The war in Afghanistan is a sham. The Bush administration had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks but took no action, using the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as an excuse to topple the Taliban regime and legitimize the takeover of Afghanistan. Well-placed government insiders, knowing of the impending attacks, made fortunes by betting on a huge fall in airline stocks. The war is not about terrorism but about America‘s desire to control energy in Central Asia and promote corporate plans to plunder the region’s reserves. The chief U.S. concern all along has been to help Unocal Corporation build a pipeline across Afghanistan, which would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
By now all of this is obvious — that is, it’s obvious if you get your information from the Internet or from certain far-right or left-wing circles, where conspiracy theories about the war run rampant. A classic example was a story by Patrick Martin on Rense.com, a Web site whose great popularity suggests that much of the U.S. population is terminally paranoid. “The American media has conducted a systematic cover-up of the real economic and strategic interests that underlie the war against Afghanistan, in order to sustain the pretense that the war emerged overnight, full-blown, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11,” Martin wrote.
These sorts of conspiracy theories, especially the ones concerning oil supplies, aren’t just circulating in fringe circles; they’ve found their way into mainstream outlets, too. In England, John Pilger of the New Statesman wrote that President George W. Bush’s “concealed agenda is to exploit the oil and gas reserves in the Caspian basin … [which could] meet America‘s voracious energy needs for a generation. Only if the pipeline runs through Afghanistan can the Americans hope to control it.” Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, a former French intelligence analyst and a journalist, respectively, who co-authored the international bestseller Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth, claim that the Clinton administration and then the Bush team heavily pressured the Taliban to allow the Unocal pipeline. When the Taliban refused, the administration threatened it with military reprisals, which may in turn have led to the 9-11 strikes.
On this side of the Atlantic, a March 18 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by Salim Muwakkil (“Pipeline Politics Taint U.S. War”) treated such theories with measured respect and said it was no wonder that so many foreigners were skeptical about the Bush administration’s expressed war aims. Even The New York Times dipped its toes in the conspiracy waters, in a story last December that discussed the Caspian’s potential role as an energy supplier and the possibility that the Unocal pipeline would now be revived.
What’s common to all these theories, from the most delusional to the more sophisticated, is that their authors display little understanding of the Caspian or of energy markets. Many of the heavy-breathing conspiracy theorists don’t even realize that the major Unocal pipeline would have moved natural gas, not oil. Like Pilger, some also seem to believe that the Caspian’s energy reserves are going to be shipped to America, presumably to warm our homes and fuel our SUVs, when in fact most of the oil and gas from the Caspian is destined for markets in Russia, Europe and Central Asia itself.
The Caspian region is home to huge energy resources — by some estimates, it may produce 5 percent of the world’s oil within a decade — but Afghanistan is almost entirely irrelevant to their exploitation. In fact, the country is today less likely to be a player in the Caspian sweepstakes than it was before the fall of the Taliban. “The idea of Afghanistan re-emerging as a transit corridor for Caspian oil and gas is not remotely realistic in today’s circumstances — even in a best-case scenario in which Afghanistan were to emerge from the present conflict with a vigorous, broadly based and stable government with strong international support,” says Laurent Ruseckas, a Caspian expert at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
Afghanistan itself has very small reserves of natural gas and virtually no oil. The country’s only importance, at least in theory, is that it could serve as a transit point for energy from neighboring countries.
Yet oddly enough, this isn’t the first time that conspiracy theorists have sought to portray Afghanistan as the energy linchpin of Western civilization. Back in 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when the Cold War was raging, the Carter administration and the press argued that the occupation had dramatically altered the world balance of power. To take but one example, Newsweek said at the time that control of Afghanistan had “put the Russians within 350 miles of the Arabian Sea, the oil lifeline of the West and Japan. Soviet warplanes based in Afghanistan could cut the lifeline at will.”
This was pure rubbish. Seven years earlier, when detente was near its zenith, The Wall Street Journal ran a rare story on Afghanistan headlined, “Do the Russians Covet Afghanistan? If So, It’s Hard to Figure Why.” Reporter Peter Kann, later the Journal’s chairman and publisher, wrote that “great power strategists tend to think of Afghanistan as a kind of fulcrum upon which the world balance of power tips. But from close up, Afghanistan tends to look less like a fulcrum or a domino or a stepping-stone than like a vast expanse of desert waste with a few fly-ridden bazaars, a fair number of feuding tribes and a lot of miserably poor people.”
That’s pretty much what Afghanistan looks like today, yet to the conspiracy theorists the country is every bit as important as Newsweek claimed two decades back. To understand the fallacy of their argument requires a bit of background on the Caspian and a trip back in time to the early 1990s, when the Caspian’s potential importance as a source of global energy was first recognized.
