Was the American intervention in Afghanistan motivated in large part by oil? Petroleum is a strategic factor in U.S. foreign policy, and access to the vast Caspian Sea petroleum resources in Central Asia is drawing the Bush administration (as it did the Clinton one) to focus on the once obscure region. After Sept. 11, of course, Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics have emerged from obscurity with a vengeance.
In the 1990s, many Western governments expected that the newly independent countries of Central Asia represented a "great game" and the real possibility of a petroleum bonanza. For the consortiums of American, European, Russian and Japanese petroleum companies, the potential benefits were high if they could transport the oil resources of the Caspian Sea to the West. The region's potential supply of petroleum and gas is equal to that of the Persian Gulf states, Iran and Iraq.
The initial problem was to carve out routes for the construction of pipelines over some of the world's most rugged terrain. The options were limited by geography and politics. The preference of the Clinton administration in 1998 was to build 1,500 kilometers of pipeline stretching from the Caspian to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The line would carry on through Georgia and across eastern and central Turkey to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Although this route is longer than other options, it placed Turkey, a NATO and US ally, as guardian of the petroleum road. The much shorter route from the Caspian to Iran meant exposing the potential oil wealth of Central Asia to the caprices of the theocratic regime in Tehran.
Russia's proposal to expand existing pipelines from Baku to Novorossijsk and ship the oil by tanker to the Bulgarian port of Burgas and from there through a new pipeline to the Greek port of Thessaloniki in the Aegean had the support of the Western oil companies. This route was shorter, safer and hence cheaper. But the United States, having won the "great game" by default, was not interested in handing Russia the means to redominate the Central Asian republics.
The terrain in Central Asia proved formidable, and made exporting the oil difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, the oil companies became increasingly dependent on Russian routes and subsequently Russian machinations.
Furthermore, the oil companies soon discovered that doing business in Central Asia was akin to shadow boxing. The governments of these countries were often too weak to enforce agreements, and the Western-dominated consortiums were soon backing authoritative regimes to guarantee their investments. The West, in turn, accelerated the economic chaos of these countries, resulting in societies that were divided between the very poor and the very few rich.
It was, in effect, a repetition of the sociological, religious and political morass reflected in the polarization between petroleum wealth and poverty in the Mideast. The cycle of repression, religious extremism, poverty and violence spawned a new wave of militant Islam that swept parts of Central Asia, and ultimately left the Taliban in control of Afghanistan.
Then came Sept. 11 and, eventually, the US victory over the Taliban. In the initial shock of the terrorist strikes against New York and Washington, as well as the fear of chemical and biological sabotage represented by the anthrax scare, few looked closely at potential byproducts of an American presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, the closest and most viable route for the oil wealth of Central Asia is through Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan.
As long as the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan, this pipeline option was unthinkable. Now, however, the Americans not only have predominant influence in that country but the military presence to guarantee security for a new source of oil. Conspiracy theorists may wonder whether the primary reason for invading Afghanistan was to secure a new pipeline route for Caspian crude. Some have argued that the scale and cost of the military operation against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden seem out of proportion to the damage the terrorists inflicted against the United States. Perhaps, a special forces hit team could have easily eliminated Osama bin Laden and his Afghan ally, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
But things are not that black and white. President George W. Bush had to react with force after Sept. 11, and it made it strategically plausible that, in addition to striking against the terrorists, there was the net benefit of a new supply of oil.
Yet, if the motivation of the Bush administration is to wean America and its allies from the dependency of oil from the Gulf states, it is creating the samr situation that has made the Middle East inhospitable to Western interests. Just as in the Cold War, the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan and Pakistan may become a new battleground between Russia and the United States -- a situation that will be exploited by the forces of militant Islam.
We may despise Osama bin Laden and his followers, but their brand of Islam and revolution against the oil aristocracies of the Mideast resonates in every Muslim society, especially the very poor. It is no accident that Pakistan and Chechnya proved fertile ground for the terrorists. Al-Qaeda easily preyed on the misery and hopelessness that passes as a way of life for the inhabitants of these regions.
Unfortunately, the Caspian Sea oil reserves may prove to be less than the panacea of a cheap source of energy, especially if the West simply replicates the mistakes of the past. New petroleum dollars must be used to help alleviate poverty in Central Asia, not create new followers for fanatics.
André Gerolymatos holds the Hellenic Studies Chair at Simon Fraser University and is the author of The Balkan Wars: Myth, Reality and the Eternal Conflict.
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc