Afghan president aborts trip after attack
Thursday September 16, 7:34 PM By Ahmad Masood
GARDEZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has aborted his first election campaign trip outside the capital after a rocket shot over his helicopter as he was landing in southeastern Gardez and exploded nearby.
Witnesses said the rocket flew over Karzai's U.S. military Chinook helicopter and a crowd of about 400 supporters gathered to meet him at a school as he was about to touch down on Thursday.
The helicopter did not land and returned to Kabul.
Taliban guerrillas quickly claimed responsibility, but the government said the incident was under investigation and it was too early to say who was to blame.
Karzai was named interim president in 2002 after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban who were protecting Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, architects of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Karzai faces 17 rivals in the October 9 vote -- the first direct presidential poll in Afghan history.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the polls, in which the U.S.-backed Karzai is favourite, and have threatened all candidates.
Karzai narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on September 5, 2002, in the southern city of Kandahar, after which his security was dramatically tightened.
He has since rarely been seen in Afghanistan outside his heavily fortified presidential palace where he is protected by U.S. bodyguards.
Presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said Karzai had returned safely to Kabul and while the incident was under investigation it would be premature to say it was an assassination attempt.
TALIBAN CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY
"It's too early to say who did it and what the motivation was," he said. "It would be premature to conclude there was a direct link to the president landing there."
The rocket exploded about 1 km (1/2 mile) from where Karzai's supporters had gathered to hear him speak. There were no injuries.
"Everyone was waiting, but then when the rocket boomed, everyone got very nervous and frightened," a witness said.
Taliban military commander Mullah Abdur Rauf told Reuters the guerrillas learned of Karzai's trip on Wednesday and planned the attack. "Because of shortage of time, we could fire only one rocket. It was launched by remote control," he said.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led military force in Afghanistan said it was investigating.
Election campaigning began on September 7, but has been low key, with none of the big rallies and parades seen in other countries.
The poll is seen as a crucial test of U.S. nation-building efforts ahead of President George W. Bush's own bid for re-election in November, but security has been the major worry.
The vote has been delayed twice by growing insecurity. About 1,000 people, including aid workers, militants, civilians and Afghan and foreign troops have been killed in militant-related violence in the past year.
Analyst Vikram Parekh of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank said the Gardez incident would be a worry for Karzai and his ability to campaign in the provinces, but added that he already enjoyed a higher profile than his rivals.
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, is keen to garner the Pashtun vote from areas like Gardez where they are the majority. But Taliban guerrillas also draw their support from the majority group.
Coalition force, NATO peacekeepers step up activity for Afghan election
KABUL, Sep 15 (AFP) - The US-led coalition and NATO peacekeepers will increase military activities in Afghanistan to secure the war-torn country's presidential elections due in October, military officials said Wednesday.
"You will have likely noticed an increase in air activity over the Kabul area of operation," NATO spokesman Lieutenant Commander Ken MacKillop told a news briefing in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
"This activity will continue as ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in association with our Afghan security partners here, raise our security measures during this pre-elections period," he said.
"As the most important event in recent Afghan political history, the electoral process is unfortunately the natural target for those who wish to sow fear," he added.
Afghans will elect a president on October 9, but the Taliban militias who were ousted in late 2001 have threatened to derail the vote, the first poll of its kind in the history of Afghanistan.
The 8,000-strong ISAF multinational force, under the command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), are in Kabul and some northern provinces helping with security, while more than 18,500 US-led soldiers are hunting militants in south and southeastern parts of the war-shattered country.
"What the ISAF is doing to secure the election (in Kabul and north), the coalition will do the same across the country," US-led coalition spokesman, Major Scott Nelson said.
"We will be much more aggressive in our security operations, once we are near to the elections a lot more operations will be ongoing," he said. "You will see more conflict problems because the Taliban ... will try to move to engage some of the voter registration areas,"
Nelson did not provide any further information on the operations, citing security reasons, but said that ISAF, the coalition and the Afghan military forces were ready to engage Taliban militants during the elections.
"Forecasting operations probably is not the smartest thing to do ... but I will tell you that ... strict, aggressive actions will be ongoing to secure the elections," he added.
Nelson said that the Taliban, which opposes the US-backed government of Afghanistan, will carry out more attacks during the polls.
"I think the Taliban will be more dangerous in the next couple of months," he said.
