War in a Passive Voice

The bombing has begun. Kabul is being bombed. So say the television anchors and the newspapers – all in passive voice, all with an air of inevitability.

I can hear whispers from my neighbors: finally, it is here, and I hope it goes away soon. We don’t want to be burdened by it, for it may force us to make moral choices that are far too uncomfortable. Better to pretend that it is has not happened, or else that its inevitability makes it inconsequential.

There is more activity when a storm is on the horizon, when most folk rush to the supermarket to buy provisions and to fill their cars with gas.

Tons of firepower drop from Herat to Jalalabad – cars line up from Kabul to Peshawar through the Khyber Pass, like a row of fireflies, unsure if the border will be open or closed. During the entire Eighteenth Century, one and a half million people crossed the ocean from England to the Americas. In three weeks, about this number of Afghans have made their way to a neighboring country, eager to get out before the bombardment inevitably begins. That they are in cars tells us something about their class position. Middle class and elite Afghans left the country in waves, first the late 1970s to escape the radical egalitarianism of the Communist regime, then in the 1980s to escape the ravages of the mujahidin assault on the cities, again in the 1990s to escape the radical Islamism of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and now to escape the rowdy guns of the US-UK armies.

Good people in cities across the country have walked out of classes, gathered in small groups beside religious buildings, and then, in the early evening, amassed for small, but respectable vigils and rallies against the war. The media tends to ignore these events, or else to ridicule our sentiments as idealistic or as a throwback to the ’60s.

Meanwhile the powers that be will pretend that this war is about 9/11 and try to shut down debate, on the bodies of the dead, and prevent any discussion of other war aims, of the continent of sleaze. There will be no mention of a Berlin, Germany Track 2 diplomatic meeting in July 2001 at which the US State Department’s people revealed to their allies and others the war plans in case the US was to go after the Taliban (The Guardian, 22 September 2001). That same playbook is now operational as bombardments are followed by rations, as the aerial campaign moves from jets to helicopters, and then finally to flexible ground operations. That the US trained Uzbek fighters in the mid-west months ago is buried in the back pages of the European press. On 13 December 1995, the US and Uzbekistan signed an agreement for the US to train Uzbek troops and to allow the US access to Central Asian terrain for trainings. In 1996, the US-Uzbek forces conducted the Balance-Ultra96 training in the Ferganskya Valley, a perfect place to train for Afghan warfare. This was followed by other Balance-Ultra trainings, to allow US troops to be prepared for the terrain and to create close ties with the Uzbek army.

Meanwhile ground troops are in Pakistan, and all things look bleak, except on the continent of sleaze.

On the continent of sleaze, all buildings have revolving doors. Diplomats, gunrunners, intelligence chiefs and others sup at the state’s table and then, as if by their pure merits, they join the high table with corporate chieftains, currency shifters, assorted brigands and others. On the continent of sleaze the pipelines to the Taliban pretend to be distinguished professors and royal dignitaries.

Robert Oakley began his State Department career in 1957 at the United Nations, and ends it at the National Defense University and at Unocal.

Prince Turki al-Faysal Saud didn’t have to use the entrance because he was always in the big house. Destined by his birth into the British-installed Saud dynasty in Arabia, Prince Turki, like Prince Sultan, drew deep into his various talents to emerge as head of intelligence for the kingdom, and, on the side, agent for various transnational enterprises, such as the Argentinean firm Bridas.

Two men of esteem, in the bogs on the continent of sleaze.

Oakley’s real glory begins when the Reagan administration raised him to the post of Director of the State Department Office of Combating Terrorism in September 1984. Details of Oakley’s work there are not altogether clear, but cables released through the Freedom of Information Act show us that he was involved in trying to paint Libya in as bad a light as possible regardless of the evidence, and, importantly, he was a point-man in the Iran-Contra scandal. Chapter 18 in Volume 1 of the Lawrence Walsh authored Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran Contra Matters (released on 4 August 1993) notes one incident of Oakley’s involvement: In November 1985, Oliver North had a hard time with clearances for the Israeli effort to ship US-made HAWK missiles to Iran. Retired Air Force Major General Richard Secord was unable to get North the clearances to act, so North went to Oakley, then director of counter-terrorism. North said that he was “completely up front” with Oakley that the cargo for the plane was weapons and the transit was according to the October 1984 Boland Amendment passed by Congress (to cut off aid to the Contras of Nicaragua). According to Oakley’s testimony to the FBI (302, 11/14/91) “North said he needed to get a plane into the first European country in order to ship arms to Iran.” Oakley agreed with North and contacted CIA European chief Duane “Dewey” Clarridge. Clarridge was informed that the State Department was “aware of the operation and that Clarridge should contact the foreign minister of the first European country for assistance.”

