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It’s the Oil, Stupid

Whether coincidental spoils of victory or a plan long in the works, the Bush administration, U.S. oil companies and the dictators of Central Asia are scheming to build oil and natural-gas pipelines across war-torn Afghanistan

By Ted Rall

During the year following the Sept. 11 attacks, American media studiously avoided mentioning oil and Afghanistan in the same breath. A few writers nevertheless tried to draw the attention of a befuddled American public to its government’s impure interests in the “war on terrorism.” Historically, it’s no secret that war routinely goes hand in hand with economic motives, and economic incentives for U.S. involvement often involves control of fossil fuels. American intervention in Somalia, for instance, had less to do with feeding hungry Africans than controlling the strategic Gulf of Aden, through which oil tankers pass from the Indian Ocean en route to the Suez Canal. While the Vietnam conflict supposedly stemmed from the Cold War-era “domino theory” obsession among U.S. officials, energy-company interest in South Vietnamese natural gas reserves played at least as vital a role in U.S. military intervention as anti-communist ideology. Given the energy resources at stake in Central Asia, these cynics suggested, there was much more to American adventurism in Afghanistan than met the eye.

Yet the biggest unreported story of 2001 received virtually no airing in the American mainstream media. When Democratic leader Tom Daschle is smeared as “anti-American” for “questioning the president in time of war,” even below-the-radar discussions have drawn disproportionately heavy fire. “Apart from the popular theory that this is a war on Islam,” the BBC’s Malcolm Haslett typically editorialized, “there is also the theory that it is a war motivated mainly—or even purely—by long-term economic and political goals. This line of argument falls down on a number of points.”

Haslett’s main point: A trans-Afghan pipeline is unfeasible and not worth fighting a war over: “Very few Western politicians or oil companies have taken Afghanistan seriously as a major export route . . . few believe Afghanistan will ever achieve the stability needed to ensure an uninterrupted flow of oil and gas.”

And yet, as American bombs continued to fall in July 2002, three of the region’s leaders were meeting to sign an agreement to seek investors for just that “bad idea”: a trans-Afghan pipeline. Despite continuing instability throughout Afghanistan, the project became the transitional Afghan government’s top priority. On May 30, 2002, the BBC reported, “Pakistani President Musharraf, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and Turkmen President Niyazov agreed on the construction of a $2 billion pipeline to bring gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. Islamabad officials said the 950-mile pipeline would transport natural gas from fields in Turkmenistan to the Pakistani port of Gawadar.”

The Bush administration asks us to believe that the United States bombed Afghanistan solely to stop Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. Conservative pundits claimed it was only after the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance victory that thoughts turned to the possibility of building a potentially lucrative pipeline project across Afghanistan. But the bid to revive an oil pipeline through Afghanistan actually began during the first days of the bombing campaign.

As the Pentagon drew up targets, The State Department mapped out pipelines. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, met with Pakistan’s oil minister to discuss reviving the old Unocal deal on Oct. 10, 2001—the third day of the bombing campaign,. This was when the Northern Alliance controlled just 5 percent of the country, and the defeat of the Taliban was far from certain.

On Dec. 31, 2001, Bush appointed Afghan-American academic Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy to Hamid Karzai’s nascent government. (The Karzai regime was called “interim” before the loya jirga and “transitional” afterward.) Khalilzad was a former Unocal Corporation consultant who, as a member of the NSC, had reported to former ChevronTexaco general counsel Condoleezza Rice.

The Karzai and Khalilzad appointments were understandably interpreted by Central Asia hands as a move that signaled U.S. support for a trans-Afghan pipeline in general and Unocal’s involvement in particular. Karzai, after all, is himself a former Unocal consultant. In February 2002, Khalilzad traveled to Ashkhabat to sign a letter of intent on the pipeline with Turkmenistan’s autocratic president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov. And on March 7, 2002, Reuters reported that Karzai traveled to Islamabad to cover the Pakistani side of the deal with Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Two and half months later, all three countries met in Pakistan to ink a letter of understanding.

