Meeting Pakistan’s Energy Needs: Can the U.S. Help?

Last week, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the United States and other donor countries are “exploring ways to export electricity from Central Asia beyond Afghanistan to Pakistan and eventually India.”  And today, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson’s met with Pakistan’s Petroleum Minister Khawaja Asif to discuss ways Washington can help Islamabad’s energy-related challenges.

But Washington’s hope for a Central-South Asia energy pact could be, pun very much intended, a pipe dream.  The major reason: instability in Afghanistan.  Any gas pipeline or electricity grid connection to Pakistan would have to pass through Afghanistan.  The insurgency in its present condition makes construction impossible.  In fact, the pipeline construction could serve as a big target for insurgents.

That’s not to say work on the pipeline can’t begin.  Perhaps the long discussed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline could go through Kabul instead of Kandahar.  The post-Kabul portion could be completed if and once things settle in Afghanistan’s restive south.

But that does little for Pakistan, whose expensive and inadequate energy supplies are hitting the common man and industrialists hard.  It is emerging as a security concern.  In the immediate term, Pakistan has resorted to requesting grants of petroleum from Saudi Arabia and gas from Qatar.  In the medium term, it will likely exploit coal deposits in Sindh and could go forward with an Iran gas pipeline project, with or without India.  Pervez Musharraf has even suggested bringing China aboard, perhaps to put pressure on India.

Washington has been lobbying against the IPI pipeline for years, but if it really wants to nip the project in the bud, it will probably have to find an energy solution for Pakistan not originating in Central Asia.  Gas-rich Qatar can serve as an alternative to Iran, but the Iranian option is considerably cheaper.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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