Afghanistan: The Oil Behind the War

Revolutionary Worker #1125, November 4, 2001, posted at

"U.S. policy was to promote the rapid development of Caspian energy... We did so specifically to promote the independence of these oil-rich countries, to in essence break Russia's monopoly control over the transportation of oil from the region, and frankly, to promote Western energy security through diversification of supply."

Sheila Heslin, energy expert, at the
White House National Security Council,
Senate Testimony 1997

"The U.S. strategy toward Russia is aimed at weakening its international position and ousting it from strategically important regions of the world, above all, the Caspian region: the Transcaucasus and Central Asia."

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, 1999

"The circumstances in the world have shifted. In a year or two, or three, we'll see considerably different arrangement in the globe than existed prior to September 11 because the event is of that magnitude."

Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense,
Washington Times, Oct. 24

A decade ago, many republics of the former Soviet Union declared their independence across a sweeping arc of the Eurasian landmass--tearing the whole southern half of the Soviet Union from Russia. This region contains many of the world's largest and most undeveloped sources of energy--vast oil and gas fields starting at the oil city of Baku on the Caspian Sea and stretching eastward through the five countries known as the Central Asian Republics (CARs)--Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Control of oil means control of those who need that oil. It is a lifeblood of modern empire.

The United States ruling class considers these countries from Turkey to China as key "prizes" to be snatched up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Russia--struggling, bankrupt and weakened through the 1990s--control of these energy-rich countries is essential for any hopes of re-emerging as a world-scale superpower.

Whoever controls the Caspian region has a counterweight to the Persian Gulf--a way to strengthen control over all oil-producing states by hooking up a new energy source to the world market.

The Caspian region's energy fields are landlocked--far from the oceans. Exploiting the people and resources of the Caspian region takes huge pipelines traveling hundreds of miles over mountains and deserts. Whoever controls the pipelines controls the oil. And so there has been an intense fight over who will build these new pipelines and where they will go.

If the pipelines go north through Russia to Europe, Russia will reestablish control over the Caspian region and the European imperialists will have a source of energy that the U.S. does not control.

If a major pipe goes west, from Baku in Azerbaijan, across Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan--then the U.S. expects to have control over that oil and everyone who needs that oil.

If the pipes go south through Iran to its refineries and harbors, then the U.S. containment of Iran is broken. And, in that case, the Caucasus region becomes an inland extension of the Persian Gulf--not a separate competitive region.

And, if a U.S.-built pipeline goes south through Afghanistan to Pakistan, Russia loses control in the CARs, and the U.S. gains power over those who use it--especially Pakistan and India.

Throughout the 19th century, the expanding Russian and British empires fought over control of Afghanistan and Central Asia--in a colonial contest for power that the British called the "Great Game." Today, oil has become the focus of the "New Great Game" for the Caspian region.

Western capitalists have poured billions of dollars into exploration, infrastructure, massive bribes, and military build-ups. And yet, after ten years, almost no Caspian oil or gas is reaching the world market. Oil pipelines are fragile, vulnerable and extremely expensive. No capitalist wants to build a multi-billion-dollar pipeline unless they are sure that local governments can protect it.

This brings us to Afghanistan--and to the intense new U.S. war on Afghanistan.

Oil was not the trigger that started this war. The events of September 11 were. But the U.S. imperialists have also seized on these events to pursue goals of dominating the oil wealth of this region.

The main Caspian oilfields are in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. And the main U.S. plan for the region has been the Baku-to-Ceyhan pipeline. Afghanistan, which has no oil of its own, lies far away below the southern rim of Central Asia. But stability in Afghanistan is important to the U.S. pipeline plans, and, now, after September 11, Afghanistan has been thrust center stage in this struggle for Caspian oil.

In the "war infomercial" we all get on TV, the current U.S. attack on Afghanistan is described as a war to stamp out terrorism and protect the American people. Amidst the flag waving, there is no discussion of oil or of rivalry with Russia and other imperialists. But, in fact, oil politics and imperialist interests are woven into all the moves and alliances that the U.S. is now making.

Central Asia: From Days of Revolution to Al Haig's Pipeline Dreams

"We have no idea now who will buy our gas and how they will pay for it."

