RUSSIA'S PARTICIPATION IN TRANS-AFGHAN GAS PIPELINE PROJECT WILL LET IT KEEP ITS POSITIONS IN CENTRAL ASIA
World mass media's interest in Afghanistan has declined lately. Although the Taliban regime no longer exists, the U.S. and UK-led coalition forces stationed in the country have not succeeded as yet in stabilizing the situation even around Kabul. It can be stated that after the Taliban was ousted from power and many of its leaders were killed the situation became even less predictable than before. And comparing it to the time when Afghanistan was often cited as a rogue-state, today many people tend to call it a "black hole", a patchwork country where money, equipment and weapons disappear with no traces.
However, despite such a murky picture of the Afghan present and no visible political prospects for this state, Afghanistan's suitable location still attracts the attention of leading world powers. Except for Russia. Judging by the fact that the Afghan topic receives no coverage at all in the Russian state mass media, there can be drawn a conclusion that the Russian Federation has no strategic interests in Afghanistan. Is it really so?
Beginning the middle of XIX century, with what was later called the Great Game with the blessing by Redyiar Kipling, Afghanistan was not that much a source of threat than at least a source of trouble for our country. Last years have not changed that notion. For example, Afghanistan produces 20% of heroin, sent afterwards to Russia and through it to Europe.
Furthermore, if Russia strives to retain its influence in the Central Asian region, it has to pay greater attention to the Afghan problems. Finally, Afghanistan is one of few states that has a foreign debt to Russia. The debt is worth $2 bln that the USSR invested in construction of the infrastructure and roads and in weapons supplies.
At the same time, given the unstable political situation in Afghanistan, ambitious international projects that first of all employ the country's geographic location and a possibility to use its territory for transportation of cargos and mineral resources, oil and gas in the first place, are being perfectly implemented there.
The point is about a costly project on the construction of the Trans-Afghan gas pipeline to deliver gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Its history dates back to 1960th. The Soviet Union, after taking out its troops from Afghanistan, was ready to support a multilateral project with the involvement of the USSR, the U.S., France, Iran, Pakistan and China. However, the U.S. for some reasons was not ready for close cooperation with the Soviet Union, and the project had been completely forgotten until 1996.
In 1996 American UNOCAL and Argentinean Bridas got interested in the construction of a profitable gas main and, with this in mind, established cooperation with the Taliban. However, the project did not received necessary support that time. Investments were dammed back by lack of any guarantees at all from the movement's leaders. And in such situation even most dare businessmen were not ready to risk their money.
The idea got stuck in the air but it was not abandoned. Though the project itself had been repeatedly doubted, the pipeline project resurfaced by the end of 2003.
Early in 2004 the idea on laying down a line from the Turkmen Dowletabat gas field (with estimated reserves 3 times those of Pakistan) to the Pakistani port of Multan through Afghanistan seemed to have recovered. Saparmurat Niyazov and Khamid Karzai signed an intergovernmental agreement on the construction of a 1460 km pipeline worth $2,5 bln. It was expected that Afghanistan would receive $300 mln a year in transit fees alone.
Supporting this idea, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) stated its readiness to allocate resources for the construction of underground gas reservoirs in Pakistan. As the ADB officials noted, these reservoirs will be used to ensure stable functioning of the future gas pipeline.
At this stage this strategic project lacks Russian participation, and Afghanistan is left not only with no Russian influence but even attention. Judging by indirect information, the interested parties will try to do without Russia in advancing the gas pipeline project. This leads to a question: why does the Russian Federation need to secure its influence in Afghanistan and guarantee respecting their interest there?
First of all, as was reported earlier, it has to do with the foreign debt of Afghanistan to Russia. There is still the infrastructure built by the Soviet specialists (especially in the north) in the country. It needs maintenance. Afghanistan needs agricultural hardware. All the equipment offered by American, Japanese and German companies is too expensive and often incapable of standing harsh climate conditions of Afghanistan. The economy of Afghanistan, which will obviously continue being associated with "opium", needs cheap and reliable Russian implements, particularly considering the fact that the country has specialists that graduated from Soviet institutions of higher education and can operate Russian equipment.
Talking about the Trans-Afghan gas pipeline, one has to take into account that it will need maintenance and infrastructure that was already put in place by Soviet specialists. As for the Russian leadership, it risks losing any initiative in solving Afghan problems and restoring its influence in this country due to its own passivity. And the point here is not in the active countering by the American advisers and companies working in Afghanistan.
As people familiar with the situation on the ground pityingly note, Russian representatives and officers of a number of Russian companies, currently staying in Afghanistan, lack any coordination of work in their activities, which is necessary, bearing in mind difficult conditions in Afghanistan and the attitude of the occupation authorities towards Russian companies working there. It seems Russian leadership's hesitant efforts to take part in reconstruction of the Afghan state have born no fruits. A widely publicized mission by the Ministry of emergency failed in 2002 and the funds allocated for Afghan projects of the ministry were insignificant for the country's economy. Moreover, Afghans themselves, yet friendly disposed to Russian specialists (unlike those in Kabul where relations between local militaries and occupation forces are tense and even hostile), note that Russia did not make its contribution to post-Taliban reconstruction of Afghanistan.
And all this is happening despite the fact that some Russian companies (most of all Rosneft and Mashinimport) are quite active in the Afghan territory by implementing joint Russian-Afghan projects. However, the national companies' efforts are a drop in the ocean, given the active and sometimes aggressive policy of the U.S. companies in the country.
In this regard it is worth recalling the military-technical cooperation between the two countries, which offers certain optimism. As is known, Russia supported the army of the Northern Alliance for a long time by weapons and military hardware. As Sergei Ivanov, the Russian Defence Minister, confessed, in 2001 alone the amount of help accounted for $30-40 mln (that year was crucial in the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance). What is interesting is that independent experts estimate Russian help at $200-300 mln in 2001. It was also noted that the U.S paid some of the supplies.
According to restricted information, today Russia trains a small number of Afghan soldiers and supplies for free spare parts and fuel for hardware made in the USSR/Russia. And despite this, even in this field where Russia's positions are traditionally strong, there is a powerful competition with a number of countries of not only Eastern Europe and the CIS but, for example, India. The latter offered its help in training Afghan pilots to steer MIG-21 jets.
Apart from some local successes of Russia on the Afghan soil, the fact remains: American companies invest much more funds in reconstruction of the infrastructure than the Russian government does. In particular, the U.S. and its partners have spent $180 mln for the reconstruction of the Kabul-Kandagar-Heart highway alone, while the Russian help to Afghanistan, according to the Ministry of economic development and trade, was slightly over $30 mln in 2002.
Even with such scarce investments one could count on receiving contracts on reconstruction of facilities built by Soviets, were there no foreign advisers that prefer to invite companies from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and even Czech Republic, but not the Russian Federation, to implement those projects.
Unfortunately, it has to be stated: Russia is swiftly losing any remaining influence in Afghanistan. Russia owes it to the lack of a clear-cut position of all interested state bodies. Added to that is a common situation with the lack of funds and desire to risk and secure contracts for Russian companies in a still unstable country.
Implementation of the Trans-Afghani gas pipeline project will help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. Political involvement of Russia in this project will help it keep its positions in Central Asia, meet the interests of its national security and, aside from that, its economic interests, which is very important. It might be an unforgivable mistake to have Afghanistan lost again, a loss that this time can become irretrievable.
Ilya SERGEYEV - an independent expert
Andrei FROLOV - a research worker at PIR-Center
"Nezavisimaya gazeta", 27.07.2004