Will a pipeline ever be built? Probably not. Afghanistan remains as fractured as ever. At least seven major warlords and hundreds of “commanders” control districts outside Karzai’s American-backed city-state of Kabul. Fighting breaks out frequently, claiming many lives at internal borders and checkpoints separating the turf of rival warlords. No fewer than three versions of the Afghan flag fly over a nation with a highly evolved culture of violence. Experts argue that a trans-Afghan pipeline would be subject to continuous threats of sabotage committed by local warlords in the sectors through which it ran, and immense amounts of protection fees would have to be paid to safeguard the steady flow of fuel. In addition, a large foreign—read, American—occupation force would be required for years to enforce relative law and order, and it remains to be seen whether Bush—much less future American presidents—will be inclined to devote substantial resources to Afghanistan. If pragmatism triumphs over ideology, it seems likely that the oil companies involved, reported to be led again by the California-based Unocal Corp., will reconsider their decision to bypass the more practical and cost-effective Iranian proposal.

For now, however, the Bush administration and its puppet regime in Kabul are working furiously to make this dubious scheme become reality. And various parties—Russia, Japan and the Asian Development Bank (ADB)—are already committing millions to the job.

Right-wing commentators—the same guys who have denied the existence of any pipeline scheme—now shrug, So what? To the victor goes the spoils, their logic goes, and if a country ever deserved to be compensated for its travails, it’s the United States. We lost 3,000 lives and billions of dollars of property on Sept. 11—maybe an unlimited supply of 50-cents-per-gallon gas can soothe our pain.

There’s no smoking gun, no leaked White House memo dated August 2001, that calls for invading Afghanistan to secure it as a pipeline route. There is, however, a preponderance of evidence that the drive to establish a pro-American regime in Kabul was undertaken not to protect U.S. interests from Islamist radicals, but to enter the “New Great Game” for Central Asian oil. The fundamental question is whether the trans-Afghan pipeline idea is a by-product of American-backed victory in its morally justified and strategically vital war in Afghanistan, or rather the culmination of a cynical ploy to kill and maim innocent people living in the world’s poorest nation to secure access to cheap energy.

The Central Asian republics that became independent in 1991—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—didn’t leave the Soviet Union voluntarily. They were ejected unceremoniously by a newly independent, impoverished Russia. With the exception of the relatively democratic Kyrgyz Republic, all of what U.S. State Department insiders jokingly refer to as the “icky Stans” are governed by the former Communist Party strongmen. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan—the Central Asian countries possessing substantial amounts of Caspian Sea oil and gas—are police states with rigidly controlled state media, banned or neutered opposition parties and ferociously totalitarian policies of social control.

In oil industry parlance, “proven” oil reserves are those that geologists judge to be 90 percent probable and “possible” oil reserves are considered 50 percent probable. The landlocked Caspian Sea sits on top of an estimated 10 billion barrels of proven reserves and 233 billion barrels of possible reserves—in total, more than 6 percent of the world’s proven oil and 40 percent of its gas reserves. At the current $26 per barrel, this amounts to $6 trillion in potential gross revenues. Caspian Sea oil and natural gas have always drawn the attention of superpowers: Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi war machine was hobbled by an Allied fuel embargo, launched a disastrous front against the Soviet Union in a desperate bid to secure Baku’s oil rigs for the fight against the Allies. Nowadays, the Caspian is divvied up among five countries: Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

In 1999, Kazakh oil drillers hit the jackpot—the biggest in the history of oil exploration. Kazakhstan, a U.S. client dictatorship run by the notoriously corrupt Nursultan Nazarbayev, is estimated to possess 5.4 billion barrels of proven and 92 billion barrels of possible reserves—more than twice as much oil as Saudi Arabia.

During the first months after independence in 1991, the unsophisticated autocrats of Central Asia got taken by foreign investors. “Naive Turkmen officials auctioned off choice oil and gas fields for as little as $100,000 to foreign opportunity seekers,” The Washington Post reported. But the leaders of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan learned quickly. Beginning under the Clinton administration and continuing under Bush-Cheney, the U.S. government has tried to help Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan and Niyazov’s Turkmenistan get their oil and gas to sea. The reasons are simple: Increased production means lower oil prices, which means less reliance on OPEC. Lower oil prices would have a positive impact on corporate profits. And one hardly needs an agile imagination to suspect the interest of a White House headed by former oil men in cutting deals to help their former partners and pals in Texas.

By all accounts, the most direct and cheapest route to extract Caspian oil is through Iran to the Persian Gulf. But “the U.S. wants a pipeline that will help its friends in the region and freeze out its enemies—especially the Iranians,” reported Business Week last May, while Unocal Pipeline 2.0 was getting signed in Islamabad. This project runs from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. After the Iranian artery, this is the second-shortest route.