Avde Kuliyev, foreign minister of
Turkmenistan, December 1991

The 1917 communist revolution, centered in the industrial cities of European Russia, stirred radical new hopes in the internal Asian colonies of the Tsar's empire. In June 1921, women delegates from Central Asia dramatically threw off their veils at the 2nd Women's Conference of the new Communist International. Then, on International Women's Day in 1927, 100,000 women stood together in Bukhara in the newly founded Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. They tore off their veils, dipped them in wax, and burned them. Intense confrontations with feudal patriarchs followed, and hundreds of women were lynched for refusing to go back under cover. But by 1930, after years of underground organizing and complex struggle led by the Communist Party, there were no veiled women in Bukhara.

Thirty years later, in the mid-1950s, Nikita Khrushchev's capitalist counter-revolution within the Soviet government and party overthrew the socialist revolution. The Central Asian Republics were treated as internal colonies. The rulers of these CARs remained officially "communists," but in reality they served as the local representatives of the new Soviet state capitalism--charged with carrying out the exploitation of labor and mineral wealth.

The collapse of the Soviet Union by 1991 was not a big change in these societies. Almost everywhere, the same Soviet-era state capitalists ruled the newly independent CARs and Caucasus republics, using the same means, the same state structures, the same police. The main difference was that they were looking for new masters. They took Turkey as their new "model"--a secular, repressive Third World state with close military ties to NATO and an open door to Western exploitation.

Turkmenistan is a good example. This land of deserts and mountains, the size of California, borders the Caspian Sea (to the west), with Iran and Afghanistan to the south. It is very sparsely populated--by 4 million Turkic peoples who historically lived as nomads. Its government was headed by President Saparmurad Niyazov, who had been the General Secretary of the Communist Party there before independence.

Turkmenistan is believed to have 159 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under its soil (the fourth largest reserves in the world). It has 1.5 billion barrels of proven oil--but may have as much as 32 billion barrels. All its old pipelines run north, to Russia and other former Soviet countries. But after 1991 there was no profit to be made there. These countries were all bankrupted after the Cold War and could not pay their gas bills. Russia is itself one of the world's greatest natural gas producers, and its gas corporation had no interest in shipping Turkmeni gas to the world market.

The Turkmenistan President Niyazov hooked up with the U.S. and openly proclaimed neocolonialist dreams of setting up the world's "new Kuwait." By 1993, Niyazov was being escorted to ruling class conferences in Washington, DC by Gen. Alexander Haig, former head of Reagan's National Security Council.

The plan that emerged involved oil and gas pipelines running south from Turkmenistan to the sea. The U.S. vetoed any Iranian route and insisted the pipes run over Afghanistan--to Pakistan.

But after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, no force had been able to form a national government and Afghanistan remained gripped by civil war between various reactionary forces.

In 1994, the fundamentalist Islamist movement called Taliban emerged among the Pashtun people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. With the backing of the Pakistani secret police, ISI, Taliban made a bid to take over Afghanistan.

By November, as the Taliban was taking its first city, Kandahar, the Argentinean oil company Bridas set up a "working group" with the Turkmeni government to plan a gas pipeline--over 800 miles through the Afghan oasis at Herat. Bridas opened secret negotiations with the Taliban and a wide array of local feudal warlords. The Pakistani government officially joined the project four months later.

A year later, a major U.S. oil company Unocal came onboard to provide capital and expertise. Unocal quickly shoved Bridas out of the way and made their own deal directly with Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Unocal met with Turkmeni officials in Houston in April 1995. The Clinton administration gave its support.

Asif Zardari, the husband of Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto, told the journalist Ahmed Rashid at the time, "This pipeline will be Pakistan's gateway to Central Asia." Pakistan's ruling class hoped to be the point-of-entry for large amounts of gas and oil--including for Japan and South Korea, who are eager to diversify their source of oil. The gas pipe was expected to pass through to India. This would give Pakistan major leverage over India, its longtime South Asian enemy, and draw both of those countries much farther into U.S.-dominated economic networks.

It is often said these days that "the problem in Afghanistan is that the U.S. just left after 1989." But the U.S. never left Afghanistan alone. The U.S. remained officially neutral in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s--but it continued to operate (as it had all during the 1980s) through its allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and through U.S. oil companies. And they, in turn, were supporting the Taliban.

