The Complete Truth About the U.S. Attack on Afghanistan
“American soldiers, oilmen, and diplomats are rapidly getting to know this remote corner of the world, the old underbelly of the Soviet Union and a region that’s been almost untouched by Western armies since the time of Alexander the Great. The game the Americans are playing has some of the highest stakes going. What they are attempting is nothing less than the biggest carve-out of a new U.S. sphere of influence since the U.S. became engaged in the Mideast 50 years ago.” (0)
—“The Next Oil Frontier,” Business Week, May 27,
The Official Story goes like this:
Within days of the September 11 suicide attacks, U.S. intelligence zeroed in on perpetual-enemy-of-America Osama bin Laden as the diabolical mastermind behind the plot that had killed more than 3,000 innocent civilians in New York and Washington. Top Bush Administration officials told the public that they possessed proof that bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization were the culprits of 9-11 (1); Great Britain and Pakistan asserted that the evidence was strong enough to convict the “evildoer” in a court of law -- their courts of law, in any case (2). Although bin Laden and his men had enjoyed the protection of Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime, a government diplomatically recognized by just three other countries (3), the United States politely requested extradition of these mass murderers to face justice in the West. When that demand -- er, request -- was supposedly refused, an America determined not to allow more of its citizens to die at the hands of terrorists had no choice but to defend itself against an ongoing threat: it took advantage of Afghanistan’s long-standing civil war to drive the Taliban -- bin Laden’s protectors -- out of power.
Regrettably, the official line continues, bin Laden and his followers sneaked off into the mountains of Tora Bora (where bin Laden was, according to some reports, possibly killed) as American bombs dropped. But though the United States failed to capture its most wanted man, the bombing campaign was a huge success in grander respects. It liberated ordinary Afghans, stabilized Central Asia, and struck a blow against Islamic extremism. Soon after the Northern Alliance swept into power, residents of Kabul and Herat rushed outside to shave their Taliban-mandated beards and burn their burqas. Music and kite-flying, both inexplicably banned under Taliban rule, filled the streets. Afghans freed to indulge their taste in Indian musical films, went the thinking, would lose their taste for flying planes into buildings in American cities.
The U.S., it was posited, had turned the tide of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.
Freedom, pundits wrote, wasn’t sufficient to ensure the long-term stability that counteracts the terrorist impulse among Afghans. In order to ensure that it didn’t lapse into another post-Soviet phase of “Mad Max”-like anarchy, Afghanistan required the paved roads, schools and strong central government that would allow a resumption of economic activity that would lift its long-suffering people, with an average life of expectancy of 43, out of grinding poverty. And so, under the watchful yet benevolent eye of the United States and its Western allies, the Afghans convened that clumsy yet charming tribal democratic gathering, the emergency loya jirga. At first the new transitional Afghan government was expected to take the form of an English-style ceremonial monarchy, along with that format’s institutions of representative democracy; the Americans went so far as to convince the elderly Afghan King Zahir Shah, who had been living in exile for nearly 30 years, to return to Kabul to serve as his country’s figurehead. But emerging instead from that convocation with overwhelming support to become the country’s new president was a man whose ethnically-inclusive philosophy extended to his eclectic wardrobe, a 45-year-old Pashtun tribal leader and former mujahed named Hamid Karzai (4). Karzai was well-bred, well-spoken and well-connected -- the latter with Bush Administration officials. (This cozy relationship was lauded as a boon for a nation in need of American financial assistance.) The old king was duly set aside (though told to remain in Kabul, as something less than a symbol),the United States pronounced itself pleased with the Afghans’ choice (though many delegates carped that the loya jirga had been as fixed as a Florida election), and pledged not to “abandon” Afghanistan to poverty and war as it had done after the Soviet withdrawal.
Karzai’s first duties as interim president were to bring Afghanistan’s provinces, then under control of local warlords, into the fold of his own central government, and to begin reconstruction of a nation devastated by 22 consecutive years of war. In the course of the latter function, he supposedly revived a long-abandoned idea: to revive the cross-cultural notion of the ancient Silk Road, this time with Caspian Sea oil and natural gas substituting for textiles in the economic exchanges of goods that has always characterized Central Asian economic activity.
Even before “liberating” Afghanistan, the United States had long supported the idea of a trans-Afghan oil/gas pipeline as a win-win scenario under which Afghans would gain jobs and revenues and American industry would enjoy the benefits of an additional source of fuel from a friendly ally. Kazakhstan had struck oil years before in its section of the Caspian Sea, discovering enough reserves to far surpass Saudi Arabia’s, but the shortest route for a pipeline to the Indian Ocean would have had to pass through “Axis of Evil” member Iran, an alleged backer of state terrorism. Turkmenistan possesses less oil than Kazakhstan, but enormous amounts of natural gas -- by some estimates, the world’s second-largest reserves. Connecting those Turkmen gas fields to an existing Soviet-era Russian network was considered unreliable -- the Russians had the unfortunate habit of diverting the oil without paying for it during the immediate post-independence period of the early ’90s -- and a proposed route across China was considered too long and too expensive.
Plans for a pipeline dated back to the mid-’90s, even before the Taliban seized power in 1996. After the Taliban consolidated control over more than 90 percent of the country, Western oil companies restarted negotiations with renewed vigor; the hardline Islamist regime crushed the warlordism that threatened the safety of a pipeline.
California-based Unocal Corporation had dropped previous plans for an Afghan pipeline deal in 1998, after it had become evident that the Taliban leadership were too unstable and unreasonable to make the idea feasible. But in the latter days of the Afghan war, although Unocal had officially lost its appetite for Caspian oil and moved on to focus on business in other parts of the world, reviving the idea made sense. Seizing the moment in anticipation of a new stable, safe and unified Afghanistan, Karzai signed a memorandum of understanding with its neighbors Turkmenistan and Pakistan in order to begin the process of calling for bids to construct a pipeline. The Kazakhs, Turkmen and other Central Asian republics would finally get their oil and gas to sea and on to market, the United States would enjoy cheaper gasoline and the Afghan people would benefit from construction jobs and transit fees. From the horrors of war would emerge a significant player in the lucrative world of international fossil fuel exploitation.
Most Americans believe the above scenario, and why shouldn’t they? Since 9-11 print and broadcast media in the United States have disseminated the Bush Administration line without question. On no subject has that been truer than on plans to run a pipeline across Afghanistan. Yet the role of energy resources in the U.S. “war on terror” has been anything but unreported. In Europe, mainstream media outlets like Reuters and the BBC have reported extensively on the subject. Wire services have distributed hard news about U.S.-led meetings, bank funding and related issues to every American newspaper, radio and television station in the United States.
American media has uniformly chosen to ignore these wire dispatches. Perhaps editors feel that their readers and viewers aren’t ready to hear unpleasant truths about their government’s actions in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Perhaps they hope that other media -- some other media, somewhere -- will begin the coverage that would allow them to pick up the ball. Whatever the reason for the silence of the American media, it has contributed to the sense that those who mention oil, natural gas and Afghanistan in the same breath are “conspiracy theorists” on the political fringe.
The pipeline machinations are no theories; they are facts. All of the information in this piece is readily available from widely-respected mainstream media sources, and these outlets are cited throughout. The purpose of this endeavor is to group all of that information , most of it scattered in bits and pieces over the course of the last terrible year, into one place so that Americans can begin to understand the actions that are being taken under their name.
The scenario summarized above -- a sleeping giant, rudely awakened by 19 Muslim hijackers on a sunny day in late summer, who rises to wreak vengeance to spread democracy and wealth among the world’s downtrodden -- is a charming one. It speaks well of the United States, its intents and its actions. However, it asks one to accept the following preposterous assumptions:
1. That the logical response to the September 11 attacks was a military campaign to curb Islamist terrorism, that Islamist terrorist groups (including the group responsible for 9-11) were based in Afghanistan, and that the obvious goal of that effort was the replacement of the terrorist-allied Taliban with the pro-U.S. Northern Alliance.
2. That the bombing campaign against Afghanistan, never even considered before 9-11, was planned from start to finish in three weeks (5).
3. That only after peace had been achieved in Afghanistan and after the United States had achieved its war aims did Bush Administration officials begin to consider the viability and desirability of a revived Unocal-style pipeline deal, not so much to obtain cheap oil as to help the Afghan people rebuild their country.
4. That a trans-Afghan pipeline deal -- never seriously contemplated before 9-11 due to security concerns -- was now determined to be possible in a newly safe Afghanistan, that it was discussed, negotiated and signed between the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan within just three months.
