In Afghanistan the ‘new great game’ or ‘pipeline diplomacy’ as it is sometimes called, with regard to the control of energy resources in Central Asia and its distribution routes is shaping up. In recent years, the abundant energy resources in Central Asia, largely untapped, have triggered a race among the big powers for gas and oil pipelines in and around the region.
Pakistan’s interest in Central Asia sharply increased after the Soviet Union collapse. General Naseerullah Babar, who was central to Pakistan’s attempts to navigate these newly available potential economic opportunities, while negating the military dimension of ‘strategic depth’, said in an interview, that “the talk about strategic depth is nonsense … We realized that Afghanistan is a perfect corridor for goods from Central Asia. Those countries needed an Asian outlet, especially for oil and gas. We wanted to take advantage of that.”
Pakistan’s own location is vital in this whole economic dimension in Afghanistan’s context. As Pakistan’s geo-economic significance stems from its position at the junction of ‘three Asias’ – West, Central and South. Moreover, Pakistan and Afghanistan’s geo-strategic setting between the energy-loaded Middle East and Central Asia, and the energy-keen, growing economies of India and China naturally triggers some strong potential drivers for economic development in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan needs energy for its economic revitalization and the Turkemanistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI), with all its hurdles, provides an energy source that will be in Pakistan’s capital stock for fifty years of more.
The port of Gwadar, at the cusp of South, West, and Central Asia, is also important in this context. Gwadar, situated at the foot of Pakistan’s land mass, is the most suitable gateway to connect energy-hungry India and China with the energy rich Central Asia. The TAPI pipeline project, if it goes ahead, would go through Afghanistan and Pakistan before getting to India and/or China. Historically, instability in Afghanistan and hostile relations between Pakistan and India have meant that India has been reluctant to get this project underway.
While there are large potential economic dividends, there is also a great deal of friction around competing energy supply routes. On a regional level, while India and China are potential rivals for control of energy resources in Central Asia, China’s investment in the port of Gwadar is compelling India to look for other potential alternative routes to avoid Pakistan. The Iranian port of Chabahar is a part of this calculation of India’s. And perhaps it would be plausible to argue that with India’s fast growing economy, which is in dire need of energy resources, Pakistan might be interested in spoiling India’s economic plans by blocking its interest in Afghanistan, the only suitable route for the supply of these. As Kaur argues that, ‘Afghanistan is no longer a corner where nodes of terrorist networks can be hidden. It is a strategically situated route for the transport of Central Asian oil’ and a place of strategic importance for the regional players.
In the post-9/11 milieu Pakistan has lost its strategic dominance in Afghanistan, while India has increased its influence. In this context, some argue that “instability in Afghanistan serves Pakistan’s interests in making it more attractive” to key states and major energy companies alike, and it is more likely that they would favor energy routes that pass through Pakistan.
Similarly, but from a different perspective, some have argued that Pakistan may now have a good strategic reason to maintain a porous border with Afghanistan because the recognition of the Durand Line as an international border would restrain Pakistan’s scope for interference in Afghanistan. From this perspective, Pakistan not just hopes to achieve interference in Afghanistan; rather it wishes to stretch it down to Central Asia. Nevertheless, the politics of growing regional pipeline diplomacy will shape the future of geopolitics not only in South Asia but also in West and Central Asia and Pakistan sees this as a vital interest.