Taliban Vows to Protect Gas Pipeline as War Expands to West Afghanistan

FILE - Workers at the Turkmen-Afghan border prepare to weld the first link crossing the frontier during the integration ceremony of the pipeline in Serhetabat, Turkmenistan, Feb. 23, 2018.

The Taliban has dismissed concerns its recent battlefield gains in western Afghanistan threaten security of a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline being laid through the area to link Central and South Asia.

The project, known as TAPI, is planned to move natural gas from the world's fourth-largest reserves in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the growing economies of Pakistan and India. The pipeline is to pass through several Afghan provinces, including western Farah on the Iranian border.

Earlier this week, Taliban insurgents assaulted the provincial capital, also named Farah, and almost came close to overrunning it. U.S. air power assisted Afghan security forces to force the rebels out of the city, though fighting is still raging in surrounding districts.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA Saturday his group has already pledged to cooperate to protect the TAPI pipeline, noting that it is a "national project" that will ultimately benefit the Afghan people.

"We have an idea of places in Farah through which the pipeline is to pass and we will always try to keep the fighting from those areas," Mujahid asserted.

FILE - Residents look at an Army vehicle which was damaged during battle between Afghan security forces and Taliban in Farah province, Afghanistan, May 16, 2018.

But the planned TAPI pipeline, he added, cannot deter the Taliban from undertaking operations against "enemy forces" in the rest of the province.

Mujahid noted that the gas pipeline is still under construction in the neighboring Herat province and has yet to enter Farah.

"As and when the pipeline arrives in Farah, we will ensure from our side, peace and stability in areas around it," the insurgent spokesman vowed.

Officials visit Farah

On Saturday, top Afghan security officials, accompanied by U.S. commander of NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan General John Nicholson, traveled to Farah to look into the circumstances that enabled insurgents to enter the city.

FILE - An Afghan security force personnel stands guard at the entrance gate of the government compound of Farah province, western Afghanistan, May 15, 2018.

Angry elected provincial representatives and politicians at the meeting severely criticized authorities for not putting in place effective security measures to prevent the Taliban from assaulting Farah.

They cited leadership and other problems among both provincial civilian and security institutions for initial insurgent advances and insisted that without U.S. support, Afghan forces could not have pushed the Taliban out of Farah.

Nicholson, while addressing the meeting, reiterated international support for the country and called for replacing Afghan security officials who did not perform well in defending the city.

"Farah did not fall and Farah will never fall. … We in the international community want to see a peaceful end to this conflict. But until that time we will stay with you and, if necessary, fight alongside you, until we achieve that peace," Nicholson vowed.

Afghan officials and others meeting in Farah on Saturday again accused neighboring Iran of supporting the Taliban militarily. Nicholson backed those assertions.

"I wish that today my message was only to wish you a happy and blessed Ramadan with your families. But, unfortunately, the enemies, the Taliban, supported by some neighbors, have elected to attack you here in Farah in the [Muslim] holy month of Ramadan," he said.

FILE - Workers stand near a gas pipe during the launching ceremony of construction work of the TAPI project on the Afghan section of a natural gas pipeline that will link Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, near the town of Serhetabat, Turkmenistan.

TAPI's Afghan segment

In February, leaders of the countries participating in the TAPI project traveled to Herat, which also borders Iran, and jointly inaugurated construction work on the Afghan section of the nearly 1,800-kilometer pipeline.

The landmark event rekindles hope for regional peace and cooperation. The Taliban, at the time, also pledged to ensure security for the project.

Officials say the project, estimated to cost up to $10 billion, will carry 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually for 30 years and is extendable.

TAPI was originally conceived in the 1990s, but differences over terms and conditions, unending Afghan hostilities, and rivalry between Pakistan and India hampered implementation of the project.