As we shall see, the facts -- strong, well-reported evidence rather than shrill conspiracy theories concerning Enron and other recent scandals du jour making the rounds on the Internet -- do not support these assumptions. The following pages will demonstrate to the satisfaction of a reasonably open-minded reader that United States involvement in Central Asia and in Afghanistan specifically, a gruesome and cruel exercise that has already cost more lives than those taken on September 11 (6), is motivated primarily -- if not solely -- by the desire to control a significant stake of the world’s largest untapped reserves of oil and natural gas.
The United States began undermining the Taliban regime using covert CIA military operatives within Afghanistan more than a year before 9-11. By the summer of 2001, the U.S. government, amplifying policies previously in place under Bill Clinton, had decided to replace the Taliban regime, and had developed the air strategy to do so.
Did George W. Bush know in advance that the United States would be attacked on September 11? We do not know. When the attacks came, however, the Bush Administration had to decide how to react. In the end, their response was a call for a worldwide “war on terrorism” in which other nations would have to choose to side with the U.S. or be treated as its enemy (“you’re either with us or against us”); the first American implementation of that policy was its undeclared war in Afghanistan. And because the contingency plans for invading Afghanistan had already been developed (7), all that was needed was the few weeks necessary to transport U.S. troops halfway around the globe.
The decision to attack Afghanistan surprised experts on Central Asia and the Islamist terrorist organizations that were based there. Osama bin Laden lived in Afghanistan (near Kandahar) and Al Qaeda operated training camps there, but Al Qaeda’s primary operations were (and remain) in the dusty towns of the remote tribal areas and occupied sections of Kashmir -- places like Quetta and Gilgit -- in Pakistan. Pakistan was also the main source of money and weapons to the Taliban militia. The Pakistani intelligence service had helped install Mullah Omar’s Taliban in 1996. And General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in September 1999, had invited Taliban and Al Qaeda “holy warriors” into Pakistani Kashmir to fight the Indian army (8). Sharing a Pashtun majority with Afghanistan, Pakistan treated Afghanistan the way the U.S. often deals with Mexico -- as a sort of back lot, a place where more unsavory business can take place away from the prying eyes of curious reporters. To be sure, bombing Afghanistan inconvenienced Al Qaeda, but the heart and soul of the group remained unharmed after the war.
After 9-11 Pakistan’s government, the greatest exporter of anti-American jihadism in Central and South Asia, chose to abandon its Taliban allies for a new, cozier and more profitable relationship with the United States. Saudi Arabia, the source of most funding for radical Islamist groups and the Wahhabist madrassas that trained their members, remained immune from U.S. criticism because of American reliance on its oil; if anything its stock rose as Bush officials planned an attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And Egypt, the country of origin of the 19 hijackers and the group to which they belonged, Islamic Jihad, was never even mentioned by U.S. officials. The “war on terrorism” was less about fighting terrorism, or finding the perpetrators of 9-11, than about bombing Afghanistan.
The Afghan bombing campaign also demonstrated a monumental lack of understanding of both Muslim sentiment and the porous nature of Central Asian borders. The Taliban had created their regime as a grand Islamic experiment to create the world’s “purest” Muslim state. So dedicated to this proposition was this militia of former mujahedeen that it didn’t bother to write a constitution -- disputes were settled by village mullahs who interpreted the Koran. While most other Muslims throughout the world are comparably modern and secular, the bombing of Taliban Afghanistan appeared to many of these urban Arabs and Turks as a direct attack on Islam itself -- much as American Jews tend to react strongly to attacks against Israel because of its status as the world’s only Jewish state, Muslims were disinclined to believe the official U.S. line that a war on terrorism required the dispatch of the Taliban.
The choice of an air campaign over a ground assault inevitably led to the outcome that followed: the escape en masse of individuals wanted for involvement with militant groups. Many Islamist groups had been based in neighboring countries to begin with -- for example, the Taliban-aligned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which threatens to topple the regime of President Islam Karimov in Tashkent, is based in Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. After American bombs began dropping, Talibs and assorted Islamists fled to join their comrades in those countries as well as Pakistan. This outcome might have been prevented by a full-scale ground invasion closing the Afghan borders with those states (9).
It’s also worth noting that there was little cause to consider the Northern Alliance any more pro-U.S. or less prone to cooperating with Islamist terror organizations than the Taliban. As it does in the case of such civil conflicts as the split between Taiwan and mainland China, the U.S. State Department played a double game with the two factions, recognizing the Northern Alliance diplomatically as the legitimate government of Afghanistan (though it rudely dismissed its ruler, President Rabbani, after the invasion) while treating the Taliban as de facto rulers. Neither side ever got what it wanted from the United States -- to be treated as a fully realized state. In numerous meetings and negotations from 1996 to 2001, the U.S. promised diplomatic recognition, including Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations, to the Taliban, in exchange for various considerations. But when the Northern Alliance, who did hold that seat, asked for even the slightest economic assistance from Washington, it was denied until they gained military ground in the civil war against the Taliban.
Russia armed the Northern Alliance, often using money that originated with U.S. intelligence. Pakistan armed the Taliban, but most Pakistani munitions were themselves paid for by American dollars. Although -- or because -- both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance received their weapons from the United States, neither side trusted it. The leadership and militiamen of both sides shared common ideology and religion; all were hardcore Islamist, former anti-Soviet fighters whose factions had turned on each other after the Russians had withdrawn in 1989. Both sides, including the Northern Alliance, believed that the United States had used them to fight a brutal proxy war to finish off the Soviet Union, only to abandon them to a wasteland of violence and despair after they had succeeded. From the American point of view, deposing the Taliban, therefore, was tantamount to replacing one band of Islamist cynics with another.
Finally, despite Bush’s initial statements that the United States’ top priority was the arrest or death of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, little was done to achieve that end. The Taliban, desperate to avoid the onslaught to come, offered to turn over bin Laden upon the presentation of evidence of 9-11 culpability, but the U.S. refused even to discuss extradition (10). Months later, after Bush had to admit that his expeditionary force was no closer to capturing bin Laden than on September 11, he claimed that capturing the billionaire Saudi dissident had never been important (11) -- and the actions of the military during that period appeared to confirm his assertion.
Why, then, had the United States targeted Afghanistan? If the war wasn’t central to eliminating anti-American Islamist terrorist groups, if the perpetrators of 9-11 were several time zones away, if Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were allowed to slip away because their capture hadn’t ever been a priority -- then why? Why had the United States deployed 100,000 troops to Central Asian bases in Kygryzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan? Why was it spending $1 billion per month on this operation? Why was it willing to put its young men and women in harm’s way, much less drop so much ordnance that well over 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the process?
Why was Afghanistan so important?
During the year following September 11, American newspapers and television news outlets studiously avoided mentioning oil, gas and Afghanistan in the same breath. Citing European and South Asian news sources, however, a few Western writers tried to draw the attention of a befuddled American public to its government’s impure interests in the “war on terrorism.” Historically, it’s no secret that war almost always goes hand in hand with economic motives, and economic incentives for American involvement often involves control of fossil fuels (12). U.S. intervention in Somalia, for instance, had less to do with feeding hungry Africans than controlling the strategic Gulf of Aden (13), through which oil tankers pass from the Indian Ocean en route to the Suez Canal via the Red Sea. While the Vietnam conflict is popularly believed to have stemmed from the Cold War-era “domino theory” obsession among U.S. officials, energy company interest in South Vietnamese natural gas reserves played at least as vital a role in American military intervention as anti-Communist ideology. And few doubt a relationship between the importance of Venezuela as the biggest producer of oil in the Western hemisphere and a botched Bush Administration coup attempt against its democratically-elected president, Hugo Chávez (14). Given the enormous energy resources at stake in Central Asia, these cynics suggested, there was much more to American adventurism in Afghanistan than immediately met the eye.
George W. Bush’s popularity has remained largely unaffected by intimations of dark intentions related to the war on terrorism (15), even though his use of 9-11 as a transparent ploy to fight an oil war is potentially a scandal of gargantuan proportions. It certainly helps that this, the biggest unreported story of 2001, received virtually no airing on American network news or in daily newspapers.
But in an environment in which even soft-spoken Democratic leader Tom Daschle is smeared as “anti-American” for “questioning the President in time of war,” even these below-the-radar discussions have drawn disproportionately heavy fire. “Apart from the popular theory (in some parts of Europe as well as the Middle East) that this is a war on Islam,” the BBC’s Malcolm Haslett typically editorialized, “there is also the theory that it is a war motivated mainly -- or even purely -- by long-term economic and political goals. This line of argument falls down on a number of points.”
