Afghanistan: War for oil? Local voices weigh in
This month, as Congress considers a sweeping energy policy bill and the Bush
administration continues to push for oil drilling in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge, the debate over United States energy security has moved into
Underlying the debate, some recent news articles have raised the issue of
Bush administration assistance to the oil industry, while others have suggested
links between the Taliban and U.S. efforts to access oil and gas supplies. Such
reports have raised the question: Just what role has oil played in the Afghan
The range of answers in the media appears wide, with some pundits labeling
the Afghan conflict another "war for oil" and others completely
dismissing that idea. Many seem to fall somewhere in between, expressing
skepticism that energy issues have caused this war but pointing out that oil has
played a major role in U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia. They suggest also
that energy issues figured prominently in U.S. - Taliban relations, at least
until terrorism became an all-consuming issue.
Michigan Technological University's Wayne Pennington, a professor of
geophysical engineering, is one who believes that access to oil played "no
role whatsoever" in the recent Afghan conflict. Pennington's work in
geophysics has focused particularly on its use within the oil and gas industry,
and he has lived in Pakistan as well as visiting Afghanistan often.
"Afghanistan is not an important player, and is likely never to be, for
the global oil market," says Pennington.
Another MTU faculty member, associate professor Barry Solomon, characterizes
oil's role in the current war as a secondary one. Solomon, a former official of
both the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, now
teaches courses on energy policy issues for MTU's Social Sciences Department.
Solomon notes that while access to oil is "not likely a primary
motivation" of the Afghan war, "it could be construed as an ancillary
benefit." He points out that the recent war and rebuilding efforts
"undoubtedly make it more likely that Afghanistan will cooperate to come up
with favorable terms for oil or gas pipelines that might be built through the
Pipelines key piece in energy puzzle
Pipelines, in fact, are a key piece of the Central Asian energy puzzle.
Understand the need for pipelines -- specifically, pipelines providing access to
Caspian Sea oil and natural gas -- and you'll understand why some believe
Afghanistan has strategic value.
As the U.S. Energy Information Administration writes, "Afghanistan's
significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a
potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the
Arabian Sea. This potential includes the possible construction of oil and
natural gas export pipelines through Afghanistan, which was under serious
consideration in the mid-1990s." (See note #1,
The potential of building pipelines through Afghanistan gained attention
shortly after oil- and gas-rich areas of the former Soviet Union near the
Caspian Sea became independent in the early 1990s. In need of cash for
economic development, the new Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan and
Turkmenistan in particular have sought new routes to transport their oil to
world markets. Getting these resources out also represented a money-making
opportunity for oil companies and an opportunity for consumers wanting the oil
Various players felt the route south through Afghanistan was not the best --
as MTU's Wayne Pennington points out, "Access to oil supplies in the area
is much easier through other routes" -- and the countries and companies
involved in the region did discuss other possibilities.
Some advocated a pipeline from the Caspian Sea west, through Azerbaijan and
across Turkey (A consortium of oil interests finalized an agreement to build
that pipeline earlier this year). Also, the shortest, most direct route
for transporting energy resources from the Caspian to ocean ports is south
through Iran. However, U.S. sanctions against that country have made this
option difficult if not impossible to pursue. (See note #2,
In the mid-1990s, then, the pipeline route south from the Caspian region
through Afghanistan emerged as a serious alternative.
At the time, according to energy expert Sheila Heslin of the Clinton
administration's National Security Council, "U.S. 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." (See note
Heslin's statements appear in Pakistani reporter Ahmed Rashid's book, Taliban:
Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, which describes the
strategies and shifting alliances at play as corporations and governments
attempted pipeline development through Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Strategies and shifting alliances
In 1995, when the U.S.-based Unocal (formerly Union Oil of California) got
involved in Afghan pipeline projects, U.S. policy and the U.S. State Department
supported that involvement.
Unocal crafted two proposals. They set up the CentGas consortium to build an
890-mile natural gas pipeline from Dauletabad, Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan
to Multan, Pakistan, maintaining a 70 percent share for themselves with the
remainder divided between Saudi-based Delta Oil, Russia's Gazprom and
They also formed the Central Asian Oil Pipeline Project to pursue
construction of a 1,050 mile oil pipeline from Chardzou, Turkmenistan, through
Afghanistan to an oil terminal on the Pakistani coast. In the 1990s, the
natural gas pipeline was the one more actively pursued.
