Afghanistan, the Pipeline, and Politics

Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan began in 2002, more than eight years ago. In all this time, despite three federal elections and an evolution of reasons for the conflict, few politicians have dared to comment on the Big Picture -- the geopolitics of the region. Understanding this Big Picture, which is very much a part of US strategic thinking, is critical to assessing Canadian involvement in Afghanistan.

By John Foster and Millie Morton | 2010-04-01 01:00:00

One clue to the Big Picture came in 2006, when donors met in New Delhi for a major conference on Afghanistan. At the end of the conference, donors, including Canada, promised to help Afghanistan become an energy bridge — a transit corridor for a natural gas pipeline originating in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country that borders Afghanistan to the northwest, is rarely in our news. Yet it has the fourth (possibly third) largest natural gas reserves in the world. (Iran is number two; Russia is number one). The planned pipeline is called TAPI, after the initials of the four participating countries — Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and became an independent country when the Soviet Union broke up. Since 1991, there has been rivalry among great and regional powers for access to Turkmenistan’s natural gas. It can only get to market through pipelines. The Russians have a pipeline north to connect with a network serving Europe. The Chinese have just completed a pipeline east, to connect with their network and go all the way to Shanghai. The US and European Union have proposed a pipeline west to link up with a network of existing and planned pipelines to Europe (bypassing Russia and Iran). And since the mid-1990s, the US has actively promoted the TAPI pipeline south through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, and possibly Gwadar, Pakistan’s deep-sea port.

Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy (2009-2013) mentions planning for the TAPI pipeline and Afghanistan’s central role as a land bridge connecting energy-rich Central Asia to energy-deficient South Asia. For Afghanistan, the pipeline is significant. It could be the country’s largest development project. Transit revenue could be US$300 million — about one-third of Afghanistan’s current domestic revenue for development.

Pipelines are geopolitically important; they connect trading partners and influence the regional balance of power. Moves by various countries to gain access or control of Central Asia’s energy resources are closely watched. The Grand Chessboard is what Zbigniew Brzezinski called it.1

US Goals

In US strategy, Afghanistan plays a vital role. Although official reasons for being in Afghanistan relate to terrorism, the US has other goals too. It wants to ensure that countries in the region and worldwide have access to Turkmenistan’s natural gas. Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State, said in 2007: “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan,” and to link South and Central Asia “so that energy can flow to the south.”2 In 2009, George Krol, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, told Congress that one US priority in Central Asia is “to increase development and diversification of the region’s energy resources and supply routes.”

In addition to its military bases in the Middle East, the US now has numerous bases in Afghanistan. Together they provide the United States with a military bridgehead close to the energy resources of the region. Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, has enormous reserves of oil. Iran, a nation that shares a long border with Afghanistan, has the world’s second largest reserves of both oil and gas. Iran has offered Pakistan and India an alternative to the gas pipeline through Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan expect to sign an agreement shortly. India’s interest has been on-again off-again, though it has participated in various meetings. The US position is clear. It supports the TAPI pipeline through Afghanistan; it objects to the pipeline from Iran.

The United States is highly dependent on oil imports — 60 percent of consumption. This dependence on foreign imports is an undercurrent of US foreign policy. The Middle East, where most of the world’s oil is located, is of predominant concern. The United States has acknowledged its vital interest in Saudi Arabia since the 1940s. It affirms it will use military force to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf region. That’s the Carter Doctrine of 1980. Now Afghanistan has become a “war of necessity.” The phrases — vital interest, national interest — keep recurring.They are clues to US concern about petroleum.

Canadian Goals

Canada’s official objective is “to protect Canadians by ensuring that Afghanistan never again falls into the hands of the Taliban and that Afghanistan becomes a stable, free and democratic society.” Canadian officials have offered other reasons, such as liberating women, educating girls, spreading democracy, killing insurgents, and keeping NATO from failing. Public relations efforts emphasize development; it sells well in Canada. Regional geopolitics are avoided altogether. For example, in its 2008 report, the Manley Panel failed to mention energy issues and only referred to Turkmenistan in parentheses, as a border country.

In their book The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar,3 Stein and Lang analyze Ottawa’s decision to send troops first to Kabul, the capital city, and then to Kandahar, a hot-bed of insurrection. They write that Canadian choices were shaped repeatedly by anticipated US reaction. They state that Canadian politicians knew little about Afghanistan, its ethnic composition, and its history of expelling foreign armies. The thinking was short-term: to reassure our neighbor to the south, to keep the US-Canada border open, and to let the Canadian forces — now so integrated with the US military — show loyalty and flex muscles.