Haslett’s main point was that a trans-Afghan pipeline is intrinsically unfeasible, and that, presumably, countries don’t wage war over such lousy ideas: “Very few Western politicians or oil companies have taken Afghanistan seriously as a major export route -- for the simple reason that few believe Afghanistan will ever achieve the stability needed to ensure a regular and uninterrupted flow of oil and gas.” (16)
And yet, while American bombs were still falling, well before wedding guests were dying “accidentally” (July 1) (17) and an Afghan vice president was being assassinated in Kabul (July 6) (18), the presidents of three Central and South Asian nations were meeting to sign an agreement to seek investors for just that “bad idea”: a trans-Afghan pipeline.
Despite continuing internal strife and instability throughout Afghanistan, not to mention almost inconceivable poverty and chaos in the areas for which it is planned, the project became the transitional Afghan government’s top priority. On May 30, 2002, the BBC reported, “Pakistani President Musharraf, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and Turkmen President Niyazov agreed on the construction of a $2 billion pipeline to bring gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. Officials in Islamabad said the 950-mile pipeline would take natural gas from the huge Daulatabad-Donmez fields in Turkmenistan to the southwestern Pakistani port of Gawadar.” (19)
The Bush Administration and its mainstream media allies ask us to believe that the United States bombed Afghanistan solely in order to kill or arrest Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and their Taliban protectors. It was while doing that, in the words of journalist and author John Flynn in 1944, we "blundered accidentally into their oil wells." (20) It was, conservative pundits claimed, only after the United States-backed Northern Alliance victory that thoughts turned to the possibility of building a potentially lucrative pipeline project across Afghanistan. (21) But the effort to revive an oil and gas pipeline through this link between Central and South Asia actually began during the very first days of the bombing campaign, while the Taliban still held power in Kabul.
As the Pentagon was laying out targets, the State Department was mapping pipelines.
U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain met with Pakistan’s oil minister to discuss reviving the old Unocal deal on the third day of the bombing campaign, October 10, 2001. This was when the U.S.-aligned Northern Alliance still controlled just five percent of the country and defeat of the Taliban was still anything but guaranteed. (22) On December 31, 2001, Bush appointed Afghan-American academic Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy and likely future U.S. ambassador to Hamid Karzai’s then nine-day-old interim government. (The Karzai regime was called “interim” before the loya jirga and “transitional” afterward.) Khalilzad was a former Unocal Corporation consultant who, as a member of the National Security Council on Persian Gulf- and Southeast Asian-related affairs, had reported to former ChevronTexaco general counsel Condoleezza Rice. (23)
The Karzai and Khalilzad appointments were understandably interpreted by Central Asia Kremlinologists as a move that signaled American support for a trans-Afghan pipeline in general and Unocal’s involvement in particular. (24) Karzai, after all, is himself a former Unocal consultant. (25) In February 2002, Khalilzad traveled to Ashkhabat to sign an initial letter of intent on the pipeline with Turkmenistan’s autocratic president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov. And on March 7, 2002, Reuters reported that Karzai had gone to Islamabad to cover the Pakistani side of the deal with that country’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. (26) Two and half months later, all three countries met in Pakistan to ink a formal letter of understanding.
Will a pipeline ever be built? Probably not. At this writing, Afghanistan remains as politically and socially fractured as ever. At least seven major warlords and hundreds of minor warlords known locally as “commanders” control districts outside the control of Karzai’s American-backed regime, which mainly consists of his tiny Kabul city-state. Fighting has broken out repeatedly, claiming hundreds of lives at internal borders and checkpoints separating the turf of rival warlords and with representatives of the Karzai government. No fewer than three versions of the Afghan flag fly over a nation filled with an estimated five to ten million mines, where most boys over 14 years of age carry an AK-47 and where a culture of violence, theft and hostage-taking have been both historically and culturally endemic.
Experts say that a trans-Afghan pipeline would be subject to continuous threats of sabotage committed by local warlords in the sectors through which it ran, and immense amounts of ever-increasing protection fees would have to be paid to safeguard the steady flow of fossil fuels. In addition, a large foreign -- read, American -- occupation force would be required for many years to enforce comparative law and order, and it remains to be seen whether the Bush Administration -- much less future American presidents -- will be inclined to devote substantial financial and military resources to the aftermath of our 2001 Afghan adventure. If pragmatism triumphs over ideology, it seems likely that the oil companies involved, reported to be led once again by the California-based Unocal Corporation (27), will reconsider their decision to bypass the shorter, cheaper and infinitely more workable Iranian proposal.
For the time being, however, the Bush Administration and its puppet regime in Kabul are working furiously to make this highly dubious scheme become reality. And various parties -- Russia, Japan and the Asian Development Bank -- are already committing millions of dollars to the job.
Right-wing commentators -- the same guys who previously denied the existence of any pipeline scheme -- now shrug: so what? To the victor goes the spoils, their logic goes, and if a country ever deserved to be compensated for its travails -- in this case with cheap fuel -- it’s the United States. We lost more than 3,000 lives and billions of dollars in property on September 11 -- maybe an unlimited supply of 50-cent-per-gallon gas will help soothe our pain.
There is no smoking gun, no leaked White House memo, dated August 2001, signed by George W. Bush, that calls for invading Afghanistan on whatever pretext imaginable to secure it as a possible pipeline route. There is, however, a preponderance of evidence that the drive to establish an American-friendly regime in Kabul was undertaken not to protect American interests from the attacks of Islamist radicals, but to enter the “New Great Game” for Central Asian oil. This is certainly the accepted view among leaders and ordinary citizens of other Western nations, and it is one that is impossible to avoid after examining the published evidence.
The profoundly cynical Bush Administration war against Afghanistan that was waged during the fall of 2001, while body parts were still being extracted from smoldering rubble at Ground Zero, has profoundly negative implications for the United States at home and around the world. These include, but are hardly limited to the following:
1. Rather than attempt to bring the perpetrators of September 11 to justice, rather than end the reign of terror carried out over the years by Islamist extremists, the United States allowed the real criminals -- officials in the Egyptian, Saudi and Pakistani governments who tolerated and worked with Islamic Jihad and their allies -- to get away, as it let bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives escape. These people and these groups will kill again, and the Bush Administration will be partly responsible for those deaths.
2. The U.S. was so desperate to control a key exit route for landlocked Central Asian oil that it was willing to cause the deaths of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians and remove from power the first Afghan government in two decades to bring some measure of stability and order to the country. The Muslim world, disgusted by the carnage caused by the U.S. in Afghanistan as well as our impudent coup de bombe against an attempt to create the purest Islamic state in the world, will merely experience further shudders of anti-Americanism in response to a perceived war against Islam. This will fuel the popularity and funding of radical groups bent on spreading Islamic fundamentalism.
3. Rather than take up the Iranian government on its recent overtures to thaw relations, the U.S. established a puppet regime on Iran’s eastern border whose express purpose is to “freeze out” Iran. If Iran drifts away from Western-style reforms, if anti-Americanism sweeps the richest, most culturally and politically potent nation in the Middle East, the Bush Administration will certainly be to blame.
4. The U.S. has lost its moral imperative to wage war, and its bull-in-a-china-shop sort of unrepentant arrogance is now seen as a problem that needs to be addressed by the world’s diplomatic community. Had the U.S. waited a respectful period before allowing Karzai to begin discussing a pipeline -- a year or two, say -- our European allies might have looked the other way as the United States spread its domination over Afghanistan and built military bases throughout the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. As it is, American intent is indecently obvious -- and Europe is far less likely to join our next oil-related conflict, whether against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or elsewhere. If we fail to secure the support of our allies when we genuinely need it, we may lose our status as a superpower -- and this will be the Bush Administration’s responsibility. The geopolitical consequences of this breach are currently unknowable.
5. Russia is understandably dismayed to watch the United States building permanent military bases throughout its former Soviet republics -- Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan all have American troops stationed on their territory -- in order to safeguard American oil interests. (28) The Chinese government is worried about the establishment of an U.S. puppet state bordering its wild western underbelly, the Xinjiang Muslim Autonomous Region. It’s the Cuban missile crisis all over again, but this time we’re playing the role of Russia. If war with one of these nuclear superpowers somehow develops from the rash actions taken today, the Bush Administration will have been responsible.
The fundamental question is whether the trans-Afghan pipeline idea is a happy by-product of American -backed victory in its morally justified and strategically vital war in Afghanistan, or rather the culmination of a cynical ploy to kill and maim innocent people living in the world’s poorest nation for the sake of securing access to cheap energy.
