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Afghanistan, War and Oil

by George Monbiot

“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 Afghanistan.

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 plans.

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 Asia.

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.

George Monbiot is a columnist for The Guardian. Visit his webpage at

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