Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
October 9, 2021
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov just visited Uzbekistan for talks with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and, even though the two leaders have met several times recently, it was important for them — and only them — to sit down to discuss the number one topic in the region these days: Afghanistan.
That is because Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have a similar policy toward their southern neighbor, one focused on the economic potential of trade routes through Afghanistan.
Both presidents made clear at their October 5 meeting that their countries would continue to provide help “to the people of Afghanistan.”
Mirziyoev said the situation in Afghanistan has a large influence on “the security and sustainable development of the region.”
“Sustainable development” was a key comment since there are projects that could greatly benefit Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan but require stability in Afghanistan and the cooperation of whoever is in charge of that country.
For Turkmenistan the project is the 1,800-kilometer Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline that aims to annually export some 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas.
It is a project that seemed possible the last time the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s but has been completely unfeasible since due to insecurity in Afghanistan.
The policy Turkmenistan is pursuing now toward the Taliban is the policy of Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who stayed out of Afghan politics and was willing to deal with anyone in power there to advance Turkmenistan’s economic interests.
Pakistan wants TAPI to be built and has more influence over the Taliban than any other country.
With natural-gas prices currently at obscenely high record levels of well over $1,000 per 1,000 cubic meters, the government in cash-strapped Turkmenistan must be waiting eagerly for a sign the TAPI project is moving forward.
There remains a challenge in finding investors and financing for the project. Plus, India’s role might be in question, again, as it has been several times before over the years, though Pakistan would almost surely take India’s share of the gas. (Under the current breakdown, Afghanistan would get 5 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually; Pakistan 14 bcm; and India 14 bcm).
But Turkmenistan claims it has constructed its segment of the pipeline leading from Turkmen gas fields to the Afghan border, though there have been doubts of this claim before.
But recently it seems there has been work done on Turkmenistan’s section of TAPI and at least $219 million spent on pipeline segments purchased from Russia’s Chelyabinsk Pipe Rolling Plant in 2019.
Uzbek President Mirziyoev’s government seems to be using the Niyazov model in its engagement with the Taliban.
In Uzbekistan’s case, as previously noted, a lot of money has already gone into infrastructure projects in the last 15 years that link Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.
Several projects are unfinished or not yet started, but two are of significant value to Uzbekistan — a railway and a new power transmission line.
Uzbekistan is connected by rail to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif.
China has already shipped goods to Afghanistan using this route and NATO used the Uzbek railway link for transporting material between Europe and Afghanistan.
President Mirziyoev has met twice with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan since July and both times construction of a railway line from Mazar-e Sharif through Kabul to Peshawar was high on the agenda.
Such a link would give Uzbekistan, and other countries in Asia and Europe, a connection to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.
That should boost shipments of cargo in both directions, giving Uzbekistan extra revenue from transit fees and justifying the expense of the huge Termez Cargo Center that Uzbekistan built near the Afghan border in 2018.
Those are projects for the future. But for now, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan already export electricity to Afghanistan via power transmission lines built after 2001, and, as was expected, the Taliban government is short of cash and unable to pay for electricity imports.
According to the Asian Development Bank, 73 percent of Afghanistan’s electricity is imported. Of that, Uzbekistan supplies 57 percent, Iran 22 percent, Turkmenistan 17 percent, and Tajikistan 4 percent.
There are various figures for how much money Afghanistan has been spending on electricity imports, but it appears to have been around $300 million per year.
So Turkmenistan has been receiving some $51 million and Uzbekistan about $171 million for electricity exports to Afghanistan.
And Uzbekistan is constructing a 260-kilometer section of a 500-kilovolt power line from Surkhon in Uzbekistan to Pul-e Khumri, north of Kabul, that would boost Uzbek electricity exports to Afghanistan by some 70 percent.
Turkmenistan’s electricity goes to northwestern Afghanistan, but Uzbekistan’s electricity powers Kabul.
When several power stations in Uzbekistan went off line in early January, it left Kabul in darkness and when the Taliban destroyed two power pylons on the transmission line in September 2019, it caused major power shortages in the Afghan capital.
So Afghanistan needs Uzbek electricity.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Afghanistan’s state power company has no more than $40 million to pay for energy imports and that could lead to its Central Asian neighbors suspending electricity supplies to Afghanistan.
During Berdymukhammedov’s visit to Uzbekistan, officials from both countries said there were no plans to discontinue electricity exports to Afghanistan.
The Turkmen and Uzbek governments have a history of keeping a tight rein on religion in their own countries. But the lure of pipeline, power line, and railway connections to and through Afghanistan seems to have convinced the governments in both countries that the cost of overlooking the Taliban’s religious extremism is worth the potential gain in trade both countries could see if these big projects are realized.
In Uzbekistan’s case, this was emphasized at the October 7 visit of Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov to Kabul where he and Taliban officials discussed construction of the Surhon-Pul-e Khumri power line and the Mazar-e Sharif-Kabul Peshawar railway line.
One more thing distinguishes Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from their Central Asian neighbors.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the only two Central Asian countries that do not border Russia or China. Both have long looked to the south for connectivity to the wider world.
They might not like the Taliban — they wouldn’t even say the word “Taliban,” only referencing the “government in Afghanistan” — but tolerating and engaging with the Afghan group could help both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan see huge profits.
Berdymukhammedov and Mirziyoev did not say this, but it likely has not escaped their notice.