COMMENTARY
 
PM’s Turkmenistan Visit: Short Trip, Big Agenda
The Nation
October 15, 1997
In a move that apparently looked like a goodwill gesture but could actually mean big official business, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would be off to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, tomorrow for a one day visit, during which he would meet Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov.

The PM’ s sojourn to Ashgabat is taking place just three days ahead of the visit of US under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering to Islamabad on October 19. Informed officials are of the view that the main agenda of the Nawaz-Nivazov meeting will be the Pakistan-Turkmenistan-Afghanistan oil and gas pipeline project worth $2.5 billion. The United States has an obvious interest in a credible progress in the said agreement, given the fact that the project has been assigned to a US-based oil company, Unocal Corporation.

At the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit in Ashgabat in May 1997, Prime Minister Sharif and President Niyazov had given a go ahead to the said project, which involves the construction of oil and gas pipelines between Turkmenistan and Pakistan through Afghanistan by Unocal and its Saudi partner, Delta.

Unocal’s initial agreement with the two countries was extended up to December 1998 in an agreement in Islamabad in July 1997 between Unocal, Turkmen and Pakistani representatives. Since then, however, no significant progress has been achieved on the implementation of the project, partly because of the continuing armed conflict in Afghanistan and partly because of the Taliban attitude.

For their part, the Taliban have repeatedly made it clear that, instead of Unocal, they would like to give the contract regarding the oil and gas pipeline project to Bridas, an Argentinean oil firm which offers them better incentives such as the reconstruction of some main road networks and gas and oil pipelines that will be open at some points for use by the Afghans.

According to Taliban sources, Mullah Muhammad Rabbani, Head of the Supreme Command of the religious militia in control of Kabul, had visited Riyadh two weeks ago, where the Saudi authorities had tried to convince him that Taliban should accept Unocal’s pipeline deal with Ashgabat and Islamabad.

In the meantime, the war between Taliban and the forces of their two key rivals, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Jumbish-e-Milli Islami led by Rashid Dostum show no sign of ending. Taliban’s latest retreat in Mazar-e-Sharif seems to have shifted the battlefront once again to the north of Kabul.

“As long as the war goes on in Afghanistan and Taliban are unwilling to accept the terms and conditions of Unocal, the oil and gas pipeline agreement between Islamabad and Ashgabat may not be implemented,” said a Central Asia diplomat.

At the ECO’s May 1997 summit, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey had also concluded a Memorandum of Understanding to lay down a 2,000-mile gas pipeline, starting from Turkmenistan’s Caspian shore across a 785 mile stretch of northern Iran to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, through which gas was supposed to be supplied eventually to Europe. A consortium of three European oil companies was to complete this pipeline project costing $1.6 billion.