In 1987 Clarridge was formally reprimanded for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, and he was forced out of the CIA. North who was convicted in 1989, but then pardoned due to his immunity at the hearings, went on for a quixotic run to become the Senator from Virginia in 1994. He is now another madcap right-wing talk show host.

Robert Oakley, currently Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, went from strength to strength. He was named as Ambassador to Pakistan in August 1988 and served as a point man in the mujahidin jihad against the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the Soviet army therein. In fact in the lead-up to a brutal two month long battle in November 1988 (in which five thousand died), Oakley sat with senior Pakistani military officials to plan the battle, as reported by the New York Times, “Pakistanis Report Ordering Attacks by Afghan Rebels,” 23 April 1989). This was an education in the front-lines: from illegal gun running to Iran, he moved to the promotion of jihad in Pakistan, where, according to Kurt Kohbeck’s Holy War, Unholy Victory: Eyewitness to the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan (1993), Oakley aided the hard line Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and, in addition, cultivated links with those who would become the Taliban.

Perhaps most crucially, the Pakistani post allowed Oakley to work with Prince Turki al-Faysal Saud, head of the Saudi Arabian intelligence from 1977 to 1 September 2001 and point man for his government in the mujahidin jihad (indeed he knew Osama bin Laden then, since both these men of the Saudi elite had come to Afghanistan for what they considered to be a holy war). Prince Turki Faysal, son of the late monarch, is a very influential player in the Saudi ruling elite and a major shaper of policy. Like Oakley, Turki Faysal’s major links appeared to have been with the more hard-core jihadis, people such as the Taliban and the Hikmaytar crew. But, after the war, in their new line of work, Oakley and Turki Faysal sit on different sides of the corporate table.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the vast oil and natural gas treasures of Central Asia came back into the focus of the vast transnational energy monopolies. The Gulf War of 1991 was about the problem of oil consumption by the US population (Energy Secretary James Watkins’ February 1991 letter made this plain: “as events in the Persian Gulf have demonstrated so aptly, we must reduce our dependence on imported oil from unstable regions. This will require both reducing our overall dependence on oil, particularly in the transportation sector, and increasing domestic production in an environmentally sound manner.” The game for the 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was already on by then). But the Afghan War of 2001 is about something else; indeed it is not about US domestic consumption. It appears that the Afghan War is about the ability of US-based transnational corporate power, about its ability to leverage access to deals (here with the Afghans) to penetrate markets (the natural gas and oil crisis of South Asia). The Central Asian oil and natural gas fields are vast (with Kazakhstan now being the fifth largest oil reserve in the world).

Two weeks after 9/11, Chevron’s subsidiary Tengizchevroil finished an oil pipeline from Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan to the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. This pipeline will feed western Europe with oil from what might end up as the fifth largest oil state in the world (and, crucially, outside OPEC’s ambit). The Tengiz pipeline is only one of many that sully the geopolitics of the region. Another one, pressing for the Afghan problem, is the 890-mile pipeline from Dauletabad gas fields in eastern Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan. This multi-billion dollar project has two multinationals on the warpath, Unocal from the US, and Bridas from Argentina. Both hired Saudis and Americans to negotiate with the Taliban, who have continuously played one off against the other to increase their own percentage of the margins. Unocal, recently denied Myanmar’s oil market, is eager for the project and a US-friendly regime in Afghanistan may help it clinch the deal. Zahir Shah, former King of Afghanistan, has lived in Rome since 1973 as a pensioner of a gulf state whose name he will not reveal; perhaps the investment made in him by the unnamed state will eventually come to fruition if he comes to power alongside the notorious Northern Alliance (whose terror in Kabul in the mid-1990s and assassination of Najibulla offer a harbinger of what is to come).

Just as no-one is interested in the Uzbek army regulars who trained in the mid-west, no-one seems to care about Unocal’s project to train Afghan workers and teachers at the University of Nebraska (in November 1997, Unocal paid close to a million dollars for the Afghan Studies Center at the University to train over four hundred Afghans in various pipeline construction skills). Or, finally, no one seems interested in the US tours organized by Unocal for the Taliban (and facilitated by Pakistan’s ISI who held up the visas of the Taliban tour which was to have gone, courtesy of Bridas, to Argentina).

