With Turkmenistan’s dream to see construction of the trans-Afghan TAPI natural gas pipeline, the devil is in the details. Or the footnotes, to be more precise.
A United Nations report on the current situation in Afghanistan published earlier this month conveys a generally troubling picture, not just for Turkmenistan, but the region as a whole.
Under Taliban rule, the country has reverted to the exclusionary policies that prevailed in the 1990s. The self-styled Islamic Emirate has moreover retained its historic connections with militant groups, including al-Qaeda, which is said to be rebuilding operational capabilities.
Although leading elements in the Taliban regime are for now prioritizing internal cohesion and unity, there are indications that leading figures are jostling in earnest for positions of power and financial resources.
One fault line is said by the UN report to be between Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also the leader of the eponymous and notorious Haqqani Network, and First Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar. A footnote adding context to this passage of the report states that “Haqqani is reportedly seeking to take under his control … the construction of the Afghan section of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.”
There is little sense that institutional responsibilities are softening the worldview of Haqqani and his associates, whose militant activities have over recent decades claimed the lives of countless civilians. Indeed, last month, Haqqani’s former spokesman in the Interior Ministry, Qari Saeed Khosty, who left that job only in March, took to Twitter to call on Taliban volunteers based in Europe and the United States to murder critics of the regime in Kabul. He later deleted the tweet.
Undeterred by this backdrop, officials from Pakistan and Turkmenistan met in Islamabad on June 8 to sign an agreement committing both sides to speeding up implementation of the TAPI project.
While Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who oversaw the signing, was clear that he wants the 1,800-kilometer pipeline, which is intended to have a carrying capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of gas per year, to be built “at the fastest speed,” almost everything else is a haze. Pakistani media cited Sharif as saying that this accelerated timetable would be achieved by “optimizing all available resources by all relevant parties.”
Not a word about money, however.
The fact that news outlets are compelled to loosely throw around cost estimates for the project at anywhere “between $7.5 [billion] and $10 billion” is as good a clue as any that the funding issue is bedeviled by opacity and unseriousness. The lack of a clear timetable does not inspire confidence either.
In what looks like an attempt to drum up interest from international investors, Pakistan has suggested that Turkmenistan should consider exploring – whatever that might mean – the potential of yet more gas transit infrastructure, presumptively to connect TAPI to its Arabian Sea-facing Gwadar port. The underlying notion here being that liquified Turkmen gas could then be shipped to buyers on the global market.
That is certainly optimistic. While the current Pakistani government may be relaxed about engaging in a trade that would line the pockets of self-avowed Islamic militants, customers in Europe might baulk.
That said, some in the West have strong stomachs. Taking a break from running interference in Russia’s favor within the European Union, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban embarked on June 8 on a two-day visit to Ashgabat.
This jaunt is a puzzling one. Orban’s host, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov, augured on June 9, when the two met, that this visit would aid the development of “multifaceted interstate cooperation in a wide range of areas of mutual interest.” It is hard to perceive what those mutual interests might be. Berdymukhamedov asserted that bilateral trade turnover had “shown significant growth in 2022,” but demurred when it came to mentioning figures, likely since they are without a doubt laughably miniscule.
There was invariably talk – courtesy of Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó – of Hungary offering its services in building whatever infrastructure might be required to get Turkmen natural gas to Europe. Szijjártó did not bother explaining what he meant by this.
One line from Berdymukhamedov hinted at a bit of possible deal-making in future, however. Turkmenistan is interested in investigating the technology involved in producing hydrogen out of natural gas. Hungary is hinging much of its zero-emissions strategy on expanding the domestic production and storage of hydrogen. Berdymukhamedov indicated that Turkmenistan is eager to tap into Hungarian expertise on this matter.
The appeal of developing a relatively clean source of fuel is at present particularly strong to Turkmenistan, whose colossal methane emissions have turned it into an environmental global pariah.
The country’s reputation is dirt in other areas too.
Cotton Campaign, an international pressure group opposed to forced labor, published a report on June 12 that documented the ongoing prevalence of forced and child labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton industry. The report’s authors found that public sector workers are compelled to pick cotton, or at the very least hire their own replacements or make payments – bribes, in effect – under a "pick or pay" system. Children as young as eight were observed working alongside adults in the fields.
As described by the Cotton Campaign, the entire industry is a rotten misery-manufacturing machine designed to enrich a select few. Poor irrigation practices are compounding the effects of climate change and worsening water scarcity. That and poor stewardship of the land is leading to reduced crop yields. Farmers given no choice but to grow this thirsty plant suffer financially as a result. State-provided seeds, fertilizer, and equipment are sold for personal gain. Middlemen take cuts from funds allocated for replacement pickers, and cotton collection centers routinely cheat farmers by withholding a significant portion of their harvest.
Hungry for a minimal dose of approbation from somewhere, the regime in Turkmenistan has once more declared its profound enmity for smoking in any shape or form. AFP news agency described Berdymukhamedov’s remarks at a June 7 session of the national security council as the start of an “unprecedented" anti-smoking crusade that would see the country entirely rid of tobacco within two years. The president’s more specific concern, though, appears to be with the illegal importation of tobacco products, including those used in hookah water pipes and electronic cigarettes.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.