The answer to that question tells us what kind of leaders currently reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, what kind of people we are for allowing them to govern on our behalf and how we’re likely to be perceived abroad. This last issue -- the state of our reputation overseas -- will determine the level of resentment against the United States. It will also increase the likelihood that radicals angry at American foreign policy will again target American civilians. On September 11, 2001, we became victims who enjoyed the support and best wishes of the world. We destroyed that positive image in a few months of haphazard militarism, but it’s not too late to stop the clumsy bullying that got us into this mess.
The republics of Central Asia that became independent in 1991 -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- didn’t leave the Soviet Union voluntarily. They were thrown out, ejected unceremoniously by a newly-independent, impoverished Russia no longer willing to pay enormous one-way subsidies that had been draining Moscow’s coffers for years.
With the exception of the relatively democratic Kyrgyz Republic, all of what U.S. State Department insiders jokingly refer to as the “icky Stans” are governed by the former Communist Party strongmen who were appointed by Moscow to run their Soviet Socialist Republic predecessors. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- the Central Asian countries possessing substantial amounts of Caspian Sea oil and natural gas -- are autocratic police states with rigidly controlled state media, banned or nominal opposition parties and ferociously totalitarian policies of social control. In one of the great ironies of recent geopolitical history, Russia couldn’t afford to hold on to the largest untapped oil reserves in the world, yet ended up maintaining a significant military presence only in oil-poor, impoverished, civil-war-wracked Tajikistan -- the “ickiest” of the Stans -- because the Tajik government otherwise could not control its southern border with violent, unstable Afghanistan.
In the parlance of the oil business, “proven” oil reserves are those that geologists judge to be 90 percent probable and “possible” oil reserves are considered 50 percent probable. The landlocked Caspian Sea, home to a huge sturgeon that produces most exported Russian caviar, sits on top of an estimated 10 billion barrels of proven reserves and 233 billion barrels of possible reserves -- in total, more than six percent of the world’s proven oil and 40 percent of its gas reserves. (29) At the current rate of $26 per barrel, this amounts to an astonishing $6 trillion in potential gross revenues.
Compare this to Saudi Arabia, currently the world’s largest oil producer, which possesses a mere 45 billion barrels of possible reserves. The Caspian region also enjoys some 293 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. (30)
Caspian Sea oil and natural gas have always drawn the attention of superpowers; Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi war machine was hobbled by an Allied fuel embargo, launched a disastrous front against the Soviet Union in a desperate bid to secure Baku’s (then the capital of the Azeri S.S.R., now Azerbaijan) oil rigs for the fight against England and the United States. Nowadays, the Caspian is divvied up among five countries: Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
In 1999, Kazakh drillers hit the Caspian jackpot at the remote northwestern cities of Tengiz and Kashagan. Thanks to these two strikes, the biggest in the history of oil exploration, Kazakhstan is estimated to possess 5.4 billion barrels of proven and 92 billion barrels of possible reserves (31). So while American foreign policy has always been influenced by the discovery of oil, the gigantic Kazakh strike changes everything.
Kazakhstan, a U.S. client dictatorship the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River run by the notoriously corrupt Nursultan Nazarbayev, possesses more than twice as much oil as Saudi Arabia.
During the first months after independence in 1991, the unsophisticated autocrats of Central Asia got taken for a ride by foreign investors. “Naive Turkmen officials auctioned off choice oil and gas fields for as little as $100,000 to foreign opportunity seekers,” The Washington Post reports. “Among those who picked up cut-rate concessions were a Dubai car salesman, a Swedish real estate magnate and Roger E. Tamraz, the Lebanese-American entrepreneur who subsequently became entangled in a U.S. Senate investigation of his donations to the Democratic National Committee.” (32)
But the leaders of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan quickly learned the value of the Caspian Sea oil beneath their windswept deserts and steppes. Beginning under the Clinton Administration and continuing under Bush-Cheney, the U.S. government has tried to help Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan and Niyazov’s Turkmenistan get their oil and gas out to sea. The reasons are simple: Increased production means lower oil prices, which means less reliance on OPEC. Lower oil prices would have a positive impact on corporate profits as transportation, production and power costs inevitably fall (33). And one hardly needs an agile imagination to suspect the interest of a White House headed by former oil men in cutting deals to help their former partners and friends in Texas.
By all accounts the most direct and cheapest route to extract Caspian Sea oil is across the narrow shoulder of Iran to the Persian Gulf. But “the U.S. wants a pipeline that will help its friends in the region and freeze out its enemies -- especially the Iranians,” reported Business Week in late May 2002, while Unocal Pipeline 2.0 was getting signed in Islamabad (34). This project (taken over in 1995 from Argentina’s Bridas Corporation, which had conceived it in 1993) runs from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan.
After the Iranian artery, this is the second-shortest route.
The Trans-Afghan Pipeline: Alive and Well
S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told The New York Times’ Steven Kinzer for an article published March 17, 2002: “Whoever can shape the way that pipeline map looks will shape the future of a huge part of the world. The main feature of these states is their remoteness. Pipelines are the only way they can overcome their isolation. Transit fees are real money, and who gets that real money will go a long way toward determining which of these countries succeed and which don't.”
There are many pipelines slated for Caspian Sea oil, some further along than others. In rough order of desirability, they are:
1. Turkmenistan-Iran: The shortest, cheapest and safest route, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, yet indefinitely on hold because Iran is subject to U.S. trade sanctions.
2. Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan: The project originally pushed by Unocal Corporation. A (primarily) gas pipeline that begins in southeast Turkmenistan, crosses Afghanistan from its northwest to southeast and debouches in Pakistan on the Arabian Sea. Now being developed after establishment of Karzai government in Afghanistan despite substantial danger and instability.
3. Azerbaijan-Georgia: Also called Baku-Supsa, a pipeline would carry oil and gas to the Black Sea. Tankers would carry it through the Bosphorus strait to the Mediterranean. Cost of construction through the Caucasus mountains would be high. Also, the Turkish government is concerned about oil spills in the already congested Bosphorus. (Both Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas can be shipped by tanker to Baku across the Caspian Sea.)
4. Azerbaijan-Turkey: An alternative to Azerbaijan-Georgia, this route runs from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Even longer and more expensive than Baku-Supsa, this could run over $3 billion.
5. Azerbaijan-Russia: Baku-Novorossisk would run through lawless Chechnya into nearly-as-lawless Russia. No Central Asian leader trusts the Russians not to cut off the pipeline or divert its flow at whim.
6. Kazakhstan-China: The Chinese government has already promised the cash for this project, which will be enormous due to engineering concerns -- it crosses the Tian Shan mountain range -- and distance (5,300 miles). (35)
Kinzer wrote: “Afghanistan's main hope lies with the huge gas reserves in neighboring Turkmenistan, which other Asian nations crave. Today, the only pipelines through which Turkmen gas and oil can be exported run to Russia. American companies have been seeking to build new lines from Turkmenistan to a port from which this wealth could be shipped to other markets.” (36)
In order to understand the current thinking about the trans-Afghan deal it’s useful to take a look at its recent origins. On October 27, 1997, Unocal Corporation announced the formation of a six-company consortium, the Central Asia Gas Pipeline, Ltd. (CentGas) to construct a $2 billion trans-Afghan pipeline across then-Taliban-held Afghanistan. According to the company’s press release (37), the six lead participants in the project would have been Unocal (46.5 percent), Delta Oil Company Limited of Saudia Arabia (15 percent), the Government of Turkmenistan (7 percent), Indonesia Petroleum, Ltd. of Japan (6.5 percent), Itochu Oil Exploration Co., Ltd. of Japan (6.5 percent), Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co., Ltd. of South Korea (5 percent) and the Crescent Group of Pakistan (3.5 percent). A Russian company, RAO Gazprom, indicated interest initially, but withdrew in January 1998.
As Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has documented extensively in his seminal book “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia,” Unocal representatives courted Taliban officials from 1995 through 1998, even arranging for a trip to Texas for Taliban officials in 1997. By most accounts, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was favorably disposed toward Unocal and its proposed pipeline route.
However, shortly after terrorists (allegedly sponsored by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization) bombed two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton retaliated with cruise missile attacks against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, and Al Qaeda training camps near Khost and Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, on August 21, 1998 (38). In the aftermath of these actions, Unocal immediately withdrew from the CentGas consortium, formally disbanding it in December 1998. “We met with many factions, including the Taliban, to educate them about the benefits such a pipeline could bring to this desperately poor and war-torn country, as well as to the Central Asian region,” Unocal said in a statement announcing the pullout. “At no time did we make any deal with the Taliban, and, in fact, consistently emphasized that the project could not and would not proceed until there was an internationally recognized government in place in Afghanistan that fairly represented all its people. Our hope was that the project could help bring peace, stability and economic development to the Afghans, as well as develop important energy resources for the region.” (39)
Though Clinton and Bush officials repeatedly tried to resurrect the deal, the Unocal project remained shelved until September 11, 2001. Those conditions -- “peace, stability and economic development” -- had yet to be achieved by any objective standard. But, by May of 2002, Unocal had obviously been satisfied.