S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins university, told The New York Times’ Steven Kinzer: “The main feature of these states is their remoteness. Pipelines are the only way they can overcome their isolation. Transit fees are real money, and who gets that real money will go a long way toward determining which of these countries succeed and which don’t.”

There are many pipelines slated for Caspian Sea oil, some further along than others. In rough order of desirability, they are:

1. Turkmenistan-Iran. The shortest, cheapest and safest route, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. On hold due to U.S. sanctions on Iran.

2. Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan. The project originally pushed by Unocal Corp. A (primarily) gas pipeline that begins in southeast Turkmenistan, crosses Afghanistan and debouches in Pakistan on the Arabian Sea. Now being developed after establishment of Karzai government in Afghanistan despite substantial danger and instability.

3. Azerbaijan-Georgia. Also called Baku-Supsa, the pipeline would carry oil and gas to the Black Sea. Tankers would carry it through the Bosphorus strait to the Mediterranean. Cost of construction through the Caucasus mountains would be high. Also, the Turkish government worries about oil spills in the already congested Bosphorus. (Both Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas can be shipped by tanker to Baku across the Caspian Sea.)

4. Azerbaijan-Turkey. An alternative to Azerbaijan-Georgia, this route runs from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Even longer and more expensive than Baku-Supsa, this could run over $3 billion.

5. Azerbaijan-Russia. Baku-Novorossisk would run through lawless Chechnya into nearly-as-lawless Russia. No Central Asian leader trusts the Russians.

6. Kazakhstan-China. The Chinese have already promised the cash for this project, which will be enormous due to engineering concerns—it crosses the Tian Shan mountain range—and distance (5,300 miles).

Kinzer wrote: “Afghanistan’s main hope lies with the huge gas reserves in neighboring Turkmenistan, which other Asian nations crave. Today, the only pipelines through which Turkmen gas and oil can be exported run to Russia. American companies have been seeking to build new lines from Turkmenistan to a port from which this wealth could be shipped to other markets.”

To understand the current thinking about the trans-Afghan deal, it’s useful to consider its recent origins. In October 1997, Unocal Corp. announced the formation of a six-company consortium, the Central Asia Gas Pipeline, Ltd. (CentGas) to construct a $2 billion trans-Afghan pipeline across then-Taliban-held Afghanistan. According to the company, the six lead participants in the project would have been Unocal (46.5 percent), Delta Oil Company Limited of Saudi Arabia (15 percent), the government of Turkmenistan (7 percent), Indonesia Petroleum, Ltd. of Japan (6.5 percent), Itochu Oil Exploration Co., Ltd. of Japan (6.5 percent), Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co., Ltd. of South Korea (5 percent) and Pakistan’s Crescent Group (3.5 percent). A Russian company, RAO Gazprom, indicated interest initially, but withdrew in 1998.

As Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has documented in Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Unocal representatives courted Taliban officials through 1998, even arranging for a trip to Texas for Taliban officials in 1997. By most accounts, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was favorably disposed toward Unocal and its proposed pipeline route.

However, shortly after terrorists (allegedly sponsored by Al Qaeda) bombed two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton retaliated with missile attacks against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and Al Qaeda training camps in eastern Afghanistan, on August 21, 1998. Soon after, Unocal withdrew from the CentGas consortium, disbanding it in December 1998. “We met with many factions, including the Taliban, to educate them about the benefits such a pipeline could bring to this desperately poor and war-torn country, as well as to the Central Asian region,” Unocal said in a statement announcing the pullout. “At no time did we make any deal with the Taliban, and, in fact, consistently emphasized that the project could not and would not proceed until there was an internationally recognized government in place in Afghanistan that fairly represented all its people. Our hope was that the project could help bring peace, stability and economic development to the Afghans, as well as develop important energy resources for the region.”

Though Clinton and Bush officials repeatedly tried to resurrect the deal, the Unocal project remained shelved until Sept. 11, 2001. Those conditions—“peace, stability and economic development”—had yet to be achieved. But by May 2002, Unocal had obviously been satisfied.

Afghanistan’s Minister of Mines and Industries, Mohammad Alim Razim, announced that Unocal was the “lead company” in the revived project. “The work on the project will start after an agreement is expected to be struck at the coming [May 30, 2002] summit,” Razim told reporters. He said that the Afghan government would build a road linking Turkmenistan with Pakistan running alongside the pipeline to supply nearby villages with gas and to carry Afghan gas for export, and that additional construction funds would be provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and donor countries. The Afghans would collect “transit fees” amounting to one-twelfth of overall profits until it would take full possession of the conduit after 30 years.