According to Stein and Lang, Rick Hillier as Chief of Defence Staff pushed the Martin government in 2005 to get Canada involved in serious combat operations in Afghanistan. The mission was an opportunity to rebuild the military and “transform it into an efficient fighting machine.” The push and pull between Defence and Foreign Affairs in addressing the problem of Afghan detainees illustrate the confusion in Ottawa about who was responsible for what — in 2005 and subsequent years. Civilian oversight was inadequate. Ministers were often ill-informed or naive in their comments about Afghanistan. It was in this context that crucial decisions were being made.

Two other books give insight into Canada’s role in Afghanistan. One is an anthology co-edited by Lucia Kowaluk and Steven Staples, Afghanistan and Canada: Is there an alternative to war?.4 The other is by John W. Warnock, Creating a Failed State: The US and Canada in Afghanistan.5 Both address crucial issues of legality, development, women, energy, and more.

When the pipeline project came to light in Canada in 2008,6 the government response was essentially: “No comment.” One senior government official — who spoke on the condition he not be identified — said Canada supports efforts to build a stable economy in Afghanistan, including projects like the TAPI pipeline. Canada, he asserted, has not been promoting the pipeline as part of a broader geopolitical agenda, as the Americans have.

Canada, like the US, has large energy companies that are active worldwide in petroleum exploration, and in the building and operating of pipelines. Several other countries with troops in Afghanistan — notably Britain, France, Germany, Italy, (Netherlands), and Norway — have similar capabilities. Such firms routinely follow pipeline planning and position themselves to bid on contracts, when the time is right.

The TAPI pipeline

In recent years, numerous high-level meetings have addressed planning of the TAPI pipeline. In April 2008, representatives of the four participating nations (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) signed a Gas Pipeline Framework Agreement that envisaged construction to start in 2010, supplying gas by 2015. The announced 1,680-km route would follow the ancient trading route from Central to South Asia, extending from a gas field in Turkmenistan along the highway through Herat, Helmand, and Kandahar in Afghanistan, to Quetta and Multan in Pakistan, and on to Fazilka in India. The Asian Development Bank, a cousin of the World Bank, is sponsoring the project. The starting date for construction is uncertain, because security in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan remains a huge problem.

The pipeline route goes right through the Pashtun tribal area in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pashtun tribes are a major source of Taliban insurgents. Pashtuns make up roughly 40 percent of the population in Afghanistan, and there are about 30 million Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The border was imposed by British India in 1893 (the so-called Durand Line) with the intention of breaking up the Pashtun tribes. In fact, Pashtuns in Kandahar were independent from Kabul for ages. And until recently, Pashtuns in Pakistan were relatively independent from Islamabad.

Are Canadian troops in Afghanistan to defend a pipeline route? The Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay, was asked that on a Halifax talk show in 2008. His answer was that Canadian troops were “not there specifically to protect a pipeline across Afghanistan,” but “if the Taliban were attacking certain places in the country or certain projects, then yes we will play a role.”

MacKay appears to be reiterating NATO’s position. In January 2009, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, then NATO Secretary General, recognized that NATO is not in the business of protecting pipelines. Nevertheless, he said that “when there’s a crisis, or if a certain nation asks for assistance, NATO could, I think, be instrumental in protecting pipelines on land.” Thus NATO troops could be called upon to assist Afghanistan in protecting the pipeline. Since pipelines last 50 years or more, this could auger a long commitment in Afghanistan.


One has to listen carefully these days. Lots of public statements are technically accurate but misleading. Take, for example, the assertion that Afghanistan is not about oil. That’s literally true; the pipeline planned through Afghanistan is for natural gas. Both oil and gas are hydrocarbons and the term “oil” is sometimes loosely used to represent both. TAPI is a natural gas pipeline.

In 2008, the Afghan Ambassador to Canada insisted that TAPI is a project of the four participating countries and is not within the framework of the Canadian mission to his country. His statement ignores the reality that several countries with troops in Afghanistan — including the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Norway — are also active members of the Asian Development Bank, the sponsor of the TAPI project. Any Bank financing for the project would require the approval of member countries. As well, a project as sensitive as this would require the early blessing of the United States and Japan, the two major shareholders. With such a heavy military presence, US/NATO influence on Kabul is obvious. Thus discussions of NATO support for TAPI pipeline security raise questions about the links between military and development decisions.

Some Canadian officials have suggested that the pipeline will never be built. But there have been at least ten high-level planning meetings in the past eight years, and with all that gas in Turkmenistan, there’s every incentive to go forward. The critical question is how. “You can’t talk to the Taliban,” is another refrain. But the United States did so under both the Clinton and Bush Administrations — until July 2001 — in discussions that included the pipeline.

Clearly, peace is required. All the people along the route must be stakeholders — that includes the Pashtun. Afghanistan’s challenges require political, not military solutions. The strategy of national reconciliation offered at the London conference on Afghanistan in January 2010 is a beginning. Negotiations and mediation are essential. Regrettably Canada, as a belligerent force in Afghanistan, is not in a good position to play these roles.