Nearly three years after the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, the remnants of the militia are still able to attack troops, mainly along the porous border with Pakistan.
On Monday Taliban-led militants fired four rockets at a coalition military outpost in northeastern Kunar province but caused no casualties.
Along with incumbent Hamid Karzai, 18 Afghans, including a woman, will contest in the landmark polls, sponsored by United Nations.
US vigilantes jailed in Afghanistan
Wed Sep 15, 9:49 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - An Afghan court sentenced three Americans to between eight and 10 years in prison for illegally running a private jail and torturing suspects in a "private war on terror".
Jonathan Idema and Brent Bennett Wednesday received 10-year terms while co-defendant Edward Carabello was handed an eight-year term by the special tribunal in Kabul which has been hearing the case since mid-August.
They were accused of kidnapping, jailing and torturing at least eight Afghans as part of a "private war on terror".
Their four Afghan accomplices were sentenced to between one and five years in prison.
Before the verdict, lawyers for the US defendants said they would appeal.
The trio were arrested in July for allegedly running a private prison and counter-terrorism operation in west Kabul and jailing and torturing at least eight Afghans.
Since court proceedings commenced on August 16, Idema has claimed that he was carrying out genuine anti-terrorist operations in coordination with the US Defense Department and Afghan authorities, a claim denied by both governments.
US media have described Idema as a bounty hunter.
International troops deployed in Afghanistan have confirmed that they assisted Idema on three separate raids, presuming him to be a member of the US special forces.
The US-led coalition also said it had taken into custody a man presented by Idema as a terrorist suspect but had later released the man.
The case has illuminated the shadowy world of private security contractors in Afghanistan and strengthened calls by rights groups for the US-led military to open its detention centers to independent inspection.
The trial had been marked by chaotic scenes and organisation and was adjourned several times, on one occasion last month when the Federal Bureau of Investigation handed over key documents to the defence part-way through a hearing.
India donates indelible pens for Afghan election
September 15, 2004
NEW DELHI (AFP) - India donated indelible ink pens to Afghanistan for its polls next month and offered to share its experience in holding elections.
Foreign ministry officials in New Delhi said Tuesday that 50,000 pens were donated to Zakim Shah, chairman of the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) in Kabul for use during the October 9 presidential election.
India uses such pens to mark people after they have voted as a precaution against electoral fraud.
"As the world's largest democracy with a proud record of conducting free and fair elections, India will be happy to share its experience and extend all cooperation to the JEMB," ministry officials quoted Indian ambassador to Kabul Vivek Katju as saying.
Indian-educated Hamid Karzai was appointed as Afghanistan's interim president by an elected council of tribal elders in June 2002 and is now seeking a new mandate to govern in the October polls.
The US-backed president faces 17 challengers but is widely seen as the favourite to win Afghanistan's historic first presidential elections.
Ghazni businessman launches city's first independent radio station
Source: US Agency for International Development
Kabul, September 13, 2004: Engineer Abdel-Qayum Omari on Sunday launched "Radio Ghaznawiyan" ("Radio of the People of Ghazni"), broadcasting 16 hours a day on 87.3 MHz FM. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development, Internews provided technical support to the station in order to boost the signal. Internews also trained the local staff. But Radio Ghaznawiyan is the first independent radio station to be launched in Afghanistan entirely by private sector funds.
"When I was a boy, my father set up and ran the city's only cinema," said Omari, who operates a business supplying electricity to about 3,000 shops and homes in the city center. "Ever since then I have been interested in media and culture. I have dreamed about this for years."
Omari and his 15-year-old son Farid set up the station with a 5 watt transmitter, a microphone and a couple of CD players. Internews, which is launching a network of 35 independent radio stations around the country, provided a 150 watt transmitter and a 30 meter mast, a full radio studio and training for the station's eight staff. Radio Ghaznawiyan's signal reaches an estimated 250,000 people in and around one of Afghanistan's most important cities.
The station plays Salaam Watandar, the three-hour a day network news and current affairs programming provided by Internews out of Kabul and rebroadcast live by satellite around Afghanistan, and a selection of programs from the Tanin initiative. Among programs the station is already producing itself is a three hour music request show in the evening aimed at travelers passing through the city, and a weekly show in Hindi and Urdu produced by and for Ghazni's ethnic Indian minority. It plans to add programs on culture and poetry, education, sports and business in the next few weeks.
