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Afghan 'pipe dream' draws closer to reality

A proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Arabian Sea could boost jobs, investment.

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Back in the days of the Taliban, Mir Sediq was an engineer for Unocal, working on a pipe dream: bringing natural gas from Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.

Today, Mr. Sediq is minister for Afghanistan's energy, mining, and industrial sector, and he's confident that the pipeline is coming close to reality.

Driven by a Pakistani economy growing at nearly 7 percent a year and higher energy prices, the pipeline, on paper, is the closest thing to a win-win scenario as one can find in Central Asia. For Pakistan, expected to run out of its own reserves in five years, the pipeline will help sustain growth. For Turkmenistan, it helps to provide a market for its substantial gas reserves. And for Afghanistan, it could mean from $200 million to $350 million per year in transit fees.

In the rough parlance of oil industry executives, that beats a kick in the head.

"This pipeline is an opportunity for Afghanistan, and we would like to keep Afghanistan a place that is open and attractive for foreign investment," says Sediq. "The foreign investment rate of return is 17.5 percent, based on the assumptions that the gas reserves in Turkmenistan are enough and the consumption rate in Pakistan remains high. Only security of the pipeline is left, and the government of Afghanistan is capable of providing security."

It wasn't so long ago that the pipeline was thought to be dead. Taliban attacks in the south appeared to be on the increase, and other sources of energy, such as Iran or Qatar, were more attractive. But growing Pakistani demand, increased Afghan stability, and higher energy prices for Turkmenistan have made the pipeline increasingly feasible. This week, President Hamid Karzai told donor countries the project was a top priority - on a par with the war on terror and opium eradication.

As yet, there are no foreign investors vying for the project, but talks between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are proceeding. In mid-April, the three countries and the Asia Development Bank held their eighth round of meetings to hammer out details of what Turkmenistan has, how much gas Pakistan needs, and whether Afghanistan is safe enough. The next round comes in July, but Sediq is expected to travel to the Turkmen capital of Ashkabad Friday to see if the government's survey of reserves will be finished in time.

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