As the reverberations on the 11 March attack by a U.S. soldier on two Afghan villages in Helmand province continue to abrade U.S.-Afghan relations, the deteriorating security situation there after a decade of foreign military intervention will more than likely claim another victim – the long-proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline.
Because the incident and its consequences underline beyond any doubt the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, and no one is likely to invest in a multi-billion dollar project devoid of security.
One immediate consequence of the attack, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai labeled a “massacre,” is that the Taliban have pulled out from reconciliation talks.
The proposed $7.6 billion, 1,040 mile-long TAPI natural gas pipeline has a long regional history, having first been proposed even before the Taliban captured Kabul, as in 1995 Turkmenistan and Pakistan initialed a memorandum of understanding. TAPI, with a carrying capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas a year, was projected to run from Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad gas field across Afghanistan and Pakistan and terminate at the northwestern Indian town of Fazilka.
TAPI would have required the assent of the Taliban, and two years after the MoU was signed the Central Asia Gas Pipeline Ltd. consortium, led by U.S. company Unocal, flew a Taliban delegation to Unocal headquarters in Houston, where the Taliban signed off on the project.
Their hospitality to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida led to American-led military operations that in November 2001 drove them from power into the hinterlands, where they have waged a guerrilla campaign ever since.
Last year however, the country’s security situation seemed to be improving to the point that TAPI was revived under the auspices of the Asian Development Bank, with the Afghan government projected to receive 8 percent of the project's revenue. Shortly before the ADB signed off on the project, on 12 December 2010 Afghanistan’s Minister of Mines and Industries Wahidullah Shahrani declared that “This huge project is very important for Afghanistan. Five thousand to seven thousand security forces will be deployed to safeguard the pipeline route,”
All that is gone now, as the atrocity, the latest in a series of cultural missteps by U.S. forces, has pushed Karzai into a role that he is clearly uncomfortable with, that of patriot, denouncing U.S. military excesses.
Even before last Sunday’s attack Karzai had told the U.S. to turn over all its prisons to Afghan control and demanded an immediate halt to U.S. military nighttime raids. Both demands were summarily rejected. Following the assault Karzai demanded that U.S. troops cease their village operations.
Quite aside from the Taliban withdrawing from peace talks, “blowback” for the tragedy continues to mount. Most ominously for U.S. security, during U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Camp Bastion in Helmand, an apparent suicide bomber attempted to ram his vehicle into the entourage waiting to greet him, which included the top U.S. commander in Helmand, Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus and his British deputy, Brig. Gen. Stuart Skeats. The driver, an Afghan interpreter, later died from his burns.
What the incident highlights is the fact that the Taliban have access to the U.S. military’s inner circle, as Panetta’s visit was not announced in advance. The U.S. military was sufficiently unnerved by the incident that when Panetta subsequently addressed a town hall meeting with coalition forces at nearby Camp Leatherneck, the Marines and other troops who were waiting in a tent were abruptly ordered by their commander, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall, to place their M-16 and M-4 automatic rifles and 9-mm pistols outside the tent and then return unarmed. Hall told reporters he was acting on orders, commenting, “All I know is, I was told to get the weapons out.”
If U.S. military officers are so concerned about security within their supposedly secure perimeter among their own troops, then what does that say about the real situation outside the barbed wire? Furthermore, the Taliban have announced that they would begin beheading U.S. soldiers in response to the village massacre, which can only heighten the troops’ anxieties, leaving them more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.
Nor is the furor likely to die down soon, as the alleged gunman has been flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait en route to the U.S. where his defense team is already promoting a PTSD defense. Such a concept of diminished responsibility is alien to Afghan culture, which has suffered through three decades of civil conflict, but there is little doubt as to what the soldier’s fate would have been had he been turned over to face Afghan justice.
In such an environment the Karzai administration will be increasingly preoccupied with mere survival, and despite TAPI being “very important for Afghanistan,” the rising turmoil has effectively killed it.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com