At that time, everyone recognized that Iran offered the cheapest and most practical transport route for the Caspian’s reserves. But the Clinton administration was obsessed with preventing that outcome, as it (like the current Bush team) sought to isolate the regime in Tehran. The United States also opposed plans to run oil and gas pipelines across Russian territory, fearing that Moscow would assume control of the region’s energy supplies.
One potential alternative, at least for gas, emerged in October of 1995 when Turkmenistan‘s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, signed an agreement with Unocal to build a $3 billion pipeline. It was a significant deal because Turkmenistan has significant proven gas reserves of almost 3 trillion cubic meters. (Still, that’s small next to Russia, Iran and Qatar, which have reserves of 48 trillion, 23 trillion and 14 trillion cubic meters, respectively.)
The Unocal pipeline would have transported gas from the Dauletabad Field in southeastern Turkmenistan, across Afghanistan and on to Multan in central Pakistan, with a possible onward link to India. The Clinton administration backed the plan and in 1996, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphael traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to lobby for the pipeline.
Despite the official U.S. support, many within the energy industry looked upon Unocal’s project as utterly ridiculous. Using Afghanistan as a pipeline route made sense only if one completely ignored the political risks. Pipelines are highly vulnerable installations; building and maintaining one requires a good deal of stability. Afghanistan was a country in complete chaos after nearly two decades of continuous warfare. The Taliban rolled into Kabul in September of 1996, several months after Raphael’s visit, and controlled most of the country, but dozens of warlords and factions — some backed by Iran, Russia and other outside powers — continued to undermine the Taliban’s rule.
The Clinton administration and Unocal kept touting the pipeline, but the project never moved beyond the planning stages. In October of 1997, Ahmed Rashid — who later became known for his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia — authored a paper on the Unocal project for the Petroleum Finance Company, a private energy consulting firm. He wrote: “The future prospects of constructing the pipeline and mitigating the high risks involved depend almost entirely on relative stability in Afghanistan, which does not appear likely any time soon. … Although the Taliban say they will guarantee security for foreign construction workers, nobody can actually guarantee security at this time in a country like Afghanistan. Thus, winning the Taliban’s support or signing a contract with them would not be the end of the problems for any company, but just the beginning.”
By the following year, the United States had largely dumped Unocal’s plan and had shifted its backing to a competing project. This one, called the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, has greatly excited the conspiracy theorists as well, because Enron did the feasibility study and was closely involved with the planning. Thus it has been portrayed in some accounts as reflective of the United States‘ long-standing need to control Afghanistan. This is a particularly stupid assertion because the Trans-Caspian pipeline’s route wouldn’t even have crossed Afghanistan. Rather, it would have moved Turkmen gas across Azerbaijan and Georgia into Turkey. Furthermore, though Enron had been expected to lead a consortium of energy companies behind the project, a joint venture between Amoco, Bechtel and GE capital was selected in the end.
After al-Qaeda bombed U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Clinton administration focused its Afghanistan policy almost exclusively on Osama bin Laden, not on winning support for a pipeline project that by then was effectively dead. The Trans-Caspian project that Enron was involved in, meanwhile, died just as it was picking up steam. The reason was that Azerbaijan discovered large gas fields of its own. The Azeri government was no longer interested in furnishing a transit route for Turkmen gas to Turkey, where Azerbaijan could now could sell its own reserves.
The conspiracy theorist’s notion that Afghanistan provides a critical throughway for Caspian oil is even more dubious. In the late 1990s, after its gas project had fallen apart, Unocal developed plans to run an oil pipeline from Central Asian sources, primarily Kazakhstan, via Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean port of Gwadar. The pipeline would have moved only a modest amount of oil, estimated at about 700,000 barrels per day.
The oil project never received any serious backing from the United States. The Clinton administration lobbied hard for a competing British Petroleum plan in which Afghanistan had no role. Instead, BP called for constructing a pipeline between Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, through Georgia to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey, a NATO ally.
What about today? given the friendly regime of Hamid Karzai now installed in Kabul, might Afghanistan come to emerge as a bustling thoroughfare for Caspian energy resources?
Don’t bet on it. Afghanistan never made much sense as a transit point for energy, and today less than ever. In the mid-1990s, when the Unocal project arose, Turkmenistan was desperate to find new export markets for its gas. Russia, which had traditionally bought almost all Turkmen gas, was in a prolonged post-communist recession, and its purchases had plummeted from 88 billion cubic meters in 1992 to about 15 billion cubic meters in 1996. Furthermore, Moscow was refusing to allow Turkmenistan to use its vast pipeline network to send gas to non-Russian customers — despite the fact that Pakistan and India faced gas shortages and were eager to buy from Turkmenistan. Hence there was at least a commercial logic to the Unocal proposal.
Today the situation has completely changed. In 2000 the Russian economy emerged from its deep slump, prompting the country to sign a special arrangement with Turkmenistan for gas imports. Since then, Turkmen exports to Russia have climbed steadily and now stand at around 31 billion cubic meters. As part of the deal the Russians have become more generous in allowing Turkmen exporters to utilize their pipeline system.
