It was nostalgic to be in the Marriot’s Crystal Ballroom in Islamabad where this very day, on 15th March 1995, I had been present when Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niazov had first articulated his country’s policy of permanent neutrality during the ECO Summit. As Pakistan’s first Ambassador to Ashgabat I was asked to introduce the international conference on the 20th anniversary of that declaration; to set the stage for Ambassador Sapar Berdiniyazov the first Turkmen Envoy to Islamabad, and Advisor to the PM on National Security and Foreign Affairs Mr. Sartaj Aziz. I recalled that Pakistan, which had been the second country to recognize Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991,immediately supported this decision bilaterally and in the UN by co-sponsoring the resolution recognizing Turkmenistan’s permanent neutrality in December 1995.

The neutrality of a country is of importance to that country but why to Pakistan, any more than say that of Switzerland or Austria? That is what I tried to highlight. In general terms, this policy of Turkmenistan, wisely keeping aloof from big power rivalry, contributes to peace and security in Central Asia and the region beyond including Afghanistan and Pakistan. But what are the specifics? One aspect was that Russia’s support for India over Kashmir eroded as the Central Asian States broke away. Their neutrality was a plus for Pakistan. President Niazov as chief guest for on our Independence day on 14 August in 1995 declared in his speech that day at a lunch given by the Speaker of the National Assembly that, “Kashmir is a burning issue. We are fully with you. The bloodshed in Kashmir must stop”.

The foundation of our bilateral relations, after the revival of historical and cultural links that had been cut off since 1885 by Russian occupation, forged a strategic partnership. A partnership which should have served as a model for our relations with the other Central Asian States.

The main elements of this strategic partnership were political and economic. In August 1993 at a trilateral meeting that I chaired in Islamabad, an agreement was reached between Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to work towards a multidimensional energy corridor through Afghanistan for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission, trade routes and ultimately a rail link. Following this up was my main mission in Ashgabat from 1993 to 1998.During that period our Prime Ministers visited Ashgabat three times, our President twice while the Turkmen President visited Islamabad twice. After Bridas ,the Argentinean oil and gas company led by the visionary Carlos Bulgeroni had fallen out of favour in Turkmenistan, the CENTGAS consortium, composed of American, Saudi, Korean, Japanese and Pakistani companies led by UNOCAL was set up in 1995 to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan.

There were two other developments that are little remembered but were important. President Karimov also signed the main gas pipeline agreement, to add natural gas from Uzbekistan; and another agreement was signed by Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan for the Consortium to plan and negotiate an oil pipeline from Central Asia paralleling the gas pipeline but diverging to reach our coast for refining and export, to augment global energy security by bypassing the Straits of Hormuz.

Foreign Minister Aseff Ahmed led our delegation all over Afghanistan, meeting all the factions who made it clear that they supported the gas pipeline project and other such transit infrastructural projects. It was an experience to meet President Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masood in Kabul, followed by Mullah Abdullah in Kandahar, then Ismail Khan in Herat, General Dostum in Shibergan and Haji Qadeer in Jalalabad. We tried to persuade the United States and the West that starting work on the pipeline on which the Consortium had already spent $ 25 million would demonstrate to all the Afghan factions that they had more to gain from peace than war. The moderate Taliban faction would have been strengthened with the prospect of transit fees and job generation as at least a third of the project’s costs would be spent on construction and guarding it, at the expense of those behind OBL and the history of Afghanistan may have been different.

Almost 20 years have been lost since then but the gas pipeline project restarted in 2002 by the three countries encouraged by the Asian Development Bank, and in 2008 became TAPI to include India. It’s time to reiterate more persuasively the aforementioned argument to the United States, the west, Russia and other well-wishers of Afghanistan. Nor is TAPI a zero sum game for the IPI or supplies from Qatar, as South Asia’s energy needs require more than one pipeline. Such pipelines would also be significant CBMs between Pakistan and India.

There were other earlier initiatives and proposals we can still learn from. Trade was another achievement with 31,000 tons worth $41 million of Turkmen cotton imported in 1994-95,and transported without problem through both Iran and Afghanistan. Export cover for transit trade through Afghanistan, proposed earlier, would give a boost for accessing the CARs and beyond. Training for Turkmen military and air force cadets also started then and continues serving as a model for the other Central Asian States. Both our countries continue to have a common interest in a peaceful and economically progressive Afghanistan and have worked to that end.

In conclusion the futures of Turkmenistan and Pakistan are linked in terms of energy security, for diversification on their part and demand on ours; and supporting stability in Afghanistan to enable gas and oil pipelines, electricity transmission, and trade. That is why Turkmenistan and its permanent neutrality are of such importance to Pakistan. Of course we have much work to make up for which we need to concentrate on delivering. We should send our best Ambassadors and diplomats to Ashgabat, where posting an Ambassador is overdue. Most important as I proposed to the Prime Minister in 1996,we need a strong empowered coordinator in Pakistan to focus our energies and efforts towards implementing a project vital for our energy security.