In October 1995, Niyazov signed an agreement with Unocal and its partner, the Saudi-owned Delta Oil Company, to build the gas pipeline though Afghanistan. Henry Kissinger, the guru of imperialist geo-politics, attended the signing. He was officially working as a "consultant" for Unocal--but everyone saw his presence as the blessing of the U.S. ruling class. Kissinger quipped that this Afghan pipeline deal was a "triumph of hope over experience."

The Tactic of "Permanent Smoldering"

"Certainly the Taliban appear to serve the U.S. policy of isolating Iran by creating a firmly Sunni buffer on Iran's border and potentially providing security for trade routes and pipelines that would break Iran's monopoly on Central Asia's southern trade routes."

Reuters new agency, Oct. 1, 1996

"The outside interference in Afghanistan is now all related to the battle for oil and gas pipelines. The fear is that these companies and regional powers are just renting the Taliban for their own purposes."

Yasushi Akashi,
UN Under Secretary General,
Jan. 22, 1997

"It's uncertain when this project will start. It depends on peace in Afghanistan and a government we can work with. That may be the end of this year, next year, or three years from now, or this may be a dry hole if the fighting continues."

Unocal Vice President Marty Miller,
June 5, 1997

It is now 2001, and there is no pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.

There are several reasons, including a drop in world oil prices. But the Unocal plan fell apart mainly because the Taliban did not win the Afghan civil war. The World Bank, for example, pulled out, saying it would not finance the Unocal pipeline until there was a unified government in Afghanistan.

The Taliban is rooted in Afghanistan's southern nationality, the Pashtuns, and promoted a brutal, intolerant fusion of Islam and Pashtun feudal traditions. Many people in southern Afghanistan hoped the Taliban would end the murder, rape and theft by competing warlords. But meanwhile, the Taliban faced armed opposition among the non-Pashtun peoples, led by the Northern Alliance. This Northern Alliance had support outside Afghanistan--from Russia and Iran. And this support was no accident: both Iran and Russia would gain if continuing war sabotaged plans for the southern pipeline.

In the struggle over Caspian oil, various powers disrupt rival pipelines by supporting what the Russian defense minister called "the permanent smoldering of manageable armed conflict." No monopoly capitalist is about to spend billions building a vulnerable overland pipeline through an area that is "permanently smoldering"--where it would be a constant target of sabotage.

There are several of these "permanent smolderings" in the Caspian region. At the far northwest edge of this region, the rebellion in Chechnya has prevented the Russian imperialists from building the pipeline they want connecting Baku with Russia through Groznyy. The Russian ruling class responded with a brutal war of counterinsurgency, killing thousands--while accusing the U.S., Pakistan and the Saudis of secretly supporting the rebellion.

The Search for "Strategic Anchors"

Both the U.S. and the Russians have made major, direct strategic and military moves in the Caspian region, including the CARs, to influence what pipelines get built.

When a pro-Russian government in energy-poor Tajikistan faced an Islamic fundamentalist uprising, the Russian government moved 25,000 Russian troops in and re-annexed the country. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin, then President of Russia announced that the Tajik-Afghan border was now "in effect Russia's border."

But Russia has been in economic crisis, with little capital or market to offer the newly independent Central Asian ruling classes. While Russia has the historic ties there, it is the U.S. which has the initiative.

The U.S. has operated in Central Asia by developing allied states as "strategic anchors." Its main anchor has been Turkey, the Muslim NATO member at the far western edge of the region. The people of oil-rich Azerbaijan and much of Central Asia are Turkic people--who share language and culture with Turkey. Since 1991, Turkey has gone on a puffed-up "pan-Turkic" campaign--dreaming of its own new empire, but really serving an expanding U.S. empire. Turkish culture and businessmen have flooded the region. In Azerbaijan, schools have officially switched away from the Russian alphabet to the one used in Turkey--so a whole generation is emerging that can't read any of the books published over five years ago.

In the final analysis it takes guns to pry the Caspian oil from rivals.

The U.S. and Turkey developed an anti-Russian military alliance in the Caspian--drawing Azerbaijan and Georgia into close cooperation with NATO. Azeri military officers are now trained in Turkey and Azeri soldiers served within a Turkish battalion during the Balkan war.

