The existence of a “Great Game” around the strategic oil and natural gas resources of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the South Caucasus is a geopolitical reality beyond dispute. This veiled conflict, initially confined to Russia and the United States, has been expanded with the entering of the European Union (EU) and China into the “game” in the mid 2000s. The geopolitical location of Afghanistan and the important role it plays in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline project (also known as the trans-Afghanistan pipeline project), adopted under the Bush Administration in 2002, shortly after the Taliban’s defeat, have led some analysts to include the military operation in Afghanistan as a factor in that “Great Game” in Central Asia. But is that interpretation still relevant today?
To answer this question it is necessary to update the available information on oil and natural gas resources in Afghanistan in the context of Central Asian politics and economics and to re-examine the country’s potential as a transit route for energy exports.
Between the 1960s and the mid-1980s, about fifteen oil and natural gas fields were discovered by the Soviets in northern Afghanistan. These fields were concentrated in the vicinity of Sheberghan, the capital of the province of Jovzjan, about 120 kilometers west of Mazar-i-Sharif. However, despite these discoveries, from 1959 to 2006, oil extraction came almost exclusively from the Angot field, which in its heyday produced an average of 500 barrels per day (bpd). Recently, for practical reasons, Afghanistan ceased its production of oil. That situation differs markedly from that of neighboring countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which produce thousands of barrels of oil daily. Also, in 2008, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two other neighboring countries, had a volume of production of 189,000 and 89,000 bpd respectively (U.S. Energy Information Administration). These production volumes were well below those of Kazakhstan, an energy producer that in the same year ranked eighteenth on the list of world oil producers, with a turnover of nearly a million and half barrels a day, equivalent to 1.8% of the world oil production.
In 2008, Central Asian states’ proven oil reserves accounted for about 3.4% of the global reserves. Kazakhstan, which takes the ninth place in the global reserves ranking, holds almost all of these proven oil reserves in Central Asia with about 40 billion barrels. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, together, hold around 600 million barrels of proven oil reserves, while Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s proven oil reserves total only 40 and 12 million respectively. With respect to Afghanistan, a 2006 report disseminated by the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that the country contains close to one billion barrels of recoverable oil. However, another report released in the same year and jointly prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines and Industry estimated that about 2 billion barrels lie under the ground in the northern part of Afghanistan along a narrow strip of land that runs parallel with Turkmen, Uzbek and Tajik borders.
As to natural gas, Afghanistan’s current production, for instance, accounts for only one tenth of the level of daily gas production in 1978 in northern Afghan fields like Khowaja Gogerdak, Djarquduk and Yatimtaq. Statistics show that Afghan natural gas production is much lower than that of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which together extracted around 30 million cubic meters in 2008. However, these volumes are marginal when compared with those of Turkmenistan (world’s thirteenth largest producer) and Uzbekistan (world’s fifteenth). In 2008, both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan produced more than 60 billion cubic meters, contributing to about 2% of world gas production and roughly twice that of Kazakhstan.
Regarding proven gas reserves, Turkmenistan is the most richly endowed country in Central Asia. In late 2008 the country ranked fourth in the world gas rankings (after Russia, Iran and Qatar) with about 8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves, or 4.3% of world’s proven gas reserves. That figure does not take into account the South Yolotan-Osman field, a “super giant” field that according to preliminary estimates could have between 4 and 13 trillion cubic meters of gas deposits. If the most optimistic estimate proves to be correct, Turkmenistan’s gas deposits could be equivalent to those of Iran and Qatar. Proven natural gas reserves of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan are also non-negligible, estimated to be between one and two trillion cubic meters, while experts’ estimates of proven reserves of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan indicate a potential volume of only 10 billion cubic meters, which is far below than that of Afghanistan which is estimated at 100 billion cubic meters. The latter figure could be multiplied by four since the U.S. Geological Survey and the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines and Industry reached the conclusion that natural gas reserves found in the northern part of the country could approach the 440 billion cubic meters.
These data attest that although Afghanistan’s hydrocarbon reserves hold promise for energy exports and domestic economic development, the main players in the energy “game” in Central Asia will remain Kazakhstan in the oil sector and Turkmenistan in the natural gas sector. Also, it is worth mentioning that Kazakhstan ranks seventh in the world for coal reserves (3.8% overall), while its uranium reserves holds the second place in the world, after Australia. Uzbekistan, a relatively minor player in the world hydrocarbon’s market, conversely plays an important role in uranium mining, holding the world’s tenth place in terms of proven reserves and the seventh place in terms of production. Canada was the world's largest uranium producer, accounting for 20% of world output in 2008, followed by Kazakhstan (19.4%) and Australia (19.2%).
These data strongly suggest that the prospects that Afghanistan will become an alternative transit route to Russia and Iran for the transport of Central Asian oil and gas to major world markets are quite slim. Indeed, as a transit route, Afghanistan possesses no attractive features for contiguous countries and the world’s great powers. Kazakhstan’s efforts to find new markets and reduce its dependence on the Russian transport system have come to fruition with the completion of an eastbound pipeline connecting the northern shore of the Caspian Sea with western China. Moreover, Astana has prioritized the development of the Kazakhstan-Caspian Transportation System (KCTS) that will link Atyrau, an oil city in the northern shore of the Caspian, with Baku, in Azerbaijan, on the Caspian’s western shore. The KCTS would then be linked with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and carry Kazakh oil through Georgia up to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. As for gas routes, Turkmenistan has set its priorities on laying a gas pipeline through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and connecting with China’s transport system – gas started flowing in December 2009. Ashgabat is also working on the Trans Caspian project designed to transport natural gas via a pipeline under the Caspian from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and then to Europe through the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum (BTE) pipeline. For its part, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline project seems lately to have fall almost into oblivion since Pakistan alone is not a sufficiently large market for Turkmen natural gas. The so-called multibillion dollar Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project that is 1,700 kilometers in length and that could pipe up to 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually from the Turkmen Daulatabad field looks more solid from a financial and strategic point of view according to many pundits.
Data on proven energy resources and regional states’ transport strategy are not consistent with the hypothesis that control over energy resources – the “Great Game” – is the cause of the ongoing conflict opposing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to western coalition forces. Afghanistan’s energy resources are not abundant by any means and the country at present is not a significant consumer of natural gas. If Afghanistan does have some strategic advantages as an energy corridor, it is to a great extent dependent on the energy interests of Pakistan and India, though. In any case, what does seem clear for regional and international players is that stabilizing Central Asia is crucial to steady energy supply, not only for western highly industrialized countries but also of the two emerging world economic powers, China and India.
Richard Rousseau, Ph.D. is lecturer in international relations at the University of Georgia and columnist for The Georgian Times, Tbilisi, Georgia