At the same time, the customers that Unocal had foreseen for Turkmen gas have disappeared. Turkey has lined up sufficient future supplies from Russia and Azerbaijan, while Pakistan has discovered domestic supplies and no longer needs to import gas. That leaves only India, which has cheaper alternatives than buying Turkmen gas that’s been shipped across three countries. It’s also highly unlikely that India would buy gas from a pipeline that runs through its archenemy Pakistan — which in addition to collecting transit fees could cut the flow at any time.
A final obstacle to a Unocal-style pipeline is that Turkmen President Niyazov is an unstable megalomaniac. An old Communist Party hack, Niyazov has built a cult of personality that rivals Stalin’s. 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. He has reportedly contacted embassies of Islamic countries and asked how they would react if he called himself a prophet. Niyazov’s madness, 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.
Brisard, co-author of Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth, makes much of the fact that the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan decided in late May to revive the old Unocal pipeline project. In an article he penned for Salon on June 5, Brisard wrote that this basically proved his thesis about the critical importance of the Unocal pipeline to American war policy, claiming that “In the end … the U.S. got its way.”
Yet 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.”
Ruseckas shares that opinion, saying that all the new opportunities for Turkmen and other Central Asian gas to move north — to and through Russia — have removed pressure that could have pushed the gas to South Asian markets via Afghanistan. “A revival of the old Unocal project is unlikely for at least a decade, and then it could become only one of many alternatives,” he says. “The economics don’t make sense on the supply or the demand side.”
The Trans-Afghan oil route of the mid-1990s is also dead in the water, and for virtually identical reasons. At the time, Kazakhstan had problems getting its oil to market. But in the past three years, Moscow has allowed Kazakh exporters to quadruple the flow of oil through Russia‘s existing pipelines to about 300,000 barrels per day. Last year, Chevron, ExxonMobil and others began operating the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which links the giant Tengiz Field in western Kazakhstan to a new Russian port on the Black Sea. The consortium won’t reach its initial capacity of 600,000 barrels per day until about 2005, at which point it can more than double its capacity if necessary.
In other words, just as Turkmenistan has surplus export capacity for gas, Kazakhstan has surplus capacity to export oil. (That could change if the country’s undeveloped Kashagan Field turns out to be a blockbuster, but that development, if it occurs, is at least a decade away.) Meanwhile, several other Caspian oil pipeline projects are moving forward — most notably the old Baku-Ceyhan route favored by the United States — and they all bypass Afghanistan.
Market factors aside, an Afghan pipeline route remains highly unattractive for a number of reasons. Few people would bet on a long-term settlement to the fighting there, and if peace does take hold it won’t be for a long time. Throwing a pipeline into the mix will only make matters worse. “When you talk about pipelines you create an atmosphere of expectation of money,” says Julia Nanay, a Caspian expert at the Petroleum Finance Company. “All the warlords are going to want a piece of the action.”
Contrary to the views of many hand-wringing conspiracy theorists, the Taliban regime never posed a threat to America‘s position in the Caspian. The region’s oil reserves are mostly distant from Afghanistan, located in countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, where the threat of radical Islam is quite small. (The governments there sometimes claim otherwise as a means of justifying their oppressive rule.)
In some ways, the fall of the Taliban has been bad for American business interests. Nanay points out that the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan and were trying to establish a strong central government. Today the warlords are back and the Karzai regime controls a far smaller slice of the country. “If bin Laden hadn’t come along, we would have dealt with the Taliban,” Nanay says. “Now there’s a lot more insecurity and lawlessness.” She adds that neither Caspian energy reserves nor control of Afghanistan were goals of the war, saying, “We didn’t care about Afghanistan, we cared about bin Laden.”
During a January 2002 visit to Afghanistan, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that U.S. companies should now consider investing in Afghanistan. “This country needs everything,” he told reporters. “It needs a banking system. It needs a health-care system. It needs a sanitation system. It needs a phone system. It needs road construction. Everything you can imagine.” To aid the reconstruction effort, the United States, Japan, Russia, Britain and other donors have pledged $1.3 billion.
But the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to bring on a wave of corporate profiteering by American firms. Much of the international aid will go toward the repatriation and resettlement of refugees, counternarcotics efforts and the rehabilitation of the agricultural sector, and the country is simply too poor, undeveloped and chaotic to become an attractive site for private investment. Thus far the Overseas Private Investment Corporation has issued a paltry $50 million line of credit to support American investment in Afghanistan. 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.”
There are plenty of grounds on which to criticize the Bush administration’s conduct of the war, from its alliance with despots in Asia to its threats to attack a host of other states to its crackdown on civil liberties at home. But anyone dumb enough to believe that the war is all about oil and that Afghanistan holds the key to America‘s energy security should go back and read Peter Kann.