On February 9, India signed an agreement for the construction of the Lalandar [Shatoot] Dam in Afghanistan following an online summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.
This is the second dam India will be constructing in Afghanistan.
A week earlier India was also the first country to gift Afghanistan 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, about which Ghani said that at this critical time “there could not be a greater gift”.
Coming at a particularly uncertain time for Afghanistan, such outreach reflects India's long-term commitment to Afghanistan. India, also, cannot ignore the tumultuous time Afghanistan is going through. The intra-Afghan talks have stalled, most Taliban prisoners are out of jail, and violence is currently ‘simply too high’.
The US watchdog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in its latest report says that in the last quarter "enemy attacks in Kabul were higher than they were last quarter, and “much higher” than in the same quarter a year prior.
The New York Times recently reported that the Taliban have positioned themselves around several major population centres.
The Ghani government is mulling over forming an interim government — a Taliban demand. The US has committed to a complete troops withdrawal by May, in which case the Taliban will acquire easy control; but if it decides not to, then the Taliban can further escalate violence.
That is what makes the recent high-level Taliban visits to two regional capitals — Tehran and Ashkhabad — interesting. First, it reflects the recognition that the Taliban has won from the many regional stakeholders, which also includes Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and, of course, Pakistan. All are now interested in the total withdrawal of the US from the region.
Next is the Taliban's pledge in Ashkhabad to fully support the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) gas pipeline.
The TAPI pipeline, measuring 1,814 kilometres, is a $10-bilion ambitious project that will transfer 33 billion cubic feet of natural gas from Turkmenistan to energy hungry Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. With funding from the Asian Development Bank it will bring revenue to Turkmenistan while Afghanistan and Pakistan will also earn transit fees, besides other benefits such as technology, electricity and employment.
The project has been riddled with problems, primarily security issues in Afghanistan, as much of the pipeline runs through Taliban-controlled territory. This is what makes the Taliban's support important. It understands that it will need resources for governance. To that end the Taliban has on a number of times reiterated its support for the project, which many believe is a non-starter.
Yet, from the ground-breaking ceremony in Turkmenistan in 2015 and the inauguration of the Afghan leg of the project in 2018, none of the stakeholders have abandoned the project.
The changing geopolitical dynamics may actually help matters.
For instance, both Pakistan and India have pricing issues with Turkmenistan. With falling gas prices and post-pandemic import cuts by its sole importer China, a sense of urgency has gripped Turkmenistan. The added possibility of Iranian gas flooding the markets in the near future has seen a renewed push to the project by it. This may pave the way for pricing adjustments.
Turkmenistan has the world's fourth-largest gas reserves but landlocked, it has problems exporting it. The pandemic has also increased India and Pakistan's demands for liquid natural gas. Russia, which has been a competitor, now wants Turkmen gas exports to South Asia as that eliminates competition in the European market. Iran, another competitor, may also come on board because of its growing ties with the Taliban. Add to this, the TAPI has US support.
The Joe Biden administration will soon make its decision regarding troops’ withdrawal. Pakistan's leverage over the Taliban and role in Afghanistan's stabilisation is a given with some advocating that the country be removed from the FATF grey list if it can prevail on the Taliban to return to the negotiating table and eschew violence.
Turkmenistan, which stands to benefit enormously, can play a key role as it has excellent relations with both India and Pakistan, as also with the Taliban, to persuade the latter two of the benefits of regional economic and energy integration. India, of course, has had its own outreach to the Taliban, no matter how low key.
A way forward maybe be to involve others such as Saudi Arabia which still has some leverage over Pakistan and excellent relations with India.