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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

America's pipe dream

A pro-western regime in Kabul should give the US an Afghan route for 
Caspian oil

George Monbiot
October 23, 2001

"Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here," Woodrow
Wilson asked a year after the first world war ended, "that does not know 
that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial 
rivalry?" In 1919, as US citizens watched a shredded Europe scraping up 
its own remains, the answer may well have been no. But the lessons of war 
never last for long.

The invasion of Afghanistan is certainly a campaign against terrorism, but
it may also be a late colonial adventure. British ministers have warned MPs
that opposing the war is the moral equivalent of appeasing Hitler, but in 
some respects our moral choices are closer to those of 1956 than those of 
1938. Afghanistan is as indispensable to the regional control and 
transport of oil in central Asia as Egypt was in the Middle East.

Afghanistan has some oil and gas of its own, but not enough to qualify as 
a major strategic concern. Its northern neighbours, by contrast, contain 
reserves which could be critical to future global supply. In 1998, Dick 
Cheney, now US vice-president but then chief executive of a major oil 
services company, remarked: "I cannot think of a time when we have had a 
region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the 
Caspian." But the oil and gas there is worthless until it is moved. The 
only route which makes both political and economic sense is through 

Transporting all the Caspian basin's fossil fuel through Russia or 
Azerbaijan would greatly enhance Russia's political and economic control 
over the central Asian republics, which is precisely what the west has 
spent 10 years trying to prevent. Piping it through Iran would enrich a 
regime which the US has been seeking to isolate. Sending it the long way 
round through China, quite aside from the strategic considerations, would 
be prohibitively expensive. But pipelines through Afghanistan would allow 
the US both to pursue its aim of "diversifying energy supply" and to 
penetrate the world's most lucrative markets. Growth in European oil 
consumption is slow and competition is intense. In south Asia, by contrast,
demand is booming and competitors are scarce. Pumping oil south and 
selling it in Pakistan and India, in other words, is far more profitable 
than pumping it west and selling it in Europe.

As the author Ahmed Rashid has documented, in 1995 the US oil company 
Unocal started negotiating to build oil and gas pipelines from 
Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and into Pakistani ports on the Arabian 
sea. The company's scheme required a single administration in Afghanistan,
which would guarantee safe passage for its goods. Soon after the Taliban 
took Kabul in September 1996, the Telegraph reported that "oil industry 
insiders say the dream of securing a pipeline across Afghanistan is the 
main reason why Pakistan, a close political ally of America's, has been so
supportive of the Taliban, and why America has quietly acquiesced in its 
conquest of Afghanistan". Unocal invited some of the leaders of the 
Taliban to Houston, where they were royally entertained. The company 
suggested paying these barbarians 15 cents for every thousand cubic feet 
of gas it pumped through the land they had conquered.

For the first year of Taliban rule, US policy towards the regime appears 
to have been determined principally by Unocal's interests. In 1997 a US 
diplomat told Rashid "the Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis 
did. There will be Aramco [the former US oil consortium in Saudi Arabia] 
pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with
that." US policy began to change only when feminists and greens started 
campaigning against both Unocal's plans and the government's covert 
backing for Kabul.

Even so, as a transcript of a congress hearing now circulating among war 
resisters shows, Unocal failed to get the message. In February 1998, John 
Maresca, its head of international relations, told representatives that 
the growth in demand for energy in Asia and sanctions against Iran 
determined that Afghanistan remained "the only other possible route" for 
Caspian oil. The company, once the Afghan government was recognised by 
foreign diplomats and banks, still hoped to build a 1,000-mile pipeline, 
which would carry a million barrels a day. Only in December 1998, four 
months after the embassy bombings in east Africa, did Unocal drop its 

But Afghanistan's strategic importance has not changed. In September, a 
few days before the attack on New York, the US energy information 
administration reported that "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". Given that the US government is 
dominated by former oil industry executives, we would be foolish to 
suppose that such plans no longer figure in its strategic thinking. As the
researcher Keith Fisher has pointed out, the possible economic outcomes of 
the war in Afghanistan mirror the possible economic outcomes of the war in
the Balkans, where the development of "Corridor 8", an economic zone built 
around a pipeline carrying oil and gas from the Caspian to Europe, is a 
critical allied concern.

American foreign policy is governed by the doctrine of "full-spectrum 
dominance", which means that the US should control military, economic and 
political development worldwide. China has responded by seeking to expand 
its interests in central Asia. The defence white paper Beijing published 
last year argued that "China's fundamental interests lie in ... the 
establishment and maintenance of a new regional security order". In June, 
China and Russia pulled four central Asian republics into a "Shanghai 
cooperation organisation". Its purpose, according to Jiang Zemin, is to
"foster world multi-polarisation", by which he means contesting US 
full-spectrum dominance.

If the US succeeds in overthrowing the Taliban and replacing them with a 
stable and grateful pro-western government and if the US then binds the 
economies of central Asia to that of its ally Pakistan, it will have 
crushed not only terrorism, but also the growing ambitions of both Russia 
and China. Afghanistan, as ever, is the key to the western domination of 

We have argued on these pages about whether terrorism is likely to be 
deterred or encouraged by the invasion of Afghanistan, or whether the 
plight of the starving there will be relieved or exacerbated by attempts 
to destroy the Taliban. But neither of these considerations describes the 
full scope and purpose of this war. As John Flynn wrote in 1944: "The 
enemy aggressor is always pursuing a course of larceny, murder, rapine and
barbarism. We are always moving forward with high mission, a destiny 
imposed by the Deity to regenerate our victims while incidentally 
capturing their markets, to civilise savage and senile and paranoid 
peoples while blundering accidentally into their oil wells." I believe 
that the US government is genuine in its attempt to stamp out terrorism by
military force in Afghanistan, however misguided that may be. But we would 
be naive to believe that this is all it is doing.