America’s Incoherent Petro-Diplomacy



Pak­istan is going ahead with its nat­ural gas pipeline to Iran, part of Islamabad’s larger project of coop­er­at­ing with Tehran on energy issues. The exec­u­tives in charge insist that, despite the pipeline going through restive Baluchis­tan, the project is nev­er­the­less viable. The U.S. feels oth­er­wise, and is array­ing a num­ber of hos­tile responses. None of them make any sense.

At a basic level, the U.S. is cor­rect to be con­cerned with Pakistan’s giv­ing Iran a huge finan­cial life­line through energy exports (though Iran’s sup­posed $500 mil­lion con­tri­bu­tion to the new pipeline might mit­i­gate some of that). How­ever, that con­cern is not grounded. Two con­sid­er­a­tions, the pipeline’s impos­si­bil­ity and a lack of any cred­i­ble alter­na­tives, are lack­ing in U.S. rhetoric about the pipeline. The result is a con­fused mes­sage spark­ing an unnec­es­sary diplo­matic spat with a trou­bled ally.

CFR Senior Fel­low Daniel Markey sum­ma­rized all of these Amer­i­can con­cerns about the pipeline this week in a Con­gres­sional hearing.

I would sug­gest that while we should do every­thing to oppose the pipeline, includ­ing threat­en­ing sanc­tions should they turn it on, and includ­ing sug­gest­ing an alter­na­tive pipeline from Turk­menistan, TAPI pipeline that would prob­a­bly meet their energy needs as well or bet­ter and would pose none of the prob­lems that this Iran pipeline does pose, that that should be the pack­ages that we go ahead with.”

afghanistan-pipelineThis is, of course, illog­i­cal non­sense. If the pipeline is impos­si­ble to com­plete and won’t alle­vi­ate the very real energy con­sid­er­a­tions Pakistan’s lead­er­ship say it will… then why not just let them waste time and money and look incred­i­bly fool­ish? At the same time, propos­ing a pipeline that must tra­verse Afghanistan as an alter­na­tive to cross­ing Baluchis­tan is just dumb: not only will the pipeline have to cross Baluchis­tan any­way (there’s no other way to come from Turk­menistan into Pak­istan), south­west Afghanistan is a far more dif­fi­cult, dan­ger­ous, and restive place than Baluchis­tan any­way. It is unse­ri­ous on its face.

For its part, Amer­ica has offered two tan­gi­ble responses to the pipeline: sanc­tions, and ren­o­vat­ing some hydro­elec­tric dams in the coun­try. Nei­ther of these two sug­ges­tions deal with the dri­ving strate­gic logic behind Pakistan’s deci­sion to build with Iran:

  • Legit­i­mate, real need for addi­tional energy supplies;
  • A part­ner will­ing to con­tribute half a bil­lion dol­lars for construction;
  • Rel­a­tively low cost and short dis­tance com­pared to alter­na­tives; and
  • Domes­tic polit­i­cal posi­tion­ing before an his­toric election.

Put sim­ply, the U.S. government’s insuf­fi­cient, pouty reac­tion is play­ing into the worst stereo­types and assump­tions about Amer­i­can motives in the region. All of the Pak­istani elites who decry Wash­ing­ton as a bully out to keep Islam­abad down and Pak­istan poor can point to the hos­tile and uncon­struc­tive Amer­i­can response as evi­dence. Worse still, it’s not even rooted in Pakistan’s very seri­ous ter­ror­ism prob­lems (from the point of view of both scale and its direct sup­port to anti-American and anti-Afghan terrorists).

The pipeline is doomed to fail­ure. Even if it’s ever com­pleted, Qatar, which is the region’s pri­mary exporter and main­tains a strong price monop­oly on nat­ural gas imports, will sim­ply increase its own pro­duc­tion to make this new pipeline eco­nom­i­cally infea­si­ble. But this just makes the U.S. response all the more puzzling.

From a regional per­spec­tive, if the U.S. really cared about address­ing this prob­lem head on, it would do two things:

  • Approach China to help fur­ther build out the Gwadar oil port; and
  • Approach Qatar, which is already on friendly terms with Wash­ing­ton, to develop an energy import pack­age for Pakistan;

None of these are likely to hap­pen. For starters, China’s pres­ence in the Indian Ocean wor­ries U.S. strate­gic plan­ners. They’d rather keep China out than give it an extra boost to solid­ify its already-cozy rela­tion­ship with Pak­istan while pro­vid­ing yet more eco­nomic footholds in the area.

Sec­ondly, while the U.S. was happy to use Qatar to fun­nel weapons to the Libyan rebel­lion in 2011, those weapons quickly fell into the hands of Islamic mil­i­tants. In Yemen, too, the U.S. is more frus­trated than happy with Qatar’s efforts to medi­ate the many con­flicts roil­ing that coun­try. So they’re unlikely to reach out once again over Pakistan.

At the broad­est, most glob­ally strate­gic level, the U.S. really shouldn’t care who Pak­istan ropes into its grandiose energy projects. It should care, how­ever, about the long-term eco­nomic effects of Pakistan’s extremely patchy elec­tri­cal grid; the eco­nomic and polit­i­cal con­se­quences of the con­stant load shed­ding weaken the civil­ian gov­ern­ment — surely the oppo­site of what they’d like to see happen.

By get­ting involved in such a coun­ter­pro­duc­tive way, the U.S. is doing lit­tle more than shift­ing blame for Pakistan’s deplorable energy infra­struc­ture from Islam­abad to Wash­ing­ton. For all the world, it reminds me of Reagan’s sim­i­lar brinks­man­ship in the early 1980s when West­ern Europe tried to build a nat­ural gas pipeline from Poland. He even­tu­ally relented, the pipe got built, and noth­ing was really accom­plished aside from some antag­o­nism in Euro­pean cap­i­tals. It was all so pointless.

Amer­i­can is already deeply unpop­u­lar in Pak­istan. This is only mak­ing it worse. Does that mat­ter? In the long run, who can say. But giv­ing Pak­istan a new rea­son to hate Wash­ing­ton, apart from the war in Afghanistan and the drone strikes in its north­west, seems like the worst sort of short-sighted thinking.

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