President Asif Zardari may be seen as doing a bit of emergency work to repair the relationship with the USA, with his trip to Turkmenistan, where he went on Wednesday to further the discussions on the $7.6 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. It would seem this way because the visit followed the US reaction over the groundbreaking of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, which was highly unfavourable. The USA has been pushing TAPI as an alternative to the Iranian pipeline even though its passage through Afghanistan is doubtful, thus throwing the whole project in doubt. However, President Zardari’s interest in the TAPI project should not be seen merely as a desire to placate the USA, but as an expression of the Pakistani desire for both projects. It should be noted that the Planning Commission has predicted that, even with both the IP and TAPI pipelines in operation, the energy crisis in Pakistan would not be over, even in 2019-20.
It should also be noted that for withdrawing from the Iranian pipeline project, the USA gave it a civilian nuclear agreement to India, which allowed it to shop around for nuclear power to replace the thermal generation it was foregoing, but Pakistan was given nothing equivalent. However, Pakistan has, because of its own energy shortage, got to pursue the TAPI project; the basic error of the USA has been to regard the TAPI project as a substitute for the IP project. Pakistan suffers from a severe energy shortage, which is not just causing ordinary people severe inconveniences, but is also wreaking economic havoc in cancelled export orders, factory closures and job losses. This crisis is so severe that the TAPI pipeline is not an alternative, but is important in itself.
President Zardari is thus not engaged in pure electioneering posturing, but is merely doing what is necessary to safeguard the national interest. The need of the hour is to pursue both projects vigorously. The USA must be convinced that just as Pakistan cannot afford to rely on the TAPI project alone for its energy needs, it cannot afford to rely on the IP project alone. Thus the logical next step would be for Pakistan to work with Afghanistan to provide the necessary security to allow the project to go through. If need be, President Zardari must use his good offices, as he has done so far.