Both projects, though, faced problems -- mainly the civil war that had raged
since the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. Establishment of
a stable government in Kabul thus became an important prerequisite for
construction of pipelines and for access to Caspian oil and gas.
Unocal vice president Marty Miller addressed this need for stability as he
discussed the proposed CentGas pipeline at a press conference in June 1997.
"It's uncertain when this project will start," Miller said to the
press. "It depends on peace in Afghanistan and a government we can
work with." (Rashid 172)
Unocal president John Imle echoed this when he later told reporter Ahmed
Rashid, "We made it clear to all parties from the beginning ... that the
Afghan factions would have to get together and develop a functioning government
that was recognized by lending institutions before the project could
succeed." (Rashid 167)
Not only Unocal recognized they would need stability in Afghanistan to pursue
resource development. Governments in the region saw this, too.
As Lakhdar Brahmi, UN mediator for Afghanistan, explained to reporter Rashid,
"The CARs [Central Asian Republics] have two problems with Afghanistan.
One is fear and the other is opportunity. Fear is the realization by these
new and still fragile countries that the Afghan conflict cannot be contained
forever within its borders . . . . The opportunity is that as landlocked
countries who want to break their dependence on Russia, they are looking south
[through Afghanistan] for oil and gas pipelines and communication routes.
They want a government in Kabul which is responsible and is a good
neighbor." (Rashid 155)
Once the Taliban gained ground against other Afghan factions, capturing
Kandahar in 1994 and Kabul in 1996, it was thought they might be that "good
neighbor," capable of bringing the stability that neighboring countries and
oil companies had sought.
Companies court Taliban
Unocal began to court the Taliban, seeking cooperation and contracts to support
their pipeline proposals. So did other companies and governments, including
the Argentinean Bridas Oil, which had already been active in developing Caspian
oil and gas and, according to Rashid, had been first to propose a pipeline route
through Afghanistan. Bridas worked closely with Turkmenistan, as well as
with gas-hungry Pakistan, which backed the Taliban.
The courting of the Taliban pitted these two oil companies against each other
and became the basis of strategic maneuvering by national governments to assert
control over the region's oil and gas resources. As Yasuki Akashi, UN
Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, told Rashid in 1997:
"The outside interference in Afghanistan 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." (Rashid 169)
According to Rashid, Unocal's courting of the Taliban included trips for
Taliban officials to the U.S.; provision of some small gifts to the Taliban such
as a fax machine and a generator; and a $900,000 donation to the Nebraska-based
Centre of Afghanistan Studies. Rashid states that the Centre used this
donation to establish a school in Kandahar to train "teachers,
electricians, carpenters, and pipe-fitters to help Unocal lay the
pipeline." (Rashid 171)
Unocal's negotiations also included entering into agreements in which the
Taliban would receive transit fees for gas pumped through the proposed CentGas
Initially, the CentGas project was to begin construction in December, 1997. However,
continued instability caused Unocal to delay that by a year. Then in 1998,
several events occurred that further affected the project and caused both Unocal
and the U.S. government to do an about-face in its approach to the Taliban.
In August 1998, factions trained by Osama bin Laden bombed U.S. embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania, straining U.S. relations with the Taliban and forcing Unocal
to move staff out of Kandahar and suspend its work with CentGas. Also
during 1998, U.S. women's groups mounted pressure on Unocal to sever its ties
with the Taliban on human rights grounds due to the status of Afghan women.
Falling oil prices, too, affected the project. By December, 1998, Unocal issued
a statement announcing it had dropped out of CentGas and abandoned the natural
gas pipeline project altogether.
In 1999 and 2000, U.S. policy toward Afghanistan focused mainly on getting
bin Laden. The Clinton administration's overt policies toward the Taliban
were also affected by women's groups, since women figured so prominently in
Clinton's base of support.
Learn more about the author of this article, guest writer Katie
Visit the Keweenaw Now discussion forums to comment
on this article.
#1: See the Energy
Information Administration's profile of Afghanistan.
#2: See related
maps for information on pipelines. Scroll down about half way and
click to enlarge maps in right column.
#3: Sheila Heslin in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and
Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press,
2000) p. 174. Further references to this text will be indicated by Rashid
and page numbers in parentheses within this article.
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