Conspiracy theories are funny things: the wackier they sound, the more likely they are to be true. The fires of September were still burning when I, among others, suggested that the Bush regime's Afghan war might have more to do with old-fashioned oil politics than bringing the Evil Ones to justice.
Little did I know how quickly I would be proven right.
The Taliban government and their Al Qaeda "guests", after all, both were at best bit players in the terror biz. If the U.S. had really wanted to dispatch a significant number of jihad boys to meet the black-eyed virgins, it would have bombed Pakistan. Instead, the State Department inexplicably cozied up to this snake pit of anti-American extremists, choosing a nation led by a dictator who seized power in an illegal coup as our principal South Asian ally.
Moreover, the American military strategy in Afghanistan -- dropping bombs without inserting a significant number of ground troops -- all but guaranteed that Osama would live to kill another day.
So the Third Afghan War obviously isn't about fighting terrorism -- leading cynics to conclude that it must be about (yawwwwwwn!) oil. Bush and Cheney were both former oil company execs, after all, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was corporate counsel at Chevron. Unbeknownst to most Americans, oil fields dot northern Afghanistan near its border with Turkmenistan. But the real jackpot is under the Caspian Sea. Between confirmed and estimated oil reserves, Kazakhstan is destined to become the world's largest oil-producing nation, and will one day dwarf even Saudi Arabia.
For the U.S., more production means cheaper oil, lower production and transportation costs, and higher corporate profits. The Kazakhs would be happy to work with us, but their oil is frustratingly landlocked. The shortest and cheapest of all possible pipelines would run from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf via Iran, but lingering American resentment from the 1980 hostage crisis has prevented U.S.-aligned Kazakhstan from getting its crude out to sea. Plan B is a 1996 Unocal scheme for a trans-Afghanistan pipeline that would debouche at the Arabian Sea port of Karachi.
As Zalmay Khalilzad co-wrote in The Washington Quarterly in its Winter 2000 issue, "Afghanistan could prove a valuable corridor for this [Caspian Sea] energy as well as for access to markets in Central Asia." Khalilzad has an unsavory past. As a State and Defense Department official during the Reagan years, Khalilzad helped supply the anti-Soviet mujihadeen with weapons they're now using to fight Americans. During the '90s he worked as Unocal's chief consultant on its Afghan pipeline scheme.
According to the French daily Libération, Khalilzad's $200 million project was originally conceived to run 830 miles from Dauletebad in southeastern Turkmenistan to Multan, Pakistan. Multan already possesses a link to Karachi. Partly on Khalilzad's advice, the Clinton Administration funded the Taliban through Pakistani intelligence, going so far as to pay the salaries of high-ranking Taliban officials. The goal: a strong, stable authoritarian regime in Kabul to ensure the safety of Unocal's precious oil.
In 1998, after Taliban "guest" Osama bin Laden bombed two American embassies in east Africa, Unocal shelved the plan. Chief consultant Khalilzad moved on to the Rand Corporation think tank. Considering the Taliban irredeemably unreliable, Clinton withdrew U.S. support. But as the newly-minted cliché goes, everything changed after 9-11. Now the Taliban are gone, replaced with a U.S.-installed interim government.
Rising energy prices helped push the economy into recession; perhaps 90-cent gas will work where interest rate cuts failed. Once again, the pipeline plan is hot.
Did Bush exploit the Sept. 11 attacks to justify a Central Asian oil grab? The answer seems clear. On Dec. 31, Bush appointed his special envoy to Afghanistan: Zalmay Khalilzad. "This is a moment of opportunity for Afghanistan," the former Unocal employee commented upon arrival in Kabul Jan. 5. You bet it is: Pakistan's Frontier Post reports that U.S. ambassador Wendy Chamberlain met in October with Pakistan's oil minister to discuss reviving the Unocal project.
And a front-page story in the Jan. 9 New York Times reveals that "the United States is preparing a military presence in Central Asia that could last for years," including a building permanent air base in the Kyrgyz Republic, formerly part of the Soviet Union. (The Bushies say that they just want to keep an eye on postwar Afghanistan, but few students of the region buy the official story.)
Many industry experts consider Unocal's revived Afghan adventure fatally flawed and expect the U.S. to ultimately wise up and pursue an Iran deal. But thus far the Bushies have given the conspiracy theorists a lot to think about.
Ted Rall, AlterNet.
Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism