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February 20, 2002
Playing the Game: Lust for Black Gold

By Firas Al-Atraqchi


"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." - The US Energy Information Agency

The U.S. Administration is angry. Very angry. The war in Afghanistan has not been the resounding success that conventional media have made it out to be. Sure, the Taliban have retreated to the mountains from whence they came. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the world’s catechism for evil and tyranny, have either been eradicated or escaped to parts unknown. A ‘reasonable’ government is securely in place in Kabul and U.S. forces, numbering 5,000 men and women at arms, are entrenched and waiting for action. Islamic radicals are being chased down everywhere; Bosnia, Egypt, Yemen (yes, Yemen!), the Philippines, Somalia, South America. Reminds one of the theme of Paxa Reagana: "You can run, but you can’t hide."

So, what’s the problem, asks Joe Six-Pack?

The answer lies in close examination of the primary targets in Afghanistan, and not the aformentioned, which are simply cannon fodder. Clues might surface upon second reading of several press releases from Unocal, a Texas-based oil company.

In February 1997, the new Taliban government was desperate for U.S. recognition. Taliban officials met with Unocal representatives after meeting State Department diplomats in Washington. The Taliban then travelled to Argentina, where they met a local oil power-broker, Bridas. On their way home, the Taliban met with Saudi Intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faysal, in Jeddah. A month later, Unocal sets up an office in Kabul. Bridas follows suit.

Note: al-Faysal was due in Washington, D.C. for talks in the Pentagon for the period September 10-12, 2001. The Saudi press at the time reported that the Saudis were frustrated with the U.S. approach to Mideast peace and cancelled the trip in protest. The press reports were later buried. On September 10, al-Faysal resigned as intelligence chief. On September 11, the World Trade Center was tragically hit. The rest is history...or is it?

According to Oil And Gas International (www.oilandgasinternational.com) "Unocal tried courting Taliban leaders after they took Kabul in 1996, taking them to Houston, where they were treated royally. They were offered US$.15 per 1000 cf of gas that passed through Afghanistan, and they agreed after US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael lobbied them for the Unocal pipeline."

From Ahmed Rashid's excellent study Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale UP, 2000) light is shed on the fact that since 1995, "Unocal has sought to build a US$1.9 billion, 790-mile oil and gas pipelines from the 25 Tcf Dauletabad Field in Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea as an alternate route for transporting Caspian region oil and gas to the enormous Indian subcontinent markets and perhaps beyond to Southeast Asia." However, as Rashid points out, this requires an agreeable, cooperating regime in Afghanistan; the Taliban’s quasi-union with Al-Qaeda meant that the Taliban is no longer the desired partner.

Eurasianet Business and Economics reports that "Natural gas-rich Turkmenistan in 1997 forged a consortium with oil companies, led by Unocal, to build a trans-Afghan pipeline. The $1.9-billion project hit snags almost from the time of its announcement. The main obstacle was the Taliban's control of most of Afghanistan's territory, and the on-going civil war. By 1998, construction plans collapsed after Unocal withdrew from the consortium." (www.eurasianet.org)

In December 1998, Unocal released the following to the press: "Effective December 4, 1998, Unocal has withdrawn from the Central Asia Gas (CentGas) pipeline consortium for business reasons. Unocal no longer has any role in supporting the development or funding of this project."

However, on September 14, 2001, Unocal also said: "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."

Note: If the Taliban were international outlaws, why were they greeted by officials of the U.S. Department and ‘encouraged’ to meet with Unocal in the U.S.? Why were they issued visas to begin with?

According to Lawerence Hagerty (Condoleeza, Please Stop Smiling, MediaMonitors Network), "In the summer of 2001, shortly before the events of September 11th, Taliban officials were in Houston, Texas meeting with Unocal oil company officials in an attempt to negotiate a pipeline deal. When no agreement was reached, the Taliban officials were allegedly told to accept our offer of "a carpet of gold or you'll get a carpet of bombs"."

Russian journalist Igor Torbakov (TALIBAN DEFEAT REVIVES DEBATE ON TRANS-AFGHAN PIPELINE 12/12/01, Eurasianet.org) believes that "the defeat of the Taliban appears to be reviving a debate about pipeline construction in Afghanistan that would widen international access to Central Asia's vast energy resources." Torbakov argues that while these pipelines might speed Afghanistan's reconstruction, an attempt to establish Afghanistan as a transit hub for energy exports could provoke a collision of interests among key power brokers in the region.

