The Great Game: Oil and Afghanistan
Ahmed Rashid has covered the war in Afghanistan for more than 20 years. He is the author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press). He is the Central Asia correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Multinational Monitor: Why is Afghanistan important to the development of Caspian oil resources?
Ahmed Rashid: Afghanistan is by far the shortest route to the Gulf from the gas resources of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—from Northern Central Asia and Western Central Asia. It is far shorter than the routes through Iran, the Caucuses or China. Any pipeline would pass through only two countries, whereas at present the pipeline is passing through seven or eight countries. So if Afghanistan was a stable country with a coherent central government, it would be the best bet.
MM: You suggest in your book that Unocal was supportive of the Taliban, but soured on them. What has been the Unocal-Taliban relationship over the years?
Rashid: Both the competing oil companies—Bridas (the Argentinean multinational) and Unocal—had very close relations with the Taliban. They took their leaders on junkets to their home bases, they gave them substantial help in the form of office equipment, and they gave medical treatment to many of their leaders. Unocal set up a training school for the Taliban in Kandahar. So there was a very close relationship. Even though the Taliban was very successfully playing both of these oil companies against one another, they never actually signed a deal with either one. They set up a modern version of bazaar politics where you play off one bidder against another.
I think the relationship soured after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. Two or three things happened. First, Osama bin Laden arrived and immediately linked up with the Taliban. So that was a concern to the Americans. The second issue was a strong campaign waged by rights activists in America, particularly the Feminist Majority led by Eleanor Smeal and Mavis Leno, which lobbied Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright very fiercely to stop the Unocal project and come out against the Taliban's repression of women. The Clinton administration was very sensitive to domestic political opinion on this issue.
MM: You suggest in your book that before that happened, the Clinton administration viewed the Taliban's rise favorably. Why was that and what support if any, did the U.S. lend the Taliban during their ascendancy?
Rashid: The U.S. had a number of reasons to support the Taliban. One was that the Taliban was vehemently anti-Iran and anti-Shia, and this was the time of the dual containment policy when the U.S. was trying to hold in Iran and Iraq. And the Taliban fitted the bill very well. Secondly, the Taliban was being supported by two U.S. allies in the region –– Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The third reason is that the U.S. wanted to build this pipeline. There was a lot of support from the Pentagon and the State Department for the Unocal effort.
MM: Do any of the international oil companies have ongoing relationships with the Northern Alliance, the Taliban or any factions in Afghanistan?
Rashid: No, I don't think so. After the Unocal experience, these oil companies have stayed clear. It's far too risky. The Unocal experience was very bitter. It fueled a lot of anti-oil company feeling in the U.S. and elsewhere. Secondly, I think the presence of bin Laden has made it far too risky for oil companies to stake their claim anywhere in the vicinity. I'm sure they're keeping it on the back burner, but I don't think anyone has any ties right now.
MM: How do you think the war in Afghanistan is likely to affect development of the Caspian oil reserves, if at all?
Rashid: Clearly Azerbaijan has given military bases to the U.S., as has Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The first question that people are asking in Central Asia is if this U.S. presence is permanent. And how is that going to be dealt with vis-a-vis Russia? There's already a fear that a secret treaty has been signed between Uzbekistan and the U.S. that envisages a permanent U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan. That won't be clarified until after the war is over. There could then be possible ensuing tension with Russia, or with China, which is going to very mistrustful of a U.S. presence so close to its western border.
The other issue is that Caspian oil cannot be developed without a settlement in Afghanistan because the risk of terrorism to a Caspian oil pipeline is enormous. Until bin Laden and Al Qaeda are eliminated and you can secure some stability from the overall threat of terrorism, you won't see a pipeline.
Thirdly, I hope this war in Afghanistan will lead to a U.S. policy of engagement in problem-solving in the region. I'm thinking in particular of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, the Chechen conflict and the Georgian conflict where the U.S. puts its muscle and clout behind mediation and helping Russia and these regional countries in the Caucuses and the Caspian resolve their differences.
I think the experience of Afghanistan should point out to the United States that procrastinating or shelving these very contentious issues can turn into terrorism with very serious consequences for the United States.
© Multinational Monitor November 2001
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