The Return of Unocal
Afghanistan’s new Minister of Mines and Industries, Mohammad Alim Razim, announced that Unocal was the “lead company” in the newly revived project. “The work on the project will start after an agreement is expected to be struck at the coming [May 30, 2002] summit,” Razim told reporters (40). He said that the Afghan government would build a new road linking Turkmenistan with Pakistan running alongside the pipeline in order to supply nearby villages with gas and to carry Afghan gas for export, and that additional construction funds would be provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and donor countries. The Afghans would collect “transit fees” amounting to one-twelfth of overall profits (41) until it would take full possession of the conduit after 30 years (42). As further consideration, Turkmen President Sapamurat Niyazov promised to add Afghan cities near the border to Turkmenistan’s electrical grid and to wire Kabul itself within two years. (43)
In a development that confirms Razim’s account, the Asian Development Bank’s Marshuq Ali Shah announced on August 12, 2002 that the ADB had cut a check for $1.5 million for a feasibility study of the trans-Afghan pipeline and would meet on September 20, 2002 in Manila to discuss the project. “The movement is quite fast,” Shah told reporters. (44)
Obviously attuned to the potential controversy surrounding its previous dalliances with the Taliban and the growing perception that George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” was little more than a cover for neo-colonialist oil exploitation, Unocal officials at first denied Razim’s statement. “Unocal is not involved in any projects (including pipelines) in Afghanistan, nor do we have any plans to become involved, nor are we discussing any such projects,” spokesperson Teresa Covington said (45). But she added: “I don’t think it would serve me to say ‘forever.’” (46) Covington also allowed her employer a rhetorical opening: “We can’t make any decisions based on a snapshot of a country,” Covington said. “There are several things we look for before we invest in a country: an internationally recognized government, peace and stability, and social [standards].” (47)
However, Razim’s right-hand man, Deputy Minister of Mines and Industries Mohammed Ebrahim Adel, readily confirms Unocal’s interest: “Naturally, Unocal is economically and technically stronger...We are sure Unocal will win, because it has big potential and can work better.”
“Business has its secrets and mysteries,” continued Adel, a mining engineer, wondering aloud about the oil company’s reticence. “And maybe, before there is a real contract, they don’t want it to be disclosed in the media.” (48)
In any event, the Afghans have made clear that they’re not waiting for Unocal, or for that matter the West, to start construction. Any pipeline deal will be done on a first-come, first-serve basis. On August 8, 2002, the Russian state oil company Rosneft announced that it had signed an agreement with the Afghan “Mining and Industry Ministry, under which Russian specialists will study the state of [Afghanistan’s] gas fields and pipeline network over the coming month. Russian companies will finance the feasibility study and provide the Afghans with information on the work of Soviet Union specialists in Afghanistan's gas industry prior to 1988. In turn, Rosneft will participate in the development and privatization of oil and gas blocs that Afghanistan will offer in the future.” (49)
Whether Unocal, Rosneft or some other company decides to move forward in Afghanistan, the Bush and Karzai Administrations are moving heaven and earth to break ground on some sort of trans-Afghan pipeline as soon as possible. And that pipeline is identical in virtually every respect to the Unocal project tabled in 1998.
As originally conceived, the four-foot pipeline would begin at Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad field just north of the northwestern Afghan city of Herat. Dauletabad currently produces more than two billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. It would then run 790 miles along the Herat-to-Kandahar highway, cross the Pakistani border near Quetta and link up with an existing Pakistani pipeline system at Multan, Pakistan. The new plan, according to Pakistani oil ministry officials, is to extend the original 1998 route an additional 160 miles to the Pakistani port city of Gawadar, for a total of 950 miles. (50)
Unocal’s 1998 plan had also suggested the possibility of adding a further extension from Pakistan to oil-needy India, but ongoing saber-rattling between those two countries over the Kashmiri conflict renders that prospect extremely unlikely.
But what about all that Kazakh oil found in 1999, the biggest prize so far in the Central Asian oil sweepstakes? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “Unocal had also considered building a million barrel-per-day-capacity oil pipeline that would link refineries at Charjou, Turkmenistan to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea Coast via Afghanistan. Since the Charjou refinery is already linked to Russia’s Western Siberian oil fields, the line could provide a possible alternative export route for regional oil products from the Caspian Sea.” (51)
Though the current scheme primarily focuses on Turkmen natural gas -- because President Niyazov has fully committed to the deal -- a gas line would likely be built alongside a parallel version to carry oil from Kazakhstan, as well as possibly Uzbekistan.
The oil-rich Kazakhs, however, are understandably skeptical about the feasibility of a trans-Afghan pipeline, viewing it more as a back-up project than the most obvious choice: a short, cheap and therefore sweet line across politically stable Iran. As Secretary of State Colin Powell listened during a state visit to Astana in late 2001, Kazakh president-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev made his guest visibly uncomfortable as he stated his opposition to American trade sanctions against Iran: “Frankly speaking, the investors who work in the oil field consider the Iran-Persian Gulf route to be the best. This is not only my point of view, but also the opinion of several companies, including American ones. We are interested in multiple routes.” (55) Kazakhstan’s overall strategy is to pursue “as many pipelines as the country can handle,” in order to maximize options for export. Thus the country is asking foreign oil companies to build transfer facilities through Azerbaijan, the “best” Iranian route, even the lengthy Chinese concept -- and a trans-Afghan oil pipeline, which Nazarbayev revealed is projected to be completed by 2007. (56)
The greatest obstacle to the revived “pipeline of peace” -- Karzai’s term -- is, of course, that there isn’t a hell of a lot of peace to go with the pipeline. “Now with the gradual return of peace and normality in Afghanistan, we are confident that this mega-project will be realized in the near future,” Pakistani ruler General Pervez Musharraf stated bombastically after hosting the May 2002 oil summit in Islamabad. But “peace and normality” have hardly returned to a nation awash in mines, automatic weapons and opium poppies. Karzai’s central government is under siege from warlords left out of the power-sharing deal arranged in Bonn during the fall 2001 bombing campaign. Bandits and armed rape gangs roam the streets of cities and villages (57). And even American troops are, at this writing, still coming under fire from Taliban troops who have returned to the guerrilla attacks they began against the Soviets during the 1980s (58). In addition, Afghanistan’s unruly populace considers itself entitled to charge for any goods that pass through its territory; warlords and tribal chieftains would surely hold the flow of oil and gas hostage pending the receipt of ever-rising protection payments.
Some oil companies are talking about “managing an Afghan pipeline themselves, rather than letting Afghans do it, and on hiring a private security force to guard the line.” (59) But that would add to the expenses. As England’s Guardian newspaper wrote on May 31, “Gas analysts warn the project would be vulnerable to disruption by warlords unless it was buried deep enough in the ground, which would add considerable extra costs.” (60)
Furthermore, Afghanistan’s June 10 loya jirga merely established the framework for a two-year “transitional” government. There is no legal or political structure to protect foreign investments; in fact, the Karzai regime continues to enforce a pastiche of Taliban-era Sharia law, the system in which Islamic judges interpret the Koran, and civil rights guaranteed under the old monarchist constitution of 1964. In a place where judges still condemn adulterers to be stoned, securities and corporate laws are nonexistent (61). As Peter Bassett, investment manager for London-based global investment firm Brunswick Capital Management says, “From an emerging markets point of view, Afghanistan has a long ways to travel.”
Finally, the greatest obstacle is the price of the Turkmen natural gas that constitutes the project’s main raison d’être. Reuters cites analysts who believe that “the cost of the project means customers would have to pay more for gas than they were currently paying to make it economic.” (62)
But let’s assume that some intrepid oil consortium, led by Unocal or not, decides to sink billions of dollars into a trans-Afghan pipeline whose security is guaranteed by an Afghan government itself entirely dependent on the U.S. military for security. Let’s say that they pay off the warlords, that the price of natural gas increases enough or that the Kazakh oil component comes through. We’ll allow that they bury the pipeline so deep that no one can touch it. Then they still have to contend with the Pakistani factor.
The Institute for Afghan Studies’ Farhad Ahad believes that Pakistan would hold a trans-Afghan pipeline hostage to its own interests -- which don’t include access to gas or oil since the country is considered energy-independent through at least 2025. “Historically Pakistan has always meddled in Afghanistan’s affairs and has never wanted to give Afghanistan access to its waters. It’s a way of keeping Afghanistan dependent on Pakistan,” Ahad says (63). And Pakistan’s military still supports its fellow Pashtun Taliban, reducing the chances of the military junta’s cooperation with the U.S.-installed Karzai.
