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December 2001

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The importance of Afghanistan to the New Great Game

 By Suresh Jaura

"Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here," Woodrow Wilson asked a year after the First World War ended, "that does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?"


In 1980, in the wake of the Iranian revolution, US President Jimmy Carter promulgated a new doctrine: protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf would henceforth be regarded as vitally important to the national security of the United States.


As Michael Klare, Professor of World Security Studies at Hampshire College, Massachusetts and author of "Resource Wars" explains, "ultimately that (the implementing the doctrine) led to the Gulf War, which led to the permanent stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia.”


And now Afghanistan!


Yes, Afghanistan does not have oil and gas, but its neighbours have.


In 1997, in a high profile demonstration of American strategic abilities, part of the 82nd Airborne Division flew 8,000 miles non-stop from its base in South Carolina to parachute directly into Kazakhstan. After watching the troops land, the then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Katherine Kelleher told them, "the United States' interest in Central Asia has much to do with vast oil and natural gas fields that by 2010 will make the region the world's third largest producer of petroleum products".


According to Caspian Media Consulting, which provides news and analysis about the Caspian region, "The biggest oil rush in the last days of our (20th) century is underway in the turbulent waters of the Caspian. Rivalled only by the Great Game of the last century, today's battles are fought not over territory, but pipeline routes and political influence."


The wider region, around the Caspian Sea, holds more oil and gas than either the United States or the North Sea.


According to the US Energy Information Administration, the Caspian region - bordered by Afghanistan's neighbours Iran and Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan - contains oil reserves that could prove as great as 270 billion barrels, with possible natural gas reserves estimated at 576 trillion cubic feet.


Kazakhstan is generally considered the country with the largest share of the oil, although there is still some dispute over sovereignty.


In 1993 the US oil company Chevron and the Republic of Kazakhstan formed a partnership known as Tengizchevroil to develop the Tengiz and Korolev oil fields in the Caspian. The Tengiz field alone is said to contain 6 to 9 billion barrels of recoverable oil.


As the oil in the Caspian belongs to non-OPEC countries, which are hungry for foreign investment and technology, you might think that this was a perfect situation for western companies to exploit.


“Ever since the fall of the former Soviet Union ten years ago, Exxon, Mobil, Chevron and the other big oil monopolies have been scheming to get their hands on the vast oil and gas wealth around the Caspian Sea, just north of Afghanistan, “ says the Philadelphia International Action Center in a report titled: Is Oil the Real Target in Afghanistan?


According to a US Department of Energy report that was posted on the web in December, 2000: "Afghanistan's significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea."


The sticking point, however, has been how to transport the oil from the Caspian Sea to western markets.


“American oil companies, hoping to exploit the petroleum reserves of the newly independent countries of former Soviet central Asia, needed a way to run pipelines without going through either Russia or Iran. The route through Afghanistan to Pakistan and then to the Indian Ocean was the answer,” wrote CBS News Correspondent, Tom Fenton at that time.

The consortium, led by Union Oil of California (Unocal) and Saudi Arabia's Delta Oil in the mid-1990s, began negotiations for a pipeline to transport oil and gas from the region through Afghanistan in order to sell it in Pakistan and India.


It staked its plans on the Taleban taking control of Afghanistan, something that seemed far from certain in October 1995 when Unocal and Delta signed their contract with Turkmenistan.


At this point, the Taleban, in spite of growing worldwide concern about its human rights abuses, was considered by the US government to be a useful ally that would play ball when it came to American oil interests. Investors, however, were not so confident.


Afghanistan was a country torn by constant warfare between hostile tribes. The oil companies needed a stable and friendly regime in Afghanistan to make a deal with. Therefore, America quietly supported the Taleban, and with the connivance of Pakistan, helped these new fundamentalists fight their way to power by capturing Kabul in September 1996.


Michael Griffin and Ahmed Rashid have documented the support received by the Taleban from Pakistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia, among others.


When the Taleban captured Kabul, Unocal welcomed it as 'a positive development' and the US State Department called on the Taleban to restore order and said it would re-establish a diplomatic presence in the capital after a seven-year gap.


