Turkmenistan agreed on Wednesday to supply natural gas to Pakistan and India in deals that offer major economic benefits but depend on building and defending a U.S.-backed pipeline across chronically unstable Afghanistan.
The route, particularly the 735-km (450-mile) leg through the Afghan provinces of Herat and Kandahar, will need billions of dollars in funding. It faces significant security problems as the Western NATO alliance plans to hand control of Afghanistan to Kabul's own security forces by the middle of next year.
Turkmenistan's state gas company Turkmengaz signed gas sales and purchase agreements with Pakistan's Inter State Gas Systems and Indian state-run utility GAIL.
"The implementation of this project will give a powerful impetus to the social and economic development of all the participant countries," Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Baimurad Hojamukhamedov said before the signing ceremony in Avaza on the Caspian Sea.
India and Pakistan are both hungry for gas supplies and Turkmenistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is keen to free itself from reliance on gas exports to Russia.
Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst at IHS Global Insight, said that while the pipeline could be a lucrative commercial project, it would run through more than one high security risk country, "which puts the actual construction under a big question mark".
The idea of the TAPI pipeline, an acronym formed from the initials of the four countries through which it would pass, was first raised in the mid-1990s but construction has yet to begin.
Turkmen officials have said the proposed 1,735-km (1,085-mile) pipeline could carry 1 trillion cubic metres of gas over a 30-year period, or 33 billion cubic metres a year.
Turkmenistan, a desert country of 5.5 million which borders Iran, is viewed by human rights bodies as one of the world's most secretive and repressive countries.
But Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has a growing personality cult, has moved in recent years to warm ties with the West, whose political support and investment he needs to lay alternative gas export routes.