The Pipeline: A Stupid Idea Whose Time Has Come
So far the most thorough and intelligent conspiracy theory “debunker” has been The American Prospect’s Ken Silverstein. Silverstein and other Bush Administration defenders argue that Operation Enduring Freedom is unrelated to oil and gas pipelines:
First, they assert, President Bush is a well-intentioned, intensely caring man determined to free the enslaved women of Afghanistan from Taliban oppression and hell-bent on justice for the victims of September 11.
Second, Turkmenistan no longer needs an Afghan pipeline to carry its gas. Russia has become economically stable and reliable, and in any event there is no less demand for Turkmen gas than there was when Unocal conceived its project in 1995. (64)
Third, Turkmenistan’s Niyazov “is an unstable megalomaniac...an old Communist Party hack. His portraits are ubiquitous in Turkmenistan, the country’s currency bears his image, and cities, towns and businesses have been renamed after him. In his spare time, Niyazov makes grandiose plans such as building an artificial lake in the middle of the desert, issues presidential decrees on issues such as the title of a women’s magazine, and erects monumental palaces. Niyazov’s madness,” Silverstein writes, “combined with his total control of the economy, has left few Western companies willing to invest in Turkmenistan, much less put up billions for a gas pipeline.”
Fourth, Kazakhstan’s desire for a pipeline has been sated by increased Russian export capacity and an American-backed plan for a so-called Baku-Novorossiisk line which would debouche on the Turkish Mediteranean coast.
Fifth, Afghanistan itself possesses no significant energy resources. Since its only value is as a conduit, the area can be bypassed in favor of a safer alternative -- across Azerbaijan and Georgia, for example.
Finally, the “debunkers” argue, Afghanistan is, and will likely remain, far too dangerous for the foreseeable future. “When you talk about pipelines, you create an atmosphere of expectation of money,” Silverstein quotes Julia Nanay, a Caspian expert at the Petroleum Finance Company. “All the warlords are going to want a piece of the action.” “Few people would bet on a long-term settlement to the fighting there,” Silverstein concludes, “and if peace does take hold, it won’t be for a long time.” (65)
All but his last contention fall apart upon immediate examination.
First, neither George W. Bush nor any high-ranking member of his cabinet ever issued a statement pertaining to the status of Afghan women prior to September 11, 2001. The truth is that the U.S. government had no interest in liberating Afghan women from Taliban control; feminist groups in the U.S. found both Clinton and Bush unresponsive to their pleas for action against the Taliban. The mere suggestion that an American war would have been conducted against Afghanistan in order to liberate women is patently ridiculous. Furthermore, although it never extended formal diplomatic recognition to the Taliban, the United States government did not treat them as pariahs until the attacks in New York and Washington. In April 2001, the United States approved a $43 million United Nations payment to the Taliban as a reward for curtailing opium cultivation, and extensive informal ties linked the two governments. Informal contacts, including permitting a Taliban representative to reside in Flushing, New York, continued through September. The U.S. even allowed the Taliban to maintain an American-based website, the since-eliminated taleban.com, to disseminate news and propaganda.
Second, Niyazov has made his desire for a trans-Afghan gas pipeline abundantly clear through countless statements. On February 8, 2002, the day of Khalilzad’s visit, Turkmen state television quoted Niyazov: “Peace is finally being installed in Afghanistan. And we can now build a pipeline to Pakistan across its territory.” (66) Turkmenistan may not need a new deal as Silverstein asserts in a masterful bit of sophistry, but its leader certainly wants one. That, needless to say, is enough.
The third argument, that U.S. corporations don’t do business with tyrants, is perhaps the most absurd. If anything, corporations and political leaders prefer dealing with autocrats over democrats; all they need is a single individual’s handshake in order to finalize an agreement. Furthermore, dictators, interested in lining only their own pockets and those of their cronies, typically charge less than civic-minded leaders hoping to enrich their people and their country. The man who calls himself “Turkmenbashi” -- “Great Leader of all Turkmen Everywhere” -- is certainly a megalomaniac figure; he recently asked Turkmenistan’s compliant legislature to rename the month of January “Turkmenbashi.” (67) Nonetheless, his oversized ego hasn’t prevented the Bank of New York, Coca-Cola, Arthur Andersen, Ford, General Electric, Halliburton (68), Hewlett-Packard, John Deere, Proctor & Gamble and Societé Général from investing more than $8 billion into Niyazov’s Turkmenistan. (69)
Fourth, Kazakhstan, as we have already seen, is pursuing a pipeline-maximization strategy. While Russian malevolence may be reduced from the bad old days of the early-’90s Soviet collapse, landlocked Kazakhstan will continue to seek economic security by increasing the number of possible routes for its fuel exports, whether though Iran, China or Afghanistan -- “as many pipelines as the country can handle,” in other words.
Fifth, northern Afghanistan does possess fossil fuel reserves of its own. Along with fellow journalists I saw oil rigs lining the highway east of Taloqan in Takhar Province; they were functioning even during the November-December 2001 bombings. Russia’s Rosneft states that, based on Soviet-era data collected during the 1980s, Afghanistan “has substantial reserves of light low-sulfur oil amounting to 95 million barrels and up to 5 trillion cubic feet of possible natural gas reserves worth around $22 billion.” (70)
The Guardian summarizes the remaining argument as follows: “Few believe Afghanistan is secure enough to take such an expensive project. Most provinces are still ruled by rival warlords who often owe fickle allegiance to the government in Kabul. Any pipeline that is on or near the surface would be vulnerable to attack.” (71) As Silverstein says:
No major energy firm has expressed any interest in working with the three countries. Even Unocal has stated forthrightly that it has abandoned its old project and that its priorities have shifted outside of Central Asia. “The fact that Karzai, Niyazov, and the Pakistanis have agreed to build a pipeline is meaningless,” says Robin Bhatty, an independent energy analyst whose focus is the Caspian region. “None of them have the money or skills to build the thing, and no international firm will be involved given the availability of already-built pipelines and alternative routes.” A January 2002 Associated Press story quoted New York business analyst Jeffrey Rogers as saying he couldn’t imagine any major corporation making a significant investment in Afghanistan. “It’s just not the kind of risk anyone is prepared to take right now,” he said. “I can’t imagine they will take a risk like that for some time.” (72)
Of course, the three nations involved signed their memorandum of understanding just over three months ago on May 31, 2002, so it’s a little early to discount the possibility that they will ultimately obtain financing. The Asian Development Bank has already spent money on a feasibility study. And the availability of alternative routes doesn’t affect planners in government and energy companies who are looking for additional capacity. But the overall argument is well-taken: the idea of a trans-Afghan pipeline is ill-considered, absurdly premature and probably constitutes financial suicide. It’s a big world -- why would anyone sink hard-earned billions into Afghanistan?
Because, as The Guardian admits in the same article, the pipeline dream “is too good to resist.” And whether or not the three despots and their American sponsors succeed at making Afghanistan safe for the trans-Afghan pipeline, it’s impossible to ignore their intent: they are working hard to make the pipeline a reality.
Afghanistan was just as much of a miserable, war-torn mess back in 1998 as it is today; Unocal and its partners were nonetheless interested in running a pipeline across its territory. Now that the United States has committed itself to an indefinite military presence, is it really so farfetched to think that some Western energy company will take the plunge again? Those who dismiss the pipeline motive as a half-baked “conspiracy theory” argue that people, and companies, always behave in an intelligent manner consistent with their self-interest. History, however, confirms the Turkmen saying: There are limits to wisdom, but there is no limit to foolishness. The trans-Afghan pipeline is a stupid idea, but it’s a stupid idea whose time has come.
“To term the war in Afghanistan a ‘colonial adventure’ is to ignore the thousands of civilians who died in terrorist attacks on September 11 and to ignore an unprecedented attack on the nerve center of the U.S. military.” -- World Press magazine (73)
“President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as former oilmen, certainly understand the importance of the pipeline projects, but these are surely only part of a complex set of factors being weighed by the administration.” -- Brendan Nyhan, SpinSanity.com (74)
“Considerations of economic and political influence will undoubtedly play a part in western strategies in Afghanistan. It would be strange if they did not. But the argument that these are the main motivations behind U.S. actions, not the desire to stamp out international terrorism, will probably find support mainly among those who already have a fondness for conspiracy theories.” -- Malcolm Haslett, BBC News (75)
Bush, these writers say, did not attack Afghanistan for oil -- at least not solely for oil. What other “complex factors” played a role in the decision to start dropping bombs on innocent civilians?