In a development that confirms Razim’s account, the ADB’s Marshuq Ali Shah announced that the bank had cut a $1.5 million check for a feasibility study of the trans-Afghan pipeline. “The movement is quite fast,” Shah noted. Obviously attuned to the potential controversy surrounding its previous dalliances with the Taliban and the growing perception that George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” was little more than a cover for neocolonialist oil exploitation, Unocal officials at first denied Razim’s statement. “Unocal is not involved in any projects (including pipelines) in Afghanistan, nor do we have any plans to become involved, nor are we discussing any such projects,” spokeswoman Teresa Covington said. But she added: “I don’t think it would serve me to say ‘forever.’”

However, Razim’s right-hand man, Mohammed Ebrahim Adel, readily confirms Unocal’s interest: “Naturally, Unocal is economically and technically stronger. . . . We are sure Unocal will win, because it has big potential and can work better. . . . Business has its secrets and mysteries,” continues Adel, a mining engineer, wondering aloud about the oil company’s reticence. “And maybe, before there is a real contract, they don’t want it to be disclosed in the media.”

In any event, the Afghans aren’t waiting for Unocal. On Aug. 8, 2002, the Russian state oil company Rosneft announced that it had signed an agreement with the Afghan “Mining and Industry Ministry, under which Russian specialists will study the state of [Afghanistan’s] gas fields and pipeline network over the coming month. Russian companies will finance the feasibility study and provide the Afghans with information on the work of Soviet Union specialists in Afghanistan’s gas industry prior to 1988. In turn, Rosneft will participate in the development and privatization of oil and gas blocs that Afghanistan will offer in the future.”

Whether Unocal, Rosneft or some other company decides to proceed in Afghanistan, the Bush and Karzai administrations are moving heaven and earth to break ground on some sort of trans-Afghan pipeline as soon as possible. And that pipeline is identical in virtually every respect to the Unocal project tabled in 1998. As originally conceived, the pipeline would begin at Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad field just north of the northwestern Afghan city of Herat. Dauletabad currently produces more than two billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. It would then run 790 miles along the Herat-to-Kandahar highway, cross the Pakistani border near Quetta and link up with an existing Pakistani pipeline system at Multan, Pakistan. The new plan, according to Pakistani oil ministry officials, is to extend the original 1998 route an additional 160 miles to the Pakistani port city of Gawadar, for a total of 950 miles.

But what about all that Kazakh oil found in 1999, the biggest prize so far in the Central Asian oil sweepstakes? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “Unocal had also considered building a million-barrel-per-day-capacity oil pipeline that would link refineries at Charjou, Turkmenistan, to Pakistan’s Arabian seacoast via Afghanistan. Since the Charjou refinery is already linked to Russia’s Western Siberian oil fields, the line could provide a possible alternative export route for regional oil products from the Caspian Sea.”

Though the current scheme primarily focuses on Turkmen natural gas—because President Niyazov has fully committed to the deal—a gas line likely would be built alongside a parallel version to carry oil from Kazakhstan, as well as possibly Uzbekistan.

The oil-rich Kazakhs, however, are understandably skeptical about the trans-Afghan pipeline’s feasability, viewing it more as a backup project to a short, cheap and therefore sweet line across politically stable Iran. As U.S. Secretary State of Colin Powell listened during a visit to Astana in late 2001, Kazakh president-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev made his guest visibly uncomfortable as he stated his opposition to American sanctions against Iran: “Frankly speaking, the investors who work in the oil field consider the Iran-Persian Gulf route to be the best. This is not only my point of view, but also the opinion of several companies, including American ones. We are interested in multiple routes.” Kazakhstan’s overall strategy is to pursue “as many pipelines as the country can handle,” to maximize options for export. Thus the country is asking oil companies to build transfer facilities through Azerbaijan, the “best” Iranian route; and a trans-Afghan oil pipeline, which, Nazarbayev revealed, is projected to be completed by 2007.