Inconvenient truths

The conflict in Afghanistan is essentially a civil war in which Westerners have taken the side of the north. The US/NATO have been training and strengthening the Afghan National Army (ANA). The ANA is heavily northern in ethnic composition, which is not surprising as the US supported the Northern Alliance (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara) in the 2001 invasion. The Asia Times reports that about 70 percent of the senior officers are Tajik. As well, 40 percent of troops are Tajik while only 30 percent are Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group. The data come from the latest report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The main problem may be geographic, not ethnic. Few Pashtuns from the south (Kandahar and Helmand provinces) join the army. According to a British journalist, Yvonne Ridley, only 3 to 5 percent of the Afghan National Army come from the south; and most of ANA troops speak Dari and not Pashto, which makes them outsiders.

Thus, the Pashtun tribes may see the Afghan National Army as “foreign.” The Pashtuns have demonstrated through history their hostility to outsiders. The TAPI pipeline is a significant development effort, but development cannot take place at the end of a gun. As former Canadian politician Claude Castonguay observed: “No society changes because of an outside pressure, and certainly not by force of arms.” Indefinite occupation is a recipe for ongoing bloodshed and disruption.

Afghanistan is in desperate need of assistance, but the dollars being spent by Canada are disproportionately military. In the anthology Afghanistan and Canada, Staples and MacDonald document existing and projected Canadian expenditures on Afghanistan for the decade ending in 2011. Although the largest aid program of the Canadian International Development Agency is in Afghanistan, its expenditures represent only 4.5 percent of the total cost ($28.4 billion) of the Afghan war to Canadians. The rest is military.

TAPI is a multi-billion dollar project. With plans including 1000 industrial units along the pipeline route, there are many opportunities for siphoning funds. Further, once the pipeline is built, any misallocation of transit revenues would reduce funds available for development. According to the independent anti-corruption watchdog, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, about 50 cents of every dollar in foreign aid is currently being lost to corrupt or fraudulent practices. Corruption is rampant in the Afghan state.

Wars for Resources?

In Rising Powers Shrinking Planet: the New Geopolitics of Energy,7 author Michael Klare writes that global competition over energy will be “a pivotal, if not central, feature of world affairs for the remainder of the century.” Oil and gas are essential in modern economies, and petroleum is the single largest commodity in world trade. Energy wars are a distinct possibility.

Wars for resources are illegal under the UN Charter. In both the Iraq and Afghan wars, Western governments went to great pains to draft legal cover compliant with the Charter. In Ottawa, government officials repeat a mantra: Canada is in Afghanistan under a UN resolution, at the invitation of the democratically elected Afghan government, in compliance with a NATO commitment. The mantra invites our trust, but in fact it merits considerable scepticism. The UN Security Council resolution (1368), passed on September 12, 2001, called for bringing those responsible for 9/11 to justice, but gave no endorsement for a military attack on Afghanistan. A second Security Council resolution (1386), passed on December 20, 2001, authorized an international force to protect the newly installed Afghan Interim Authority in Kabul, but that was after the US invasion. Further, the assertion that Afghanistan has a democratically elected government is highly debatable, as recent elections demonstrate. As for the NATO commitment, no member country was going to refuse the United States in the rush of sympathy after 9/11 — but do NATO members want to sign on forever?

As new conflicts emerge, it behoves Canada to avoid entrapment in wars for resources. The militarizing of energy has many consequences, including ever larger defence budgets and fewer tax dollars available for health care and other needs at home. As history confirms, governments often tell fairytales, rather than reveal politically unpopular and possibly illegal reasons for military actions. The TAPI pipeline project is significant to wealth and power in the region. Its connection with the conflict in Afghanistan may be murky, but it is relevant. Public attention to the geopolitics of energy is essential before Canada signs on for new military and security assignments in foreign lands.

John Foster is an energy economist (World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, British Petroleum, Petro-Canada). Millie Morton is a sociologist. Both have extensive experience in international development.


1 Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books, New York, 1997.

2 Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State, Speech at Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, 20 September 2007.

3 Janice Stein & Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada In Kandahar, Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007, pp 260-265.

4 Lucia Kowaluk, Stephen Staples (eds), Afghanistan and Canada: Is there an Alternative to War?, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 2009.

5 John W. Warnock, Creating a Failed State: The US and Canada in Afghanistan, Fernwood Publishing, Halifax & Winnipeg, 2008.

6 John Foster, A Pipeline Through a Troubled land: Afghanistan Canada and the New Great Energy Game, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ottawa, 2008.

7 Michael T. Klare, Rising Powers Shrinking Planet:The New Geopolitics of Energy, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2008.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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