. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders have expressed interest in building a link to the IPI pipeline that would enable Beijing to import gas overland, instead of via tankers plying the Indian Ocean.
In addition to the pipeline competition, Russia has tried to gain the upper hand in the energy game by seeking control over Turkmenistan's natural gas reserves. The ability to dictate where Ashgabat ships its energy is seen as a central element of a Russian plan to create a Eurasian gas cartel that resembles OPEC. Turkmenistan, however, has proven to be a fickle partner for Russia, underscored by Ashgabat's recent demand for a sharp increase in the price paid by Moscow for Turkmen gas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The possibility of Afghanistan holding large energy reserves significantly increases the chances that the US-favored TAP pipeline gets built. And Afghanistan's emergence as an energy exporter could sharply reduce Russia's leverage over Turkmenistan and other regional producers. Indeed, the new Afghan energy estimates may help explain why Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov suddenly upped the price of his country's natural gas. The increased likelihood that TAP becomes a reality could encourage Ashgabat to keep on trying to squeeze money out of Moscow for gas deliveries, which are critical to the running of the Russian economy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russia could still gain a foothold in South Asia through the IPI line, but there are several factors beyond the prospect of Afghanistan's potential energy wealth that are clouding the project. For one, India highly values its relationship with the United States and New Delhi may be reluctant to anger Washington by opting for the IPI route. The same factor also appears to be discouraging Pakistan's participation in IPI. A decision by India and Pakistan to select the TAP route over IPI would constitute a major geopolitical setback for both Russia and Iran.
A prerequisite to any pipeline construction in Afghanistan is the defeat of the radical Islamic insurgency in the country. Over the past year, Taliban radicals have become increasingly active, but the new energy estimate could bolster international resolve to address the insurgency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Under any scenario, the end of Afghanistan's stabilization process, along with the start of pipeline construction, is a long way off. But the vistas opened up by this new energy discovery not only raise the stakes of the pipeline battle, they have implications that go well beyond Afghanistan into Central Asia.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.