Radio Ghaznawiyan joins the Internews-assisted network of 20 radio stations around Afghanistan, broadcasting to over seven million people.
For more information, contact David Trilling at +93 70 220 243, email@example.com.
U.S. to Send New Soldiers to Afghanistan
The Associated Press 09/15/2004
WASHINGTON - The U.S. military is planning to send hundreds of new troops to Afghanistan to increase security before the Oct. 9 election, officials said Wednesday.
Guerrillas have stepped up attacks in the final weeks before the election, defying the presence of some 18,000 coalition troops and the Afghan National Army.
Two military officials, who discussed the potential deployment only on the condition of anonymity, said the new troops have not been selected. One of the officials, who is at U.S. Central Command, said the new deployment would probably be battalion-strength, numbering several hundred troops.
The remnants of the Taliban have vowed to disrupt the presidential election. Twelve election workers are among more than 900 people killed in Afghan political violence this year.
The second military official said several hundred troops already in Afghanistan had been sent to the region around the western city of Herat to bolster the Afghan National Army forces there. Those were deployed to limit violence after the local warlord was fired from his governor's post by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Earlier this week, the United Nations and various aid groups withdrew their personnel from Herat after weekend violence by mobs reacting to the ouster of Ismail Khan.
U.N. officials said three Afghan civilians were killed and dozens wounded in that fighting, many by bullets apparently fired by Afghan forces trying to control the crowds.
Two U.N. workers, three American troops and three Afghan soldiers were also reported injured by the crowds, which the U.S. military said threw grenades as well as stones.
The Afghan government announced Saturday that Khan was being replaced. The move was seen as an effort by the Kabul government to increase its authority into a wealthy region recently wracked by factional fighting.
Khan had ruled Herat province since helping U.S. forces oust the Taliban in 2001. He has been in conflict with Karzai's government over customs duties levied at the Iranian border, and clashed with the United Nations over accusations he shielded his militia from a national disarmament program.
His downfall came after his troops took a beating in fighting last month against the forces of rival warlords. One of his rivals could face criminal charges for his part in the violence, while another has been relieved as governor of a neighboring province.
The violence in Herat has died down in the last few days, one military official at the Pentagon said, crediting Khan's appearance on local television Sunday evening to appeal for order in the city.
Warlord hands over historic Afghanistan fortress to police
Los Angeles Times 09/15/2004 By Paul Watson
HERAT - For seven centuries, the mud-brick fortress that towers over this city has been a shrine to the absolute power of the men who have fought great battles to control its ramparts.
This time, however, the citadel was turned over in peace -- from a warlord to Afghan national police. Early Tuesday, the citadel that has stood since 1305 was surrendered to the forces of Afghan President Hamid Karzai by about 300 militia fighters of warlord Ismail Kahn, whom Karzai had removed Saturday as Herat's governor.
The agreement could serve as a symbol of the peaceful push to unite Afghanistan under a single national leader. But with Khan still maintaining his militia and many Herat residents angry about his dismissal as governor, it is not yet clear whether things will remain peaceful for the long run.
"We hope that the situation will be peaceful from now on, but we cannot say what will happen in the future," said Gen. Alhaj Ziauldin Mahmoodi, Khan's security commander in Herat.
Enraged by Karzai's sudden removal of the popular governor on Saturday, several thousand protesters burned United Nations buildings here, and U.S. forces had to help rescue the U.N. staff. At least seven of the rioters were shot dead, and dozens more were wounded.
Less than three days later, Khan had his fighters hand over the fortress to Karzai's national police.
Peace quickly returned to the city, which has long been an island of stability and prosperity in a country wracked by war. But most of its people are still angry that Khan, the governor they credit with making Herat safe and stable, was ousted by an unelected leader far away in Kabul.
In interviews here, several Heratis accused the United States of trying to impose its will because U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad played a public role in persuading Khan to quit. U.S. military surveillance helicopters continued to patrol over the city Tuesday, on constant watch for any sign of trouble.
"Whatever happens in Afghanistan, the Americans are responsible for it," said Ghulam Sarwar, who owns six carpet stores in downtown Herat.
Karzai still has to convince Khan to give up his private army and join the government in Kabul, so the Afghan leader is a long way from celebrating victory in his latest conflict with Afghanistan's powerful warlords.