And few of us care that distinguished professors like Oakley joined with the notorious Henry Kissinger, and the Saudi Delta Oil Company (whose boss, Badr al Aiban, has the ear of King Faud) to lobby the Taliban on behalf of Unocal, just as Prince Turki Faysal was Bridas’ point man with the Taliban. When the Taliban took power in 1996, the head of Unocal was overjoyed, and he speculated that a stable central government may reduce the cost of the pipeline by half; indeed, Marty Miller of Unocal tried to convince the factions that pipeline was a conflict resolution process. When this did not work, some speculated that Unocal gave covert support to the Taliban to push what is today the Northern Alliance away from the area where the pipeline is projected to run (Ahmed Rashid, “Pipe Dreams,” The Herald, Pakistan, October 1997, p. 50).

We’re so sure that Al-Queda’s people killed the Northern Alliance’s Ahmed Shah Masood, but consider that with the pipeline on the horizon, Masood had no love for Unocal. In 1997, Masood hoped that “the US would not be duped by Pakistan and that US plans to build a pipeline with Unocal were unhelpful.” With that kind of attitude, who knows who killed Masood?

When Clinton bombed Afghanistan on 20 August 1998, the Unocal deal ended. But hope emerged on 29 April 1999 when the energy ministers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan met to pledge their commitment to the tripartite gas pipeline project. It is around this time that King Zahir Shah comes under pressure to meet with the Northern Alliance and start talking about a Loya Jigra, an elder’s council. The unnamed Gulf state that pensioned the poor old man for these three decades perhaps called in its debt. He was put on a fuel’s errand.

Hastily, after 9/11, Unocal put the following note on their website: “Unocal has received inquires about a previously proposed pipeline that, if built, would have crossed a part of Afghanistan. We withdrew from that project in 1998, and do not have, nor plan to have, any projects in that country. We do not support the Taliban in any way whatsoever.”

Under pressure from 9/11, this has to be the official position. But we should not forget the testimony of John Maresca, International head of Unocal, on 12 February 1998. Certainly this is before the US bombed Afghanistan in August, but it allows us access to the way Unocal has framed the importance of Afghanistan. Here is Maresca:

“The Caspian region contains tremendous untapped hydrocarbon reserves, much of them located in the Caspian Sea basin itself. Proven natural gas reserves within Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan equal more than 236 trillion cubic feet. The region’s total oil reserves may reach more than 60 billion barrels of oil — enough to service Europe’s oil needs for 11 years. Some estimates are as high as 200 billion barrels. In 1995, the region was producing only 870,000 barrels per day (44 million tons per year [Mt/y]). By 2010, Western companies could increase production to about 4.5 million barrels a day (Mb/d) — an increase of more than 500 percent in only 15 years. If this occurs, the region would represent about five percent of the world’s total oil production, and almost 20 percent of oil produced among non-OPEC countries. One major problem has yet to be resolved: how to get the region’s vast energy resources to the markets where they are needed. There are few, if any, other areas of the world where there can be such a dramatic increase in the supply of oil and gas to the world market. The solution seems simple: build a “new” Silk Road. Implementing this solution, however, is far from simple. The risks are high, but so are the rewards.”

Maresca rejects Iran as the transit terrain for the pipeline and settles on Afghanistan:

“The only other possible route option is across Afghanistan, which has its own unique challenges. The country has been involved in bitter warfare for almost two decades. The territory across which the pipeline would extend is controlled by the Taliban, an Islamic movement that is not recognized as a government by most other nations. From the outset, we have made it clear that construction of our proposed pipeline cannot begin until a recognized government is in place that has the confidence of governments, lenders and our company. In spite of this, a route through Afghanistan appears to be the best option with the fewest technical obstacles. It is the shortest route to the sea and has relatively favorable terrain for a pipeline. The route through Afghanistan is the one that would bring Central Asian oil closest to Asian markets and thus would be the cheapest in terms of transporting the oil.”

On the continent of sleaze, the military men and the corporate men spill blood to put a “recognized government in place that has the confidence of governments, lenders and our company.” Democracy is irrelevant. Distinguished professors and intelligence heads gather to help feed our addiction to oil. As the bombs fall in passive voice, the active voices of corporate greed and military macho have begun to ring in my ears. The bombs are not retaliation for 9/11; they are a 911 for the continuation of capitalist imperialism against the active will of most of us on the planet. CP

Vijay Prashad is and Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).