The greatest obstacle to the “pipeline of peace”—Karzai’s term—is, of course, that there isn’t much peace to go with the pipeline. “Now with the gradual return of peace and normality in Afghanistan, we are confident that this mega-project will be realized in the near future,” Gen. Musharraf declared after hosting the May 2002 oil summit in Islamabad. But “peace and normality” have hardly returned to a nation awash in mines, automatic weapons and opium poppies. Karzai’s central government is under siege from warlords left out of the power-sharing deal arranged in Bonn during the fall 2001 bombing campaign. Bandits and rape gangs roam the streets of cities and villages. And even American troops are, at this writing, still coming under fire from Taliban troops. In addition, Afghanistan’s unruly populace considers itself entitled to charge for any goods passing through its territory; warlords would surely hold the flow of oil and gas hostage pending the receipt of ever-rising protection payments. As the Guardian wrote in May, “Gas analysts warn the project would be vulnerable to disruption by warlords unless it was buried deep enough in the ground, which would add considerable extra costs.”

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s June loya jirga merely established the framework for a two-year “transitional” government. There’s no legal or political structure to protect foreign investments. In the words of Peter Bassett, investment manager for London-based global investment firm Brunswick Capital Management, “From an emerging markets point of view, Afghanistan has a long ways to travel.”

Finally, the greatest obstacle is the price of the Turkmen natural gas that constitutes the project’s main raison d’être.

Reuters cites analysts who believe that “the cost of the project means customers would have to pay more for gas than they were currently paying to make it economic.” But let’s assume that some oil consortium, led by Unocal or not, decides to sink billions of dollars into a trans-Afghan pipeline whose security is guaranteed by an Afghan government itself entirely dependent on the U.S. military for security. Let’s say that they bribe the warlords, that the price of natural gas increases enough or that the Kazakh oil component comes through. We’ll allow that they bury the pipeline so deep that no one can touch it. Then they still have to contend with the Pakistani factor.

Afghan expert Farhad Ahad believes that Pakistan would hold a trans-Afghan pipeline hostage to its own interests—which don’t include access to gas or oil, since the country is energy-independent for the forseeable future. “Historically Pakistan has . . . never wanted to give Afghanistan access to its waters,” Ahad says. “It’s a way of keeping Afghanistan dependent on Pakistan.” And Pakistan’s military still supports its fellow Pashtun Taliban, reducing chances of the junta’s cooperation with the U.S.-installed Karzai.

So far, the most intelligent conspiracy-theory “debunker” has been The American Prospect’s Ken Silverstein. Silverstein and other Bush defenders argue that Operation Enduring Freedom is unrelated to oil: First, they assert, President Bush is a well-intentioned man determined to free the enslaved women of Afghanistan from Taliban oppression and hell-bent on justice for Sept. 11’s victims.

Second, Turkmenistan no longer needs an Afghan pipeline to carry its gas. Russia has become economically stable, and in any event there is no less demand for Turkmen gas than there was when Unocal conceived its project in 1995.

Third, Turkmenistan’s Niyazov “is an unstable megalomaniac. . . . His portraits are ubiquitous in Turkmenistan, the country’s currency bears his image, and cities, towns and businesses have been renamed after him. In his spare time, Niyazov issues decrees on issues such as the title of a women’s magazine, and erects monumental palaces. Niyazov’s madness,” Silverstein writes, “combined with his total control of the economy, has left few Western companies willing to invest in Turkmenistan, much less put up billions for a gas pipeline.”

Fourth, Kazakhstan’s pipeline desires have been sated by increased Russian export capacity and an American-backed plan for a so-called Baku-Novorossiisk line, which would debouche on the Turkish Mediteranean coast.

Fifth, Afghanistan itself possesses no significant energy resources. Since its only value is as a conduit, the area can be bypassed in favor of safer alternatives.

Finally, the “debunkers” argue, Afghanistan is, and will likely remain, too dangerous. “When you talk about pipelines, you create an atmosphere of expectation of money,” Silverstein quotes Julia Nanay, a Caspian expert at the Petroleum Finance Company. “All the warlords are going to want a piece of the action.”

“Few people would bet on a long-term settlement to the fighting there,” Silverstein concludes, “and if peace does take hold, it won’t be for a long time.”

All but his last contention falls apart upon examination. Neither Bush nor any high-ranking cabinet official ever issued a statement pertaining to the status of Afghan women prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The truth is that feminist groups in the U.S. found both Clinton and Bush unresponsive to their pleas for action against the Taliban. The mere suggestion that an American war would have been conducted against Afghanistan to liberate women is ridiculous. Furthermore, although it never extended formal diplomatic recognition to the Taliban, the United States didn’t treat them as pariahs until the Sept. 11 attacks. In April 2001, the United States approved a $43 million United Nations “reward” for curtailing opium cultivation. Extensive informal ties linked the two governments, including permission for a Taliban representative to reside in New York through September. The United States even allowed the Taliban to maintain an American-based Web site, the since-eliminated, to disseminate news and propaganda.