With Karzai dismissing Khan just a month before Afghanistan's landmark presidential elections, Heratis suspect the president wanted Khan out of the way because he supports Yunis Qanooni, Karzai's main election challenger.
"He's trying to put his soldiers all around the city, and manipulate the city," said Sarwar, 45. "But as long as Khan is here, no one will vote for President Karzai."
Sarwar warned that violence could erupt again if Heratis feel the stability they have enjoyed for more than 20 years under Khan is threatened.
"If anything happens against their culture and tradition, people will come out into the streets, no matter whether it's today or tomorrow," he said.
Khan is a Tajik veteran of the moujahedeen guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He was later jailed by the Taliban, but escaped along with his guards in 2000.
Khan is also a key leader of the Northern Alliance that helped U.S. forces remove the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Two Alleged Taliban Cases Go Before Panel
By ALEXANDRA OLSON The Associated Press Wednesday, September 15, 2004; 9:01 PM
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A U.S. military review panel heard the cases Wednesday of a prisoner accused of spying on villagers for the Taliban and a young man who allegedly traveled to Afghanistan to fight against U.S. forces, an official said.
The first prisoner, a 28-year-old, allegedly chose recruits to fight for the Taliban in the Afghan village of Sheberthan. The detainee also helped the Taliban search for villagers who had escaped a military training camp, said Navy Cmdr. Daryl Borgquist, a Pentagon spokesman.
A 23-year-old allegedly sent to fight in Afghanistan in 2001 by an Islamic militant group also appeared before the panel, Borgquist said.
No reporters attended the hearings, and there were no details on the men's testimony.
The so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunals are intended to determine whether the 585 prisoners at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be freed or held as enemy combatants, a classification that has fewer legal protections than a prisoner of war.
The tribunals are separate from the military commissions which are underway and are meant to try prisoners charged with war crimes. The first trial is set for December.
For the first time Tuesday, the review tribunal considered the case of a prisoner who has been charged, said an official familiar with the process who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The prisoner was Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul, a 35-year-old Yemeni accused of making a video glorifying the 2000 USS Cole attack that killed 17 American sailors, the official said. The U.S. government says the video was a tool to awaken an Islamic revolt.
Al-Bahlul, who boycotted his hearing Tuesday, went before a military commission Aug. 26 and is charged with conspiracy to commit war crimes, which could bring a sentence of life in prison.
Three other prisoners who went before commissions last month have not had their cases considered in the review tribunals.
Defense attorneys say the commissions should not proceed until a court determines the men were correctly classified as enemy combatants.
The attorneys also say the tribunals in Guantanamo fail to satisfy a Supreme Court ruling that allows the men to challenge their status in civilian courts where they would be provided attorneys. The tribunals do not allow the men to have lawyers.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, al Bahlul's appointed lawyer during the commission, said he was not told the Yemeni's case would be considered Tuesday even though he had a pending request to represent him during the process.
Sundel said it was a "disgraceful double standard" that al Bahlul was not allowed legal representation during the review tribunal.
Out of 62 cases considered so far, the tribunal has ordered one prisoner released and 37 others held.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, New York-based U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein ordered the government to turn over or identify all documents relating to the treatment of prisoners held in U.S. military bases overseas, including Guantanamo, said Emily Whitfield, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hellerstein gave the government until Oct. 15 to comply with an ACLU demand for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, Whitfield said.
Navy Secretary Gordon England signed an order Tuesday requiring annual reviews to determine whether prisoners considered enemy combatants should continue to be held, the Defense Department said. That process is for detainees who have not been charged with war crimes but who have been ordered to remain held by the review tribunals.
The new reviews will consider whether prisoners continue to pose a security threat and whether they have valuable intelligence information.
The Defense Department said a military officer would be appointed to assist the prisoners, but it was not clear if they would be allowed lawyers. Family members and the government of the prisoner's home country will be allowed to submit written information.
Terrorists embrace Afghan opium trade as source of funds
The Globe and Mail 09/15/2004 By Hamida Ghafour
KABUL - The man in the Toyota Corolla looked ashamed when police officers found a heavy package wrapped in bright blue cotton under the seats. Five yellow packets containing 13 kilograms of raw opium tumbled out of the bag.
