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Rocket Attacks On Pakistan Gas Pipelines

by Muddassir Rizvi

Controversial Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline To Be Built
(IPS) ISLAMABAD -- Last month's attacks on gas pipelines in Pakistan have raised serious questions about the country's capacity to protect a planned multi-billion dollar trans-Afghanistan pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan down to Pakistan.

The attacks Jan. 21 came less than a month after the gas-line agreement that was signed by the leaders of Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan in the Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, on Dec. 27.

The gas pipeline, estimated to cost over $6 billion in infrastructure costs alone, will bring 30 billion cubic feet of natural gas from the Central Asian republics to Pakistan for supply in the region and beyond.

Dubbed as a guarantee of economic prosperity, the project will open the rich oil and gas reserves of the Central Asian republics to the world at a time of increasing worries about oil supplies in the Middle East.

Gas exports from these republics would reach 4,850 billion cubic feet and oil exports 3.2 million barrels per day by 2010. Another pipeline is being considered to supply gas from Iran to India through Pakistan, but this has been overshadowed by Indo-Pakistan tensions.

However, all these pipeline dreams depend on the security situation in the region.

In fact, many experts link the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to the future security cover that will be needed to protect the network of pipelines that are to originate in Central Asia and culminate in South Asia, the Gulf and Europe. "The geo-strategic objectives of the United States are clearly linked to its interest in the oil and gas reserves of Central Asia, especially if we take into account the predicted shortages in the world oil and gas supplies in the years to come," said a researcher in the government-run Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS), requesting anonymity.

An attempt at a Turkmenistan-Pakistan-Afghanistan gas pipeline by the U.S. company UNOCAL was given up in 1997. The firm had earlier offered $2.5 billion in royalty to the Taliban, but plans fell apart after the most governments, including the United States, refused to accept it as the legitimate rulers of the war-battered Afghanistan.

It was only after the Taliban's fall and the formation of a legitimate government in Kabul, which extended assurances of full security to the gas pipeline, that the three countries agreed to sign a formal agreement last month.

The Asian Development Bank allocated one million dollars for the feasibility of the project and has offered three billion dollars in the construction costs.

But the latest attacks may just all change the perception of the interested parties in the project with regard to the security cover available in Pakistan.

"The incident exposed the permeability of the security cover provided by the country's armed and paramilitary forces to the network of gas lines that supply gas from the town of Sui (Balochistan province) to the rest of the country," said the ISS researcher. "Similar questions will now be raised about the security of the planned pipelines."

The first of the series of attacks took place Jan. 21 when, according to the Pakistani officials, unidentified people fired rockets at two main gas pipelines connecting Punjab and NWFP provinces to the Sui gas-fields in southern Balochistan province.

The rocket salvo came a few hours after an explosion in a cooling plant 40 km from the gas fields. Similar rocket attacks were repeated the next two days, though the damage was not as grave.

So far however, the government has been trying to downplay the attacks by calling them a result of a feud between Bugti and Mazari tribes that live in the area, which is most underdeveloped in the country.

Both tribes indulge in frequent armed clashes over ages-old land disputes and blame each other for the pipeline attacks.

A home ministry study says there have been 24 rocket attacks on the gas pipelines network in the Balochistan province over the past two years, but most were benign in terms of material damage.

Tribals demanding more share in royalties and jobs in the companies supplying gas carried out most of these attacks, the study said, suggesting that earlier attacks were meant to blackmail the government, not to cause damage.

However, home ministry officials privately say that the latest attacks are unprecedented and appear to be well-planned and executed by trained professionals. Officially, they say it could just be misguided rockets that went astray during the tribal clash.

The attacks caused disruption and in some cases complete suspension of gas supply to northern parts of the country. Many turned to coal, wood and kerosene for cooking and heating in winter temperatures.

Natural gas is the most widely used source of energy in the country in industry and homes. Its use as compressed natural gas is also increasing in vehicles.

Gas supply was suspended except for domestic consumption in Punjab and NWFP province, resulting in a shortfall of 430 cubic feet of gas per day, "causing billion of rupees loss to the national exchequer," said Abdullah Yousaf, federal secretary for petroleum and natural resources.

What is now important for the Pakistani government is to prove its ability to handle contingencies. A quick restoration of the supply network may just be as important as foolproof security.

"It's not the matter of just putting off fire and replacing the destroyed pieces of pipes with new ones, but it will also involve testing of the new infrastructure before putting it into full-fledged use," said Ismail Paracha, general manager of the Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Ltd, the public sector gas distribution company.

Much of the gas supply was restored here on Jan. 23, but the credibility of Pakistani security apparatus in place to protect the pipelines network has been damaged.

"Thus far the main obstacle to these mega (pipeline) projects had been lawlessness in Afghanistan. Questions could now be raised about the insecurity of Pakistan's own gas installations," said an editorial comment in the English-language daily 'The News.'

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Albion Monitor February 18, 2003 (

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