Writing in the New York Times on September 26, Paul Krugman insisted that the war against Afghanistan would not be “a war on behalf of the oil companies; not even a war on behalf of SUVs and McMansions.”  It was, though, going to be a war “over a natural resource that is more vital than any corporation’s profits or anyone’s luxurious consumption.”  We should not quarrel about whose oil is at stake, Krugman insisted; it is about our oil.

We were led to believe that this was a war for freedom, justice, democracy, and all that, and against terrorism, Osama, and the Taliban.  The organ of the establishment then calmly implies that the key to understanding it all is the world’s largest untapped reserve of oil and gas in the recently independent Central Asian republics.  Nobody attacks the columnist, and the paper carries no apology for his cynical distortion.  What is going on?

Apparently, the claim that it is “all about oil” is no news to the rest of the world.  The Daily Telegraph of London, among others, says that “Control of Central Asia’s oil is the real goal.”  This was the headline on a report by Ben Aris in Moscow and Ahmed Rashid in Lahore (October 23):

One of the main reasons that Washington supported the Taliban between 1994 and 1997 was the attempt by the U.S. oil giant Unocal to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, through Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan, to Pakistan and the Persian Gulf . . . But when peace and a stable government eventually comes to Kabul, US oil companies will be looking closely at Afghanistan because it offers the shortest route to the Gulf for Central Asia’s vast quantities of untapped oil and gas.  The companies have invested . . . $59 billion in developing oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan but exporting to the West involves lengthy and expensive pipelines.

This view was echoed by the Asia Times of New Delhi, which suggests that, while

the “great game” in Afghanistan was once about czars and commissars seeking access to the warm water ports of the Persian Gulf, today it is about laying oil and gas pipelines to the untapped petroleum reserves of Central Asia . . . 

As evidence, it cites a study by the Institute for Afghan Studies, which “placed the total worth of oil and gas reserves in the Central Asian republics at around US $3 trillion.”

Afghanistan is not just the key to pipelines connecting Central Asia to international markets; the country has its own huge oil and gas deposits.  During the Soviet occupation, Moscow estimated Afghanistan’s natural-gas reserves at around five trillion cubic feet, and production reached 275 million cubic feet per day in the mid-1970’s.  But sabotage by the mujahideen and the civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal in 1989 virtually ended gas production and scuttled  deals for the supply of gas to several European countries.  According to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy that was posted only a week before September 11 (www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/afghan.html):

Afghanistan’s significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.  This potential includes the possible construction of oil and natural gas export pipelines through Afghanistan, which was under serious consideration in the mid-1990s.  The idea has since been undermined by Afghanistan’s instability.

But, as Telegraph correspondent Ah-med Rashid, explained in Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale, 2000), this instability is largely the result of the machinations of U.S. policymakers and oil companies as they tried to secure access to energy supplies in the midst of Afghanistan’s protracted civil war.  After providing billions of dollars worth of arms to the mujahideen, the United States walked away after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989 and gave its allies in the region, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, free rein to sort out the ensuing civil war.  This allowed all regional powers, including the newly independent Central Asian republics, to prop up competing warlords, thereby escalating the war.  Between 1994 and 1996, Rashid says, the United States supported the Taliban (through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) because it was viewed as anti-Iranian and anti-Shia, and chose to ignore the Taliban’s own fundamentalist agenda: “When I first spoke to diplomats at the US Embassy in Islamabad after the Taliban emerged in 1994, they were enthusiastic.”  Three years later, another American diplomat told Rashid, “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did.  There will be Aramco pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of Sharia law.  We can live with that.”

That enthusiasm soon translated into commercial ventures.  After the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, London’s Daily Telegraph reported that

the dream of securing a pipeline across Afghanistan is the main reason why Pakistan, a close political ally of America’s, has been so supportive of the Taliban, and why America has quietly acquiesced in its conquest of Afghanistan.

In February 1997, a group of Taliban leaders was brought to Unocal headquarters at Sugarland, Texas (near Houston), for a whirlwind tour, complete with royal corporate hospitality.  Two months later, the company opened a project office in Kandahar, the seat of Taliban power.  The U.S. government wanted Unocal to build the oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan so that the vast untapped oil and gas reserves in Central Asia and the Caspian Basin could be brought to world markets.  The very people we are now carpet bombing were courted to secure the deal.