His wife, shrouded in a burqa, leaned her head against the door and began crying.
"My wife here has heart disease and I bought the opium in [the northern province of] Baghlan to sell and pay for her treatment. We have so many problems," explained Mir Mohammed, 48.
The police officers who seized the car in northern Kabul said the opium was on its way to a laboratory to be processed into heroin. The smuggler may be a poor farmer with no other means of earning an income, but he is also a link in Afghanistan's booming opium trade, which is believed to be an increasingly common source of terrorist funding.
For the past three years, the war on terror has been fought by the U.S.-led coalition, while British troops have taken the lead on eradicating poppy cultivation, which reached a record 80,000 hectares last year. But Afghan and Western officials are now beginning to say that drugs and terrorism are more closely linked, and U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that a "master plan" is being developed to combat the trade, possibly involving U.S. forces.
"We have a lot of information that there are overlaps between drug cartels and terrorists," said Mirwais Yasini, director-general of Afghanistan's counter-narcotics department. "This week, we arrested four people, including three wanted on terrorist charges in an opium storage site in Helmand province in the south. They were involved in road and bomb attacks against the coalition and the central government."
British intelligence and drug experts helped set up Mr. Yasini's department, and the Germans and French have added their assistance in creating the specialized police force that snared Mr. Mohammed in northern Kabul.
Mr. Yasini said the goal is to wipe out poppy cultivation within eight years, but the institutions have barely dented the industry at this point. The drug trade earned Afghan farmers and traffickers $2.3-billion (U.S.) last year -- more than half of the country's gross domestic product, according to United Nations estimates.
One Western diplomat said that although they are not yet organized as well as the established drug cartels of South America, terrorist groups are turning to narcotics to fund their activities as fake Islamic charities are shut down and their assets seized or frozen. Hezb-e-Islami, a group headed by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been accused of channelling $120-million in drug money a year to fundamentalist groups in Chechnya and Uzbekistan.
"We don't have direct information about links between al-Qaeda and drugs, but I don't think al-Qaeda members have grown poppy and shipped it out. Instead, the farmers who grow it are separate from the brokers, who are separate from the laboratories, who are separate from the traffickers selling it. It's chaotic," the diplomat said. ". . . What I suspect is [that] money from the sales goes toward activities such as paying someone to buy weapons or sending rocket-propelled grenades over a compound. It is probably also paying administrative people in al-Qaeda."
There are about a dozen industrial-sized heroin labs smattered across Afghanistan's northern, eastern and southern provinces. About 40 per cent of the product, in the form of raw opium or heroin, is smuggled through northern countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while Iran gets 30 per cent of the product. The rest goes to Pakistan, another Western diplomat said.
But for ordinary Afghans such as Mr. Mohammed, the man caught in northern Kabul, the Taliban insurgency is far removed from the cycle of poverty afflicting his family. "She is sick," he said of his wife. "I am sorry I did it, but how else am I supposed to pay for her heart medicine?"
German opposition signals backing for Afghan force
BERLIN - A senior German opposition leader signalled approval on Wednesday for keeping German troops in Afghanistan, making the extension of their mandate probable.
"Until now the government has not presented a motion how to extend the mandate. If it is reasonably responsible -- we will examine it closely -- then we will agree again because the alternatives of what can develop in Afghanistan are even worse," Wolfgang Schaeuble, deputy leader of the conservative opposition in parliament, told Deutschlandfunk radio.
The mandate for Berlin's forces in Afghanistan ends on Oct. 13, four few days after the Afghan presidential election. Under Germany's post-World War Two constitution, Berlin's forces require parliamentary approval for foreign deployments.
Lawmakers from the conservative and liberal opposition parties have expressed doubt that an extension makes sense but Schaeuble's comments appeared largely to end the debate.
There has been controversy over the troops' role recently.
A Swiss aid agency accused German troops of not protecting its staff against a violent crowd in Faizabad this month, but the German Defence Ministry has dismissed the allegations.
Schaeuble said he could not imagine that German soldiers acted like cowards, but demanded more detailed information.
About 2,000 German troops are deployed on Afghan operations. Some 1,400 are in Kabul, 250 in Kunduz and 100 in Faizabad. A further 300 are in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
Afghan Taliban deny beheadings, ex-official freed
Reuters 09/15/2004 By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL - Taliban officials have denied beheading five Afghans in the rugged Zabul province bordering Pakistan.