For a week or two after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans -- including President Bush and his administration -- operated in a haze of shock and confusion. The name of Osama bin Laden was bandied around as a likely suspect, as it often had been after such events, but no one knew what to do next. Insofar as we know, no group had yet claimed responsibility for the destruction of the World Trade Center and the murders of 3,000 Americans (76). According to Bush, no demands had been issued and no requests for changes in policy had been received.
Although Secretary of State Colin Powell and some Pakistani officials initially promised to present proof that the attacks had been planned and carried out by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization, the closest solid evidence of culpability materialized after the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, in the form of a video cassette showing bin Laden discussing his foreknowledge -- hardly the same as direct responsibility -- of the strikes against New York and Washington.
Rather than an actual terrorist himself, bin Laden has historically acted as Islamist terrorism’s biggest “venture capitalist”: other organizations pitch him ideas for various operations in the hope of obtaining funding (77). The September 11 attacks were probably no different; while bin Laden may have funded some or all of the attack (that would explain the part of the video in which he says he knew that the attack was coming), another organization probably conceived of the plan, recruited its operatives and gave the signal to go ahead. Although 15 of the 19 hijackers possessed Saudi passports, the common link between Mohammad Atta and his partners was their Egyptian ethnicity -- and membership in Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian group responsible for the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat and the Luxor Temple massacre. Islamic Jihad, based in Egypt, probably carried out 9-11.
Islamic Jihad is led by Ayman Zawahri, who is thought to have been bin Laden's right-hand man in Afghanistan. Many of its members belong to Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, the countries most closely associated with the origin, political support and funding for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks are, respectively, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarek has long tolerated the presence of Islamic Jihad and could provide the United States with intelligence that would lead to the capture of the 19 hijackers’ coconspirators. Extremists affiliated with the Saudi Arabian government provided funding to bin Laden that found its way to the 9-11 plotters. And Pakistan remains the world’s nerve center for anti-American jihad. Musharraf, after all, came to power as a pivotal ally of the Taliban. (78)
Afghanistan served as a back lot for Pakistani-based jihadi groups. It was a failed state where Muslim extremists from Chechnya, Xinjiang, Palestine and elsewhere traveled to obtain training. It also provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden, a likely financier for 9-11. But bombing Afghanistan was like bombing Yale to get even with George W. Bush; the alumni had already left. And even killing Osama bin Laden -- though the U.S. made little serious effort to do so -- would not have brought justice or vengeance to those who conceived and carried out 9-11.
A war on terrorism would be a logical response to September 11. One has yet to begin. What has been called a “war on terrorism” has in truth been an attack on domestic dissent and basic Constitutional guarantees in the United States and a dangerous military expansion in the form of wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and the installation of new U.S. bases everywhere from the Philippines to Kyrgyzstan. Where a serious effort to safeguard the U.S. and its people was needed, the Bush Administration has indulged itself in a brazen right-wing power grab analogous to the malicious reign of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In retrospect, the drive against Al Qaeda and bin Laden’s Taliban hosts in Afghanistan seems like a foregone conclusion, a logical military response to what leaders called an “act of war.” But in the first days after the attacks, this was not the case. After intelligence officers convinced administration officials of Al Qaeda’s role, several scenarios were considered by the U.S. government:
1. Negotiating with the Taliban government for bin Laden’s extradition and prosecution. (79)
2. Dispatching elite ground commandos into Afghanistan to search for bin Laden and his lieutenants, with the goal of either killing or arresting him. (80)
3. Shutting down bank accounts and other financial conduits that permit Islamist groups to fund operations against the West. (81)
These courses of action all offered various advantages and disadvantages. Though the Taliban offered to turn over bin Laden (despite the absence of diplomatic relations with, much less an extradition treaty with, the United States) upon presentation of proof of his complicity, it is likely that American officials didn’t possess more than circumstantial evidence at the time. Had such evidence been available, after all, it would probably have been released in order to counter widespread Arab criticism of the U.S. Those familiar with bin Laden know that he funds operations that other groups propose. As a rule, bin Laden neither plans, nor carries out, terrorist operations.
The second option would have involved high risk with little chance of success; despite periodic actions U.S. intelligence operations had generally failed to invest in Afghanistan and Central Asia, in effect dooming a ground operation to failure. (Even now, the United States relies on maps derived from Soviet-era cartographers to conduct its operations.) In fact, ground movements in the anti-Taliban war were largely entrusted to Afghan soldiers of the Northern Alliance and Eastern Shuria, the forces who allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership to escape into Pakistan.
Finally, the financial option stood little chance of success. Too many Islamic regimes, such as those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are sympathetic to the fundamentalists to ever cut off the money supply entirely. Besides, many of these groups rely on alternate forms of money transfer, such as maintaining one-person “banks” who keep credit/debit “balances” as needed, which can’t be controlled through any wire-transfer network. In addition, some assets were converted into fungible gold and diamonds. By the summer of 2002, Western officials conceded that Al Qaeda assets had not been seized in significant amounts. (82)
The reason I reference these pre-bombing options is to remind us that, in fact, the bombing campaign was anything but inevitable. Quite the contrary: the administration rushed Congress and its allies in the media into declaring a “war on terrorism,” the first strike of which would be an air campaign designed to help Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance to seize power in Kabul. Ironically, those bombs created the chaos that allowed Osama bin Laden and his cohort Mullah Mohammed Omar to escape, not through the Tora Bora mountains into Pakistan’s tribal areas as reported, but far more likely into Pakistani Kashmir and from there anywhere his immense wealth could spirit him (83). The Northern Alliance took power, only to lose much of it in a U.S.-brokered deal to a Pashtun former Talib, Hamid Karzai.
If the goal of American military action had been to close terrorist training camps and madrassas where anti-American propaganda was disseminated, it would not have attacked Afghanistan, but rather the greatest sources of funding and personnel for anti-American jihad: the extreme, corrupt regimes of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. If another goal had been to put those who planned and executed the 9-11 attacks on trial, the U.S. would have leaned on Egypt to turn over members of Islamic Jihad. Those were obviously not the goals of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Bush Planned to Attack Afghanistan Before September 11
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported in November 2001 that the CIA had conducted paramilitary operations in southern Afghanistan dating back to 1997. And, he wrote, “For the last 18 months, the CIA has been working with tribes and warlords in southern Afghanistan, and the division's units have helped create a significant new network in the region of the Taliban's greatest strength.” (84) Thus, during the last nine months of the Clinton presidency and first nine months of the Bush Administration, the United States government had been attacking -- albeit on a scale smaller than the onslaught that would ensue in the fall -- the Taliban government on Afghan soil.
Moreover, on September 18, 2001 George Arney of the BBC said that ex-Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik had been briefed by U.S. officials about plans to invade Afghanistan before September 11. That conversation took place in mid-July 2001, two months before the September attacks. Arney’s report, filed before the beginning of the Afghan war nine days later, is shocking in its prescience:
Niaz Naik, a former Pakistani Foreign Secretary, was told by senior American officials in mid-July that military action against Afghanistan would go ahead by the middle of October. Mr. Naik said U.S. officials told him of the plan at a U.N.-sponsored international contact group on Afghanistan which took place in Berlin. Mr. Naik told the BBC that at the meeting the U.S. representatives told him that unless Bin Laden was handed over swiftly America would take military action to kill or capture both Bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. The wider objective, according to Mr. Naik, would be to topple the Taliban regime and install a transitional government of moderate Afghans in its place -- possibly under the leadership of the former Afghan King Zahir Shah.
Mr. Naik was told that Washington would launch its operation from bases in Tajikistan, where American advisers were already in place. Mr. Naik was told that if the military action went ahead it would take place before the snows started falling in Afghanistan, by the middle of October at the latest.
He said that he was in no doubt that after the World Trade Center bombings this pre-existing U.S. plan had been built upon and would be implemented within two or three weeks. And he said it was doubtful that Washington would drop its plan even if Bin Laden were to be surrendered immediately by the Taliban. (85)
Of course, that is exactly what happened. The U.S. demanded bin Laden’s extradition; when it was offered, they refused it. The bombs began falling before mid-October. And a “transitional government of moderate Afghans” was installed after a November meeting in Bonn, Germany.
Remember: This report was filed on September 18, 2001.
