Many Americans, grown cynical of government pronouncements, have been asking whether the real war goal of the United States in Afghanistan is to gain access to Central Asia's oil and gas. The answer: no and yes.
The U.S. attacked Afghanistan to exact revenge for the Sept. 11 attacks. But it must have quickly occurred to former oilmen George Bush and Dick Cheney that retribution against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden offered a golden opportunity to expand American geopolitical influence into South and Central Asia, scene of the world's latest gold rush--the Caspian Basin.
The world has ample oil today. But, according to CIA estimates, when China and India reach South Korea's current level of per capita energy use--within 30 years--their combined oil demand will be 120-million barrels daily. Today, total global consumption is 60million to 70million barrels daily. In short, the major powers will be locked in fierce competition for scarce oil, with the Gulf and Central Asia the focus of this rivalry.
Central Asia's oil and gas producers are landlocked. Their energy wealth must be exported through long pipelines.
He who controls energy, controls the globe.
Russia, the world's second-largest oil exporter, wants Central Asian resources to be transported across its territory. Iran, also an oil producer, wants the energy pipelines to debouch at its ports, the shortest route. But America's powerful Israel lobby has blocked Washington's efforts to deal with Iran.
Pakistan and the U.S. have long sought to build pipelines running due south from Termez, Uzbekistan, to Kabul, Afghanistan, then down to Pakistan's Arabian Sea ports, Karachi and Gwadar.
Oilmen call this route "the new Silk Road," after the fabled path used to export China's riches.
This route, however, would require a stable, pro-Western Afghanistan.
Since 1989, Iran has strived to keep Afghanistan in disorder, thus preventing Pakistan from building its long-sought Termez-Karachi pipeline.
When Pakistan ditched its ally, the Taliban, in September, and sided with the U.S., Islamabad and Washington fully expected to implant a pro-American regime in Kabul and open the way for the Pakistani-American pipeline.
But, while the Bush administration was busy tearing apart Afghanistan to find Bin Laden, it failed to notice that the Russians were taking over half the country.
The Russians achieved this victory through their proxy--the Northern Alliance. Moscow, which has sustained the alliance since 1990, rearmed it after Sept. 11 with new tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, helicopters and trucks.
To the fury of Washington and Islamabad, in a coup de main the Russians rushed the Northern Alliance into Kabul, in direct contravention of Bush's dictates.
The alliance is now Afghanistan's dominant force and, heedless of multi-party political talks in Germany going on this week, styles itself as the new "lawful" government, a claim fully backed by Moscow.
The Russians have regained influence over Afghanistan, avenged their defeat by the U.S. in the 1980s war and neatly checkmated the Bush administration, which, for all its high-tech military power, understands little about Afghanistan.
The U.S. ouster of the Taliban regime also means Pakistan has lost its former influence over Afghanistan and is now cut off from Central Asia's resources. So long as the alliance holds power, the U.S. is equally denied access to the much-coveted Caspian Basin. Russia has regained control of the best potential pipeline routes. The new Silk Road is destined to become a Russian energy superhighway.
By charging like an enraged bull into the South Asian china shop, the U.S. handed a stunning geopolitical victory to the Russians and severely damaged its own great power ambitions. Moscow is now free to continue plans to dominate South and Central Asia in concert with its strategic allies, India and Iran.
The Bush administration does not appear to understand its enormous blunder and keeps insisting that "the Russians are now our friends."
The president should understand that where geopolitics and oil are concerned, there are no friends, only competitors and enemies.
Eric S. Margolis is a foreign affairs columnist for Canadian and Pakistani newspapers and author of "War at the Top of the World--The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet" (Routledge, 2000)
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times