Jilani Khan, deputy police chief of Zabul, said on Wednesday Taliban militants beheaded five officials on Monday and left a message by the corpses saying: "Unfortunately, we don't have prison and that's why we have tried these people in this manner."
But Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi denied responsibility, saying in a satellite telephone call on Wednesday that it was not their style.
"We do kill criminals, but we don't do beheadings," he said.
Separately, President Hamid Karzai has released a prominent figure from the hardline Islamic militia, remnants of which are waging a bloody insurgency in the runup to an Oct. 9 election which the incumbent is widely expected to win.
Karzai, a member of Afghanistan's largest Pashtun clan from which the Taliban drew its support before being ousted in 2001, has offered amnesty to moderate members of the movement with no blood on their hands.
On Tuesday, Mawlavi Qalamuddin, a senior member of the Taliban's notorious religious police, was released after spending more than six months in jail in Kabul following his arrest in his native province of Logar, south of the capital, an official said.
According to officials, he was the most senior Taliban member held by Karzai's government, installed in power after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.
MESSAGES OF SUPPORT
Chief Justice Mawlavi Fazl Hadi Shinwari told Reuters that after Qalamuddin's release, several hundred religious and tribal figures from Logar sent a message to Kabul to voice support for Karzai's U.S.-backed government.
Karzai is one of 18 candidates running for office.
Qalamuddin served as the Taliban's deputy minister and caretaker of the feared Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, also known as the religious police.
The ministry was notorious for publicly punishing anyone violating the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islam during it's five-year reign in Kabul from 1996.
It patrolled the streets and lashed or imprisoned women not obeying the Taliban's order to wear all-enveloping burqas when venturing outdoors, men with beards shorter than the required length and anybody listening to music or watching videos.
Taliban militants and their allies have termed the October election a sham and have vowed to disrupt it with violence.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in the last year, largely in southern and eastern areas, in violence mostly linked to the Taliban and other Islamic militants including al Qaeda.
Karzai twice postponed elections and voter registration has been below the national average in the south and east, partly due to security concerns.
U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban as punishment for refusing to hand over al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, blamed for masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
There are around 18,000 U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan hunting militants as well as 8,000 NATO-led peacekeepers mainly stationed in Kabul and a few northern provinces. (Additional reporting by Mirwais Afghan)
India, Pakistan and the 'peace' pipeline
By M K Bhadrakumar Asia Times (Hong Kong) September 15, 2004
Diplomatic circles were keyed up more than usual. The occasion: a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in Delhi in early September. The reason: a new element had been added this time to the usual anticipation surrounding such high-level interactions between the two nuclear neighbors - a natural gas pipeline project.
Most felt the time had come for the two rivals to join in a common gas endeavor. A joint statement issued after the talks in Delhi reflected as much. "In our discussions, we recognized the importance of availability and access to energy resources in the region around South Asia. We have agreed that the ministers of petroleum and gas could meet to discuss the issue in its multifarious dimensions."
Some Indian commentators view the pipeline as a "peace pipeline", implying its potential as a confidence-building measure (CBM) for the two countries, despite their deep differences. Others have lauded it as a "win-win geo-economic" idea for both India and Pakistan. But, alas, there was nothing more than the carefully-worded diplomatese on what many thought would be the mother of all CBMs. The foreign ministers just wouldn't go any further, but it was more than mutual suspicion that prevented them from doing so. There was more at play here - geopolitics.
What the two couldn't agree on was whether they would go for a Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline or a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline, also known as the Trans Afghan Pipeline. While the proposed TAP project would supply natural gas from the Daulatabad fields in southeast Turkmenistan (a sovereign nation in Central Asia that has broken away from the erstwhile Soviet Union) to Afghanistan, Pakistan and then on to India, the Iran-Pakistan-India line would deliver the gas from Iran to India through Pakistan.
The United States is keenly interested in the sourcing of natural gas supplies for the rapidly growing Indian market. Early September, the US Trade Development Agency signed an agreement with the Gas Authority of India for its partial funding (US$700,000) of a feasibility study for a natural gas grid in India. The US has thereby underlined its keenness to be involved in India's multi-billion dollar market for gas distribution.