On June 1, 1997, Bombay’s Indian Express reported that, even as the Taliban were securing their control over Afghanistan, American multinational companies were trying to secure the Islamic militia’s support for the pipelines.  Once the mullahs were firmly in control in Kabul and in most of the rest of the country, a press release from Unocal (www.unocal.com/uclnews/97news/102797a.htm) reported that

Six international companies and the Government of Turkmenistan formed Central Asia Gas Pipeline, Ltd. (CentGas) . . . to build a 790-mile . . . pipeline to link Turkmenistan’s abundant proven natural gas reserves with growing markets in Pakistan.  The group is also considering an extension of the line to the New Delhi area in India. . . . Unocal was appointed by the Government of Turkmenistan to lead the project development activities and form the gas pipeline consortium. . . . The 48-inch diameter pipeline will extend from the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border, generally follow the Herat-to-Kandahar Road through Afghanistan, cross the Pakistan border in the vicinity of Quetta, and terminate in Multan, Pakistan, where it will tie into an existing pipeline system.

In the second week of December 1997, another Taliban delegation, led by Mullah Muhammad Ghaus, came to Houston.  Its itinerary included a dinner at the home of Unocal Vice President Marty Miller.  Reuters reported the visit on December 13, a day before the Sunday Telegraph carried a detailed story by Caroline Lees (“Oil Barons Court Taliban in Texas”).  In January 1998, the Taliban signed an agreement that would allow the pipeline project to proceed.

In March 1998, however, Unocal announced a delay because of the revived civil war in Afghanistan.  Unocal executives hoped that the halt would be temporary: Only a few weeks earlier, John Maresca, Unocal’s head of international relations, told a congressional hearing that sanctions against Iran meant that Afghanistan remained “the only other possible route” for Caspian oil.  Following the August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the subsequent Cruise-missile attack on alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Unocal announced that it would not proceed unless “an internationally recognized government” was in power in Kabul.

Throughout that year, Unocal also came under fire from feminist groups in the United States who were opposed to any deal with a regime that practices “gender apartheid” toward women.  In December 1998, with oil prices at a relative low, Unocal finally suspended its participation in the proposed Centgas consortium.

Three years later, if the United States manages to install “an internationally recognized government” in Kabul following the current bombing campaign, Unocal’s wish may finally come true.  There is increasing evidence that the U.S. government may have intended to intervene in Afghanistan even before the September 11 terrorist attacks.  The BBC reported this on September 18 (“US planned attack on Taleban,” by George Arney), and on September 22, the London Guardian carried a report headlined “Threat of US strikes passed to Taliban weeks before NY attack”:

Osama bin Laden and the Taliban received threats of possible American military strikes against them two months before the terrorist assaults on New York and Washington . . . [This] raises the possibility that Bin Laden, far from launching the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon out of the blue . . . was launching a pre-emptive strike in response to what he saw as US threats.

The Guardian rounded up the story on October 23 (“America’s Pipe Dream,” by George Monbiot; www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0.4273.4278871.00.html):

In 1998, Dick Cheney, now US vice-president but then chief executive of a major oil services company, remarked: “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”  But the oil and gas there is worthless until it is moved.  The only route that makes both political and economic sense is through Afghanistan . . . For the first year of Taliban rule, US policy towards the regime appears to have been determined principally by Unocal’s interests . . . Given that the US government is dominated by former oil industry executives, we would be foolish to suppose that such plans no longer figure in its strategic thinking.

Monbiot concludes that, if the United States succeeds in replacing the Taliban with a stable and grateful pro-Western government, and if the United States then binds the economies of central Asia to that of its ally Pakistan, it will have crushed not only terrorism but the growing ambitions of both Russia and China: “Afghanistan, as ever, is the key to the western domination of Asia.”

The Daily Mirror’s John Pilger had a similar but somewhat more sanguine view of the proceedings (“Hidden Agenda Behind War on Terror,” October 29): 

Only if the pipeline runs through Afghanistan can the Americans hope to control it. . . . Colin Powell is now referring to “moderate” Taliban, who will join an American-sponsored “loose federation” to run Afghanistan.  The “war on terrorism” is . . . a means of achieving American strategic aims that lie behind the flag-waving façade of great power.