Second, Niyazov has made his desire for a trans-Afghan gas pipeline abundantly clear. On Feb. 8, 2002, the day of Khalilzad’s visit, Turkmen state television quoted Niyazov: “Peace is finally being installed in Afghanistan. And we can now build a pipeline to Pakistan across its territory.” Turkmenistan may not need a new deal, as Silverstein asserts, but its leader certainly wants one. That’s enough.

The third argument, that U.S. corporations don’t do business with tyrants, is absurd. If anything, corporations prefer dealing with autocrats; all they need is one handshake to finalize a deal. Furthermore, rapacious dictators typically charge less than civic-minded leaders hoping to enrich their people. The man who calls himself “Turkmenbashi”—“Great Leader of all Turkmen Everywhere”—is certainly a megalomaniac: He recently told Turkmenistan’s “legislature” to rename January “Turkmenbashi.” Nonetheless, his oversized ego hasn’t prevented companies, including Ford, Coca-Cola, Arthur Andersen and Halliburton, from investing billions into Niyazov’s Turkmenistan.

Fourth, Kazakhstan, as already noted, is pursuing a pipeline-maximization strategy. While Russian malevolence may be reduced from the days of the early ’90s Soviet collapse, landlocked Kazakhstan will continue to seek economic security by boosting the number of possible routes for its fuel exports, whether though Iran, China or Afghanistan.

Fifth, northern Afghanistan does possess fossil fuel reserves. I saw oil rigs in Takhar Province that were functioning even during the winter 2001 bombings. Russia’s Rosneft states that, based on Soviet data collected during the 1980s, Afghanistan “has substantial reserves of light low-sulfur oil amounting to 95 million barrels and up to 5 trillion cubic feet of possible natural-gas reserves worth around $22 billion.”

The Guardian summarizes the remaining argument as follows: “Few believe Afghanistan is secure enough to take such an expensive project. Most provinces are still ruled by rival warlords who often owe fickle allegiance to the government in Kabul. Any pipeline that is on or near the surface would be vulnerable to attack.” As Silverstein says: No major energy firm has expressed any interest in working with the three countries. Even Unocal has stated forthrightly that it has abandoned its old project and that its priorities have shifted outside of Central Asia. “The fact that Karzai, Niyazov, and the Pakistanis have agreed to build a pipeline is meaningless,” says independent energy analyst Robin Bhatty, whose focus is the Caspian region. “None of them have the money or skills to build the thing, and no international firm will be involved given the availability of already-built pipelines and alternative routes.” A January 2002 AP story quoted New York [industry] analyst Jeffrey Rogers as saying he couldn’t imagine any major corporation making a significant investment in Afghanistan. “It’s just not the kind of risk anyone is prepared to take right now,” he said. “I can’t imagine they will take a risk like that for some time.”

Of course, the three nations involved signed their memorandum of understanding on May 31, 2002, so it’s early to discount the possibility that they’ll ultimately obtain financing. The ADB has already spent money on a feasibility study. And the availability of alternative routes doesn’t affect energy companies who are looking for additional capacity. But the overall argument is well-taken: The idea of a trans-Afghan pipeline is ill-considered and absurdly premature, and probably constitutes financial suicide. It’s a big world—why would anyone sink billions into Afghanistan?

Because, as The Guardian admits, the pipeline dream “is too good to resist.” And whether or not the three American-backed despots succeed at making Afghanistan safe for the trans-Afghan pipeline, it’s impossible to ignore their intent: They are working hard to make the pipeline a reality.

Afghanistan was just as much of a mess in 1998 as it is today; Unocal and its partners were nonetheless interested in running a pipeline across its territory. Now that the United States has committed itself to an indefinite military presence, is it really so farfetched to think that some Western energy company will take the plunge again? Those dismissing the pipeline motive as half-baked conspiracy theories argue that people, and companies, always behave in an intelligent manner consistent with their self-interest. History, however, confirms the Turkmen saying: There are limits to wisdom, but there is no limit to foolishness. The trans-Afghan pipeline is a stupid idea, but it’s a stupid idea whose time has come.


Mary Ann Swissler is a writer based in New Jersey. She can be reached at maplemas@ This article was made possible through financial support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C.

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