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Will TAPI help turn back time?

WASHINGTON

The prospect of a gridlocked Congress invites two possibilities:

One, a president unable to get through his domestic legislation, investing most of his time and energy on global affairs.

The other, a leader in name only, weakened at home and finding it near impossible to win agreements overseas. America’s place in the world resides in our capacity as a nation to persuade rather than to coerce.

The president is in India today. His next stopover, Indonesia, incorporates a visit to the Masjid Istiqlal (Independence Mosque), the largest in Jakarta, a major outdoor speech and a conference with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The next day, Obama will honor the Heroes Day holiday, marking a key battle in Indonesia’s independence struggle from Holland.

Remember that the Indonesia visit is to a country where our president spent four years, from the age of 6. He will stress that Indonesia is at the intersection of U.S. efforts to reach out to the Muslim world and to connect with dynamic, fast-growing Southeast Asian economies.

Next stop will be in Seoul, for two days at the Group of 20 conference, and then on to Japan.

The president’s short escape to Asia is very China-centric. Remember that throughout his pre-midterm campaign speeches, President Obama invited many of us to fear that we would be overtaken — in education, new energy and diplomacy — by China specifically and Asia generally.

It was no accident that President Obama went first to China last year. Now he is visiting the counterweights, India, Indonesia and Japan. He will meet China’s President Hu Jintao, again at the G-20 gathering. And should there be any doubts about our Asian focus, Hillary Clinton is touring Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia.

The Indian portion of our presidential circus will focus on the energy-related Turkmenistan-Afghanistan, Pakistan and India gas pipeline, known as TAPI. This pipeline not only provides energy but also is a tangle of paradoxes. It runs a nearly 1,100-mile route along the ancient Silk Road from Turkmenistan’s fabulous gas fields to Harat in Afghanistan, then on to Pakistan, turning east and ending up in Fazilka on the India side of Pakistan.

The pipeline will probably become operational this year at a cost to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) of $7.6 billion with the ADB becoming TAPI’s “secretariat.”

Turkmenistan will be happy because its export routes have been diversified. Afghanistan hopes to get $300 million annually in transit fees and Pakistan and India will get energy. But, for the first time in 60 years, those two countries will be stakeholders in each other’s development and growth.

Then, in the future, the vast gas and mineral reserves in northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan can be linked to TAPI, extended to the new port of Gwada in Pakistan and thence to Europe, which hopes to get energy while dispensing with the Russian middlemen.

From the late 1990s, the United States saw TAPI’s potential for bringing India and Pakistan closer together. The Clinton and Bush administrations dithered too long and Osama bin Laden grabbed his window of opportunity. But our friends in Washington’s power structure claim that senior Taliban officials have maintained contact for the past decade, despite the Sept. 11 attacks.

The major paradox is that now all the TAPI states want NATO troops to provide security for the pipeline. And Obama sees that all this meshes with his Afghan endgame and a quick deal with the “good” Taliban. Perhaps some of Obama’s advisers might put TAPI into a speech as the harbinger of peace and tranquility in one of the most destitute and cruel regions on the planet.

And, being Barack Obama, the president will want to explain that what seems a setback in the Caspian great game is really for China’s and Russia’s larger good. A “stable” Afghanistan, funded initially by the ADB and protected by NATO, is in everyone’s interests, after all.

But even the White House must realize that a very assertive China will continue flexing its muscles in east Asia, Iran is still in pursuit of nuclear weapons, Israel and Palestine are no nearer to peace, Iraq is an unfinished project and Latin America is hostile country.

Obama’s tasks had been clear — to turn back time to the golden years after the Reagan government won the Cold War, and that appeared to reinforce our greatness. The challenges that we face are economic, technological and military, which should give us an edge if we have the will to win — particularly for Barack Obama, who, having brought TAPI to the world, can smile, no matter how bad the election results.

Dateline D.C. is written by a Washington-based British journalist and political observer.


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