ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan - Smiling faces and rosy predictions were abundant in Ashgabat when top officials from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India signed a deal to build a natural-gas pipeline that promises to change the region's energy fortunes.
But while the four countries finally signed off on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, or TAPI, natural gas pipeline after 15 years of negotiations, the biggest obstacle remains - ensuring security for a project that would wind through some of the most hazardous territory in the world.
According to an RFE/RL broadcast, Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the main challenge to the TAPI pipeline becoming operational in 2014, as planned, during the Dec. 11 signing ceremony in the Turkmen capital.
Afghanistan, Karzai promised, would "put in efforts to ensure security both during construction and after completing the project." The country's Mines and Industry Minister Wahidullah Shahrani confirmed that, "5,000 to 7,000 security forces will be deployed to safeguard the pipeline route."
This "huge" project is not important just for Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is anxious to cash in on its huge natural gas reserves, and Pakistan and India are badly in need of additional energy resources.
Annette Bohr, an associate fellow for the Russia-Eurasia program at the London-based Chatham House, notes that, "all of these actors very much wanting this pipeline, but nonetheless we have these security questions that have not improved but, in fact, have become worse if anything."
TAPI's 1,680-kilometer route originates in southern Turkmenistan, winds south through Afghanistan's Herat Province, and then arcs southeast until it reaches Kandahar Province. Kandahar was the spiritual capital for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, and the city and its surrounding areas remain the heart of the Taliban insurgency against government and foreign forces.
With construction slated to begin in 2012, these sections of the pipeline are the main areas of concern when it comes to security.
"Embarking on pipeline construction across Afghanistan in the midst of a continuing war between a NATO-backed government in Kabul and Taliban forces still operating effectively in much of the country," Bohr explains, "it's just not going to happen."
Afghan Mines and Industry Minister Shahrani expressed confidence that the ability of the pipeline to provide jobs and benefit local communities by supplying new sources of power and heating would be enough to gain the support of local residents. Shahrani said that once locals see the advantage of the pipeline they will shun the Taliban. But for that same reason, observers say, the Taliban would be likely to focus on preventing the pipeline from being built.