Like India, Pakistan also has choices to make. Pakistan has been working on both the TAP and the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project. According to Pakistan's oil ministry, its demand for natural gas is expected to grow at about 6% annually. Pakistan's oil minister went on record in August as saying that by the end of the year, Islamabad hoped to prioritize between the TAP, the Iranian project and an altogether third variant, namely, an Oman-Pakistan gas pipeline project.
The main problem with the Iran-India pipeline is that the US is likely to come down heavily on any country that aspires to enter into a collaboration with Iran in the energy sector. The geopolitical reality is that any significant involvement of Iran at the moment in any grand venture would require the tacit agreement of the US and Israel. The two would see any development that could accrue to Iran's strategic power as very much their business until such time as they have quite figured out the "Iran question".
From the American and Israeli point of view, Iran is making an unprecedented bid for regional power, which poses challenges to their vital geostrategic interests in the Gulf region. Americans are thus keenly tracking all developments that could have a bearing on Iran's strategic environment. Turkey, Russia, the European Union and Japan, all are have been put on notice recently on their possible collaboration with Iran. Would India and Pakistan escape notice?
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami drew attention to this geopolitical reality when he pointedly said at a press conference at Dushanbe, Tajikistan recently: "We are certain that all of the region's powers must keep up good relations, and this will allow the regional powers to stand up against the ambitions of certain countries."
Earlier, the US had been frank about its expectations that a Taliban regime in Afghanistan would stabilize the country and thereby facilitate the TAP to India through Pakistan. American energy firms had even opened offices in Delhi in the 1990s in anticipation of the TAP's huge downstream business potential. Soon after the Taliban's ouster in 2001, the US signaled that once Hamid Karzai's interim regime managed to bring about some stability, the TAP would be revived. Some skeptics actually hold that the prime motive for the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 had much to do with considerations centered around the transportation of Caspian oil and gas reserves to the international market via a route minus Russia and Iran.
At any rate, the US had hoped to make good the TAP once the presidential election in Afghanistan to legitimize the Karzai government was out of the way. Elections are due on October 9. The Asian Development Bank, which undertook a feasibility study of TAP, recently confirmed that paperwork on the project was complete and that gas supplies could reach Pakistan by 2010.
Meanwhile, Russia's shadow was beginning to appear behind TAP. The Americans had all along predicated TAP on the belief that it would bring unlimited access to Turkmenistan's formidable Daulatabad gas reserves. But last April, while the stabilization of the Karzai regime was still to be conclusively clinched and the shadows of Iraq were lengthening, Russia entered into a 25-year natural gas agreement with Turkmenistan that effectively put it in control of Turkmen gas, as well as its transportation and marketing. The deal, dubbed by world energy circles as "the gas deal of the century", casts Russia in the role of a market leader in natural gas sales.
Clearly, if TAP's original objective was to bypass Russia in the evacuation of Turkmen gas, that has been rendered unrealistic. The million-dollar question now is whether the Americans would strive to transform the TAP into a joint US-Russian project. But that calls for a period of detente in the Great Game.
There are other angles to the equation. Russia would like to make decisions in its energy alliances in its medium- and long-term foreign policy interests. Russia's focus is unmistakably on the marketing of Turkmen gas in the Russian and European markets. By this approach, in geopolitical terms, Russia hopes to find itself in a commanding position as the supply source of natural gas for West Europe (36% as of now) and Central Europe (over 50%).
Russia is buying Turkmen gas at half the international price. The price differential enables Russia to subsidize its own domestic consumers and thereby stimulate the Russian economy, especially its industry. Also, Russia uses Turkmen gas to top up its quantum of gas exports to West Europe, giving itself the much-needed breathing space for the technical upgradation of its northern Yamal and Shtokman gas fields.
Russia would arguably like to take part in the exploitation of Iran's giant South Pars gas fields and for directing future sales of the Iranian gas to India. This would be both expedient as well as geostrategically sound. Expediency suggests that Iran does not compete with Russia for the European market. At the same time, an Iranian gas pipeline with Russian backing or participation heading toward India through Pakistani territory would have been, ideally, quite in consonance with the Russian vision of a multipolar world, apart from strengthening Russia's strategic partnership with India. But the very idea would run into American opposition.
The India-Pakistan joint statement has therefore carefully flagged the "multifarious dimensions" of the saga of energy pipelines for the two south Asian countries. The circumspection is only natural.
M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for 30 years.
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