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Central Asian oil and gas: the real reason for the US’s war on Afghanistan

Zafar Bangash

While America has couched its ‘war’ on Afghanistan in the language of morality, more sinister motives are at work: desire to control the Caspian Sea’s oil and gas, as well as the destruction or removal (‘neutralisation’) of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The Caspian Sea region possesses proven reserves of more than 200 billion barrels of oil (second only to Saudi Arabia) and trillions of cubic metres of gas; Pakistan’s nuclear capability is viewed with alarm in the West as well as by Israel and India. American journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker (November 5), revealed that US and Israeli commandos have been conducting joint exercises aimed at “taking out” Pakistan’s nuclear warheads if general Pervez Musharraf is overthrown. Even before the strikes on Afghanistan, observers in Pakistan had said that the US really had its sights on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury.

Amid growing anti-Musharraf feeling because of his acquiescence in the US’s anti-Taliban policy, Washington’s policy-makers are now openly discussing post-Musharraf possibilities. Despite assurances from Islamabad, the Americans have said that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of “fundamentalists”; hence the frantic efforts to take them out. According to the US, any Muslim who challenges or criticises America’s hegemony and arrogance is a “fundamentalist.”

There have also been arrests of several Pakistani nuclear scientists. Dr Sultan Basheeruddin Mahmood, Dr Abdul-Majid and Dr Mirza Yusuf Baig have been arrested and interrogated extensively by the ISI. The first two resigned from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in 1998 in protest against then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s plans to sign the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. Dr Mahmood then established a welfare organisation, Ta’meer-e Millat, whose purpose is to help the Afghans build roads, construct dams for irrigation and electricity generation, and set up and run factories. Details of his organisation’s activities have been published in the Lahore Urdu monthly Baidar (October 2001). Yet so paranoid are the Americans, and so willing is Musharraf to oblige them, that these scientists were arrested and interrogated at length. It does not need much understanding to realise that scientific knowledge alone cannot produce nuclear weapons. It is impossible to assemble even a motor car, much less a nuclear bomb, in the mountains of Afghanistan because of lack of parts, machinery and power, but American paranoia ignores this.

The cigar-chewing oilmen from Texas are salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on the Caspian Sea riches. Before becoming vice president, Dick Cheney was chief executive of Halliburton, a major oil-services company. No wonder he exclaimed in 1998: “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” And George Bush Sr is a consultant to the Carlyle Group, headed by Nick Carlucci, whose brother Frank was defence secretary during the Reagan era. The Carlyle Group, a private Washington equity firm that according to the New York Times has become America’s eleventh largest defence contractor, has close connections with the Bin Ladin family. To the uninitiated this may seem a minor detail, but such connections have a strong bearing on the manner in which US policy is conducted.

The race to reach and control Caspian oil and gas was also behind the emergence of the Taliban, with the US’s knowledge and cooperation, in 1996. Until December 1998, the Americans feted the Taliban. Between 1996 and 1998 an American oil company, Unocal, actively lobbied the US government and congress for accommodation with the Taliban so that a pipeline could be built across Afghanistan to transport Caspian/Central Asian oil and gas. In October 1998, when the Taliban announced that Bridas, an Argentinian company, would build the pipeline, the Americans’ mood changed: the Taliban had to be removed; hence Usama bin Ladin became their latest bogeyman.

The Americans refuse to allow oil to go through Islamic Iran, the most natural and economical route. They are also averse to pipelines going through Russia or Azerbaijan, because that would give Moscow access to a vital energy source and enable the former colonial power to re-emerge as the dominant player in Central Asia. The only route the Americans favour is through Afghanistan, but the Taliban and Usama are in the way. That is one of the real reasons for the military assault to dislodge them. There is also the China route, but in addition to being prohibitively expensive America’s desire to control oil and gas is partly to deny free access to Beijing, the emerging superpower.

China has tripled its gross domestic product (GDP) in the last 20 years, a feat unmatched in history. If it continues to achieve this growth rate, its economy will outstrip the US’s in another 20 years. China’s economic growth, however, is predicated on access to cheap and reliable energy sources, with Central Asia and the Caspian being the most natural choice. So American attempts to control these energy sources assume added significance. Similarly, gas is economical when used closer to its source; unlike oil, gas transportation is expensive. It can be moved via pipelines or in liquefied form: pipelines make it available for use only in land-linked areas; turning it into liquid is again expensive and therefore uneconomical.

As the military campaign in Afghanistan becomes a stalemate, other plans come into play. For instance, the US’s latest deal with Russia means allowing Moscow a free hand in Chechnya while American troops can be stationed in Central Asia, mainly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Much more sinister is the plan that, should the Taliban lose control of Herat in the northwest and Mazar-i Shareef in the north, both America and Russia will establish permanent bases there. An American base in Herat will then threaten Iran as well. It is this prospect that raises legitimate concerns in Tehran.

US foreign policy is governed by the doctrine of “full-spectrum dominance”: the US must control military, economic and political developments everywhere. China has responded by seeking to expand its interests in Central Asia. The defence white paper that 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 the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Its purpose, according to Chinese president Jiang Zemin, is to “foster world multi-polarisation”, ie. challenge the US’s role as the “sole superpower”.

The outcome of the struggle in Afghanistan will determine whether or not the US succeeds in its designs. If the ‘war’ drags on, it is likely that China will begin to supply weapons to the Taliban. Should that happen, the Russians may jump in too, in retaliation for their own defeat in Afghanistan. We may yet see a replay of Vietnam in Afghanistan, but the Americans can only blame themselves if that humiliation repeats itself.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 18

Ramadan 01, 14222001-11-16

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