Published on Saturday, December 8, 2001 in Jurist
The Deadly Pipeline War
US Afghan Policy Driven By Oil Interests
by Marjorie Cohn
George W. Bush justifies his bombing of Afghanistan as a war against terror. A twin motive, however, is to make Afghanistan safe for United States oil interests.
A few days before September 11, the U.S. Energy Information Administration documented Afghanistan's strategic "geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural and gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea," including the construction of pipelines through Afghanistan.
Prior to September 11, United States policy toward the Taliban was largely influenced by oil. In a new book published in Paris, "Bin Laden, la verite interdite" ("Bin Laden, the forbidden truth"), former French intelligence officer Jean-Charles Brisard and journalist Guillaume Dasquie document a cozy relationship between George W. Bush and the Taliban. The book quotes John O'Neill, former director of anti-terrorism for the FBI, who thought the U.S. State Department, acting on behalf of United States and Saudi oil interests, interfered with FBI efforts to track down Osama bin Laden.
Before he was tapped as Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton, the biggest oil services company in the world. In a 1998 speech to the "Collateral Damage Conference" of the Cato Institute, Cheney said, "the good Lord didn't see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States. Occasionally we have to operate in places where, all things considered, one would not normally choose to go. But, we go where the business is."
Because of the instability in the Persian Gulf, Cheney zeroed in on the world's other major source of oil, the Caspian Sea, whose resources were estimated at $4 trillion by U.S. News and World Report. Cheney told oil industry executives in 1998, "I can't think of a time when we've had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."
But Caspian oil, landlocked between Russia, Iran and former Soviet republics, presents formidable transport challenges. Afghanistan is strategically located near the Caspian Sea. In 1994, the U.S. State Department and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency sought to install a stable regime in Afghanistan to enhance the prospects for Western oil pipelines. They financed, armed and trained the Taliban in its civil war against the Northern Alliance.
In 1995, California-based UNOCAL proposed the construction of an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan, south through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea. Yasushi Akashi, U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, was critical of "outside interference in Afghanistan" in 1997, which, he said, "is now all related to the battle for oil and gas pipelines. The fear is that these companies and regional powers are just renting the Taliban for their own purposes."
Meanwhile, feminists and Greens in the United States mobilized opposition to UNOCAL's pipeline deal and Washington's covert support of the Taliban, because of the latter's oppression of women. In 1998, after the U.S. bombed Al-Qaeda training camps in retaliation for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, UNOCAL pulled out of the pipeline negotiations.
Once the Taliban are overthrown and the U.S. installs a pro-Western government, lucrative investment opportunities will arise. Rob Sobhani, president of Washington-based Caspian Energy Consulting, said, "Other major energy companies could see big opportunities in a deal crucial to restarting Afghanistan's economy." A new pipeline could produce revenues totaling $100 million.
United States dependence on Middle East -- and soon Caspian -- oil -- has led our government to engage itself in heavy-handed, and deadly, interventions. The development of a sensible U.S. energy policy would obviate the perceived need to dominate other countries.
But there has been an ongoing pipeline war between Russia and the U.S., which support competing pipeline routes. An energy expert at the National Security Council clarified the United States' anti-Russia policy in 1997: "US policy was to promote the rapid development of Caspian energy . . . We did so specifically to promote the independence of these oil-rich countries, to in essence break Russia's monopoly control over the transportation of oil from that region, and frankly, to promote Western energy security through diversification of supply."
Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin recognized this in 1998: "We cannot help seeing the uproar stirred up in some Western countries over the energy resources of the Caspian. Some seek to exclude Russia from the game and undermine its interests. The so-called pipeline war in the region is part of this game."
This pipeline war has taken some curious turns since September 11. A New York Times article in October emphasized new oil cooperation between Russia and the United States. Laurent Ruseckas of Cambridge Energy Research Associates said: "This whole idea of the U.S. and Russia fighting over Caspian oil seems completely outdated. The West would like to see Russian and Caspian oil on stream as quickly as possible."
But after September 11, Russia, which has sustained the Northern Alliance for ten years, provided it with heavy artillery and encouraged it to move into Kabul, in direct contravention of Bush's orders. Eric R. Margolis, author of "War at the Top of the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet," chides Bush's naivete in thinking "the Russians are now our friends." Margolis warns, "the president should understand that where geopolitics and oil are concerned, there are no friends, only competitors and enemies."
At this point, the outcome of U.S.-Russian relations, and the pipeline war, remains uncertain. The deaths and starvation of thousands of Afghanis, however, is a certainty. Regardless of how the black gold is ultimately piped out of the Caspian Sea, the United States should replace its pipeline of bombs with a pipeline of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
Marjorie Cohn is an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, where she teaches International Human Rights Law. She welcomes comments on this essay at JURIST@law.pitt.edu.
© Bernard J. Hibbitts, 2001