The French authors Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie published a book in November 2001, “Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth,” that goes even further. According to the two men, one a former French secret service agent, the other an investigative journalist, the U.S. viewed the Taliban before August 2001 “as a source of stability in Central Asia that would enable the construction of an oil pipeline across Central Asia.” A Taliban representative opened negotiations with the freshly installed George W. Bush by taking an expensive Afghan carpet to Washington in February 2001, but U.S.-Afghan talks went poorly. “At one point during the negotiations, the U.S. representatives told the Taliban official, ‘either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.’” (86)
If true, this is as close to a smoking gun as it gets. But even dismissing Brisard and Dasquie’s story as pure fiction doesn’t change the fundamental fact that an Afghan invasion was in the cards irrespective of September 11.
The seeming conflict in these accounts reflects the reality of a standard two-pronged American policy on the Taliban -- coddling and financing on the one hand, while simultaneously working to destabilize them. So even while negotiations continued between the Taliban and the U.S. government on the trans-Afghan pipeline, commandos were training and arming anti-Taliban tribes to act in the event that the discussions failed.
With the benefit of hindsight, the following is evident:
1. Before September 11, American officials still hoped to work with the Taliban -- on a trans-Afghan pipeline, reduction of opium cultivation and other issues.
2. American-Taliban negotiations were held on a pipeline during 2001, but failed to result in an agreement.
3. By July or August 2001, U.S. officials, “disgusted” with the Taliban, were leaning towards military action.
4. September 11, 2001 provided the pretext to carry out a military action that had already been planned to a significant extent.
5. The pretext for the invasion -- the drive to capture Osama bin Laden and then Mullah Omar, was never achieved. (87)
6. A secondary pretext for the invasion -- stabilizing Afghanistan -- was never achieved.
7. Despite the aforementioned two points, a trans-Afghan pipeline was planned from the beginning of the war.
8. A trans-Afghan pipeline has been a top Bush Administration priority from October 2001 through the present.
Granted, these facts do not necessarily lead to the absolute conclusion that George W. Bush attacked Afghanistan to get a pipeline built rather than to avenge 9-11. The circumstantial evidence would presumably be enough to convince a jury of 12 Americans (or of a Senate impeachment hearing), however, that that is precisely what happened.
Administration “disgust” with the Taliban, after all, stemmed almost exclusively from a failure to come to terms on a pipeline deal. Had that deal been successfully concluded before 9-11, the attacks of that day would not have likely led to Operation Enduring Freedom against a cooperative, if not exactly friendly, government.
Conversely, the absence of a pipeline motivation for talking to the Taliban would likely have led the Bush Administration, or Bill Clinton beforehand, to one of two courses of action -- either the total isolation of Afghanistan, or military action based on some other pretext (the oppression of women, say, or the destruction of Afghanistan’s cultural and archeological heritage in the form of the Bamiyan Buddhas). The latter course would have been extremely risky, because of Pakistan’s loyal financial and military support for the Taliban. Given the expense and risks involved, it is improbable that the U.S. would have gone to war.
September 11 served as a convenient excuse for a war designed to install a friendly Afghan regime to safeguard a trans-Afghan pipeline. To believe otherwise is to discard the way the war campaign was marketed, justified and executed. It is also to ignore the most obvious fact: that the transitional government of Afghanistan, which rules a nation with devastated infrastructure and enormous human needs, spent its first months in office negotiating a pipeline deal rather than attending to those concerns.
Enron, Halliburton, BCCI and Other Red Herrings
Critics of the White House have made much of the Bush-Cheney team’s oil-industry connections, implicitly arguing that any action the United States adopts in the Middle East and Central Asia -- because so many Bush Administration officials hail from big oil -- must be motivated solely by oil.
Like those who dismiss the oil consideration -- and in many cases, the existence of a trans-Afghan pipeline project itself -- as a mere “conspiracy theory,” liberal opponents of the Bush interregnum are succeeding more at making themselves foolish than convincing Americans that their taxdollars and young men and women are being squandered on a vicious oil war that has only made them less safe than they were before 9-11. More importantly, these conjectures work to discredit those whose interest is to bring the truth about the U.S. government’s relationship to the trans-Afghan pipeline to the attention of the American people.
It is undeniable that the Bush Administration is staffed by more former oil-company executives than any other in American history. A Texas oilman who failed at virtually every business venture in which he participated, Bush engaged in dubious insider stock transactions at Harkin Energy. While at the Halliburton Company in 1998, Dick Cheney gave a now-famous speech discussing the vital importance of Caspian Sea oil and natural gas to the United States. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, an expert in Central Asian oil, was on the board of ChevronTexaco. And don’t forget: Zalmay Khalilzad’s boss was Rice.
All that this proves, however, is that Bush Administration staffers were well aware of the New Great Game over Central Asian oil and gas. For that matter, so was the Clinton Administration -- which wasn’t at all well-connected with the energy business. The mere fact that the Bushies know the oil business doesn’t make the Afghan adventure an oil war.
Some left-of-center conspiracy theorists are obsessed with the list of unsavory individuals who have come and gone in the annals of the Unocal scheme, the Bush Administration and the Afghan interim regime. And to be sure, there are plenty of interesting corporate and political links to wonder aloud about. Reagan’s former Secretary of State, Alexander “I’m in charge here” Haig, worked for Turkmen President Niyazov to lobby for a gas pipeline across Iran and/or Afghanistan (88). Another former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, became a consultant for Unocal in October 1995. He wryly called the trans-Afghan pipeline “the triumph of hope over experience.” (89) And yet another head man at State, Texan James Baker, had toiled as lead attorney for British Petroleum’s Baku-Ceyhan pipeline consortium, conceived primarily as an alternative to trans-Afghanistan. (90)
And the sleazy interactions don’t stop at connections between Bush personnel and oil companies. Links have been found and asserted between Bush, Unocal, Enron, the Bank of Commerce and Credit International, Halliburton, the Carlyle Group -- all scandal-scarred companies allegedly implicated in trans-Afghan pipeline shenanigans. These people have worked on the wrong side of ethical boundaries in the past, the thinking goes, so their involvement necessarily implies wrongdoing now. But while wrongdoing may be more likely when rogues and scoundrels are in charge, mere involvement falls well short of proof.
Smooth interaction between corporate executives and government officials, especially when people go from a high position in one sector to the other, and even more so when nepotism plays a role, is bound to inspire suspicion of corruption. During the Florida election crisis of 2000, for example, the fact that the presidential candidate’s brother was that state’s governor -- and failed to recuse himself -- raised more than a few eyebrows. But in that case, Jeb Bush’s role is inconsequential, for even if he pulled strings for George W. the U.S. Supreme Court violated its constitutional mandate and betrayed the trust of the American people with its decision to hear the case in the first place. Elections, after all, are state matters. The U.S. Supreme Court, a federal panel, didn’t have jurisdiction in the case. When critics decry the 5-4 party-line vote in Bush v. Gore, they’re missing the real point.
Similarly, it’s important not to point at ties between the Bushies, Enron and BCCI as de facto proof of ill intent after September 11. Granted, corruption may be present, but at this point it isn’t necessary to discuss what is, in some ways, a distraction from the main point. The point is that in all likelihood a president of the United States invaded a sovereign state for one cynical reason: to create a puppet state that might, with luck, serve as a conduit for oil to go into SUVs on American highways.
Proof is in the timelines, in the reported facts, in the reality that the trans-Afghan pipeline was conceived concurrent to a bombing campaign that killed more than 3,500 Afghan civilians. Proof is in the relative unimportance of Afghanistan as a terrorist state and the United States’ failure -- or unwillingness -- to launch a bonafide campaign against terrorists or the countries where they operate. We went to Afghanistan to get Osama -- at least that’s what Bush said. We didn’t get Osama, or Mullah Omar, or anyone important, but we ended up with a trans-Afghan pipeline project. And it only took a few months.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who the players are, what sordid dealings they have carried out or how they’re all interconnected. The question of paramount importance to those who care about the integrity of the United States and the government that is charged with carrying out the best interest of its people is: Are we doing our best for ourselves and, when possible, for the people of other countries? Are we doing what’s right? The best way to determine that is to examine our reactions to the events of September 11, 2001, when we were hit hard -- when we were down. How we carried ourselves in the face of adversity showed the world what kind of people Americans can be.
On a personal level, Americans performed admirably. Individuals acted heroically. Selfishness was sacrificed for the common good. These are the noble traits that have always inspired the American people to rise to the occasion throughout our history.
Unfortunately, our government seized the moment as well, not to do good or right, but to take advantage -- of our grief, of our naiveté, of our lust for justice and vengeance. They did it to line the pockets of themselves and their friends, to gain political and economic advantage for a tiny coterie of influential people. In doing so, they endangered the rest of us. They took advantage of our ignorance about Islam, Caspian Sea oil and remote Central Asia. I have faith that the fundamental goodness of the American people will cause them to see what was done in their name, and to do something about it.