ISLAMABAD - Leaders of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and its arch rival India jointly inaugurated construction work Friday on the Afghan section of a long-delayed multibillion-dollar gas pipeline connecting the four nations, raising hopes for regional cooperation and peace.
A ceremony took place in the ancient Afghan city of Herat, attended by President Ashraf Ghani, his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Indian External Affairs Minister M.J. Akbar.
The long-awaited 1,814 kilometer pipeline, known as TAPI, will transport natural gas from the world's fourth-largest reserves in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to growing economies of Pakistan and India, which are facing energy shortages.
TAPI was originally conceived in the 1990s, but differences over terms and conditions, unending Afghan hostilities and regional rivalries are blamed for delays. Turkmenistan took the initiative in December 2015 and has since constructed its portion of the pipeline up to the Afghan border.
President Ghani, while addressing Friday's ceremony, vowed Afghanistan believes in connectivity and will "not spare any efforts" to implement the project to connect South Asia with Central Asia after a century of separation.
"This is the beginning of confidence in Afghanistan, confidence on national unity and harmony of the state and the people of Afghanistan," noted Ghani.
Pakistani Prime Minister Abbasi reiterated his country's commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
"We are turning, by the grace of God, TAPI into a reality. It will provide shared regional prosperity … and it will provide peace dividends," said Abbasi, whose country is accused of covertly supporting the Afghan Taliban, charges Islamabad denies as baseless.
"I want to tell my Afghan brothers and sisters that your success is our success, your development is our development and peace in Afghanistan means peace in Pakistan," Abbasi emphasized.
He termed TAPI critical for Pakistan's energy needs, saying it will provide about 10 percent of his country's total energy consumption.
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.
The final cost, however, is anticipated to be much higher because of an accompanying power transmission pipeline and the fiber optic cable to be laid from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
Afghanistan will buy about five billion cubic meters of gas once the project is completed. Kabul also will earn up to $500 million in transit fees from the project, which Afghans expect will create about 25,000 jobs in their war-shattered nation.
The Afghan section of the pipeline will run through five provinces in the south and southwest, including Herat, Farah, NImruz, and Helmand, before entering the southern Pakistan city of Quetta.
Taliban insurgents control or contest much of the Afghan territory along the TAPI route, raising security concerns for the pipeline.
In a statement issued Friday, though, the insurgent group dismissed those concerns and pledged to protect the pipeline, reminding skeptics the TAPI was initially negotiated and brought to Afghanistan when the Taliban was ruling the country.
The insurgency, which currently controls or influences about 44 percent of Afghan territory, blamed the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of the country for the delay in TAPI's implementation.
Groundbreaking for the Afghan section took place at a time when Pakistan's relations with India have deteriorated and both countries are locked in daily border skirmishes in Kashmir.
TAPI is dubbed by some as a "peace pipeline," citing the potential the project has to promote regional economic and security cooperation. But analysts remain skeptical about future progress in the wake of Islamabad's prevailing tensions with Kabul and New Delhi.