However, the Americans were over-optimistic, the war did not end, and 18 months later the pipeline plan was in trouble. In March 1998, Unocal announced a delay.


The next month, Washington dispatched its most senior envoy for decades to Afghanistan: its then UN representative, Bill Richardson. His previous post had been US Energy Secretary, but not even his intimate knowledge of the high politics of hydrocarbons was enough to persuade the Taleban and the Northern Alliance to make peace.


In December, Unocal announced it was withdrawing from the project. In a statement it said, "Unocal will only participate in construction of the proposed Central Asia Gas Pipeline when and if Afghanistan achieves the peace and stability necessary to obtain financing from international lending agencies for this project and an established government is recognised by the United Nations and the United States."


After the bombing of US embassies in East Africa in 1998, for which Osama bin Laden was the main suspect, the US started putting pressure, through Pakistan, on the Taleban to hand him over in return for the US recognition and aid.


According to the book, ''Bin Laden, la verite interdite'' (''Bin Laden, the forbidden truth''), that appeared in Paris on November 14, the authors, Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, reveal the government of Bush began to negotiate with the Taleban immediately after coming into power in February. U.S. and Taleban diplomatic representatives met several times in Washington, Berlin and Islamabad.


In February, the Taleban first offered to extradite bin Laden. However, in August, the negotiations stalled.


''At one moment during the negotiations, the U.S. representatives told the Taliban, 'either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs','' Brisard said in an interview in Paris. 


In their book, Brisard and Dasquie draw a portrait of closest aides to President Bush, linking them to oil business.


Bush's family has a strong oil background. So are some of his top aides. From the U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, through the director of the National Security Council Condoleeza Rice, to the Ministers of Commerce and Energy, Donald Evans and Stanley Abraham, all have for long worked for U.S. oil companies.


Cheney was until the end of last year president of Halliburton, a company that provides services for oil industry; Rice was between 1991 and 2000 manager for Chevron; Evans and Abraham worked for Tom Brown, another oil giant.


It is interesting to note, however, that two of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium's western players, Chevron and BP, were major contributors to Bush's presidential campaign. (Between them they donated nearly $3 million.)


And in fact, Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was on the board of directors for Chevron from 1991-2001, and has even had an oil tanker named after her.


When Bush's vice-president, Dick Cheney, retired as CEO of the Halliburton Company - which is heavily involved in oil exploration in the Caspian region - he was given a $20 million severance package. Cheney has always insisted that there would be no conflict of interest between his governmental duties and his connections with Halliburton (which, incidentally, has just announced record profits for the third quarter of 2001).


Following the September 11 attacks, it became clear that In order for western oil companies to achieve their aims, the Taleban must be replaced with a regime that will ensure stability in the region and be amenable to the needs of the oil companies.


"US influence and military presence in Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, not unlike that over the oil-rich Gulf states, would be a major strategic gain," said V R Raghavan, a strategic analyst and former general in the Indian army. Raghavan believes that the prospect of a western military presence in a region extending from Turkey to Tajikistan could not have escaped strategists, who planned the military action in Afghanistan, says Ranjit Devraj in IPS report titled: The oil behind Bush and Son's campaigns, from New Delhi.


Now with the Talebans ousted from power and the Northern Alliance having captured Kabul with the help of US-led coalition, the US hopes it can help establish a government in Afghanistan, acceptable to all factions, which can help it secure its national security objectives. And Unocal can be back laying the pipelines. 


“It is chilling to realise that it is such cold-blooded pursuit of economic interests and profits that defines U.S. maneuvers in the region and its attacks on Afghanistan. That all this should happen in the name of grieving the death of nearly 7000 innocent American lives is plain cruelty. The world today is being asked to side with the U.S. in a fight against global terrorism. This is only a cover. The world is being asked today, in reality, to side with the U.S. as it seeks to strengthen its economic hegemony,” writes Sitaram Yechury in The Hindu  (America, Oil and Afghanistan , October 13, 2001).