It’s the power brokers Iran and Russia that hold the key for Afghanistan’s wealth of natural gas and oil for Unocal and other interested parties; this is the source of the U.S. Administration’s anger. In November 2001, Russia regained critical influence in Afghanistan by sending a massive shipment of humanitarian aid to 150,000 Afghans who were left homeless and living in miserable conditions near the Tajikistan border. In the same breath, Russia beefed up some 25,000 troops in Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s northern neighbor.

Note: Russia, Afghanistan’s former brutal enemy, is depriving its own starving masses of food and shipping it off to the Afghans. Fish in Denmark?

An editorial in The New American Magazine (Vol.17, No.27 - December 31, 2001) questioned Russia’s motives: "Claiming to have come for humanitarian reasons, well-armed soldiers in camouflage dress guarded military trucks covered with mesh. Even though the Russians are the first visible foreign military presence in Kabul, Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed that they were putting up a facility for humanitarian relief and that he had "no concerns now over Russian activities in the area." (www.thenewamerican.com)

The editorial ridicules Powell’s explanation by pointing out that Burhannudin Rabbani, the former Afghan president whose forces now control Kabul, are in fact longtime Russian allies.

In one of his columns in the Los Angeles Times (December 2, 2001), journalist Eric Margolis cites a great Russian victory in Kabul, completely making up for the losses Russia incurred in 1989.

"When Pakistan ditched its ally, the Taliban, in September, and sided with the United States, 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 Osama bin Laden, it failed to notice that the Russians were taking over half the country."

Margolis believes that while western media touted the Northern Alliance as the great liberators and allies of the west, the Russians were using them to quickly spread their influence in the region.

"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, armoured 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," Margolis says.

A Washington Post report on November 28, 2001, sounded a more ominous tone: "The rush by the Russians to establish a presence in Kabul appeared in part to be an attempt to lay down a marker as a player in determining the future of Afghanistan, where they have had a troubled history for the last quarter-century. To some foreign officials, it recalled an episode in 1999 when Russian peacekeeping troops seized the Pristina airport during the war over Kosovo, to the chagrin of U.S. and British commanders."

The report also pointed to the fact that neither the U.S. nor the U.N. had been notified of the Russian move.

"This action was carried out at the request of the Islamic State of Afghanistan," Russian President Vladimir Putin told the world.

Note: Putin was head of the KGB before becoming Russian President. George Bush Sr. was head of the CIA. Cold war, take deux?

In the early 1990s, oil companies had initially prepared a plan that would carry Central Asian oil and natural gas from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan through a pipeline that cuts across western Russia and pours out into the Black Sea. The plan was abandoned because it was felt that Russia would exert too much influence on the pipeline and consequently, U.S. energy interests would be hindered. Following Russia’s virtual dominance of Northern Afghanistan, any oil pipeline dreams will now have to consider Russian aspirations for the petro-dollar.

Hold your Cossack horses – we want a chunk of Afghanistan too, says Iran. Last week, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials were ‘concerned’ about the level of Iranian activity in western Afghanistan:

"... intelligence reports could fuel concerns here and in Washington about Tehran's attempts to influence post-Taliban Afghanistan at the expense of the interim government. U.S. and Afghan officials already have accused Iran of meddling in areas of western and southern Afghanistan. President Bush has warned Iran not to interfere in its neighbor's internal affairs..." (February 7, 2002)

Western intelligence sources allege that Iran is arming Abdurrashid Dostum, a long-time Afghan warlord with a past that would put the SS to shame. The Washington Post goes on to say "Iran has been eager to regain some sway in Afghanistan after years of being shut out by the Taliban, and was the first nation to reopen its diplomatic mission in Kabul after the Northern Alliance captured the capital in November."

Everyone wants a chunk of Kabul. With the Russians to the north, the Iranians to the west, Pakistani militants to the east and U.S. forces in the middle, one wonders who the "Axis of Evil" really are.

Note: Coming soon: Russia’s silent occupation of Iraq; Russian oil companies (Lukoil, to name but one) own rights to 40 percent of Iraq’s 200 billion-barrel oil reserves. Is this the real reason behind the elevated war rhetoric against Iraq?

Firas Al-Atraqchi, MA., is a Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast

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