Then on October 12, the whole world learned that the U.S. had taken over the major Uzbekistan military base at Khanabad--100 miles from the Afghan border, and moved in at least a thousand U.S. mountain troops. The U.S. and Uzbek governments announced their alliance included U.S. guarantees of protecting the government of President Islam Karimov.

The arrival of U.S. troops directly in the heart of Central Asia is a quantum leap in its global moves. It is presented as a sudden result of the new "U.S. war on terrorism." What remains largely unknown is that the U.S. had been developing this Uzbek military alliance long before September 11--not to "fight terrorism" but to take over Central Asian oil and gas.

Green Beret Treks to the Uzbeks

"There were the makings of two coalitions emerging in the region. The U.S. lining up alongside Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan and encouraging its allies--Israel, Turkey and Pakistan--to invest there, while Russia retained its grip on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan."

Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam,
Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia

Uzbekistan is at the very center of Central Asia. It has some oil and natural gas reserves, but to the U.S. power structure its main importance comes from its size and location. With 22 million people, fully half of the region's population, and the area's richest agricultural region in the Ferghana valley, Uzbekistan sits strategically on the northern Afghan border between energy-rich Turkmenistan and the Soviet troops of Tajikistan.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. imperialists picked Uzbekistan to be their eastern "anchor." In the words of Foreign Affairs magazine (Jan/Feb 1996), Uzbekistan was supposed to be the "Central Asian stabilizer" to "create a healthy balance [against Russian moves] that would best serve the interests of regional security, Europe and NATO."

Recently, the New York Times revealed (Oct. 25): "In 1999, teams of Green Berets arrived at former Soviet garrisons outside the capital here. The mission was straightforward: to train the army of a former foe, in part to prepare its inexperienced conscripts for skirmishes with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan... The long-term goal was more ambitious. The Green Berets were one element of an accelerating security arrangement in which the two nations were laying the groundwork for more extensive military cooperation.... As Green Berets were familiarizing themselves with their new Central Asian partners, officials from the United States Central Command in Florida and the American Embassy in Tashkent were meeting with Uzbek defense officials, coordinating military programs. Soon, under a military education program that began here in 1995, more Uzbek officers were admitted to military schools in the United States.... Some American troops were involved in exercises in Uzbekistan as long ago as August 1996, according to the Department of Defense, although Uzbek officials say those exercises did not involve Special Forces. Rather, military officials said that under Gen. Anthony C. Zinni of the Marine Corps, the regional commander who supervised the military presence in the region until retiring last year, engagement efforts and Special Forces missions took much of their current shape in 1999. They have continued under the current commander, Gen. Tommy R. Franks of the Army. Several Green Beret teams have passed through the nation this year, for instance, and during the summer a Navy SEAL team also trained here."

During the 50th anniversary conference of NATO, in April 1999, an anti-Russian alliance, GUUAM, was formed out of former southern Soviet republics--Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

Ahmed Rashid describes an angry Russian diplomat saying in 1997, "We don't accept NATO in our backyard. The U.S. must recognize that Central Asia will remain within the 'near abroad'--Russia's sphere of influence."

There is much speculation now about why Russian President Putin seems to have agreed to U.S. occupation of southern Uzbekistan. Gleb Pavlovsky, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, said that Russia's government decided it "would rather have the U.S. in Uzbekistan than the Taliban in Tatarstan." (Tatarstan is a Russian region a few hundred miles from Moscow.) It is widely reported that the U.S. secretly agreed to allow the Russian army to stomp out the "permanent smoldering" in Chechnya--while the U.S. stomps out the "smoldering" Islamist forces operating from Afghanistan.

In any case, this U.S.-Uzbek military alliance was in the works for years before September 11--and there has been little the Russian government could do about it.

Tipping the Balance Against the Taliban

The U.S. ties to Uzbekistan are a direct sign of their deepening hostility to the Taliban--and to the forces of fundamentalist Islamism generally in central Asia.

Starting with President Carter in the late '70s, and expanding greatly under President Reagan in the 1980s, the CIA sought out, funded, trained and armed fundamentalist Islamic forces in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Their goal was to unleash an anti-Russian "jihad" and spread it from Afghanistan to Central Asia.

But when the Soviet Union fell apart, the governments that emerged in the Caspian region were not Islamic fundamentalists. They were basically the same governments which had been in power when they were part of the Soviet Union. The revisionists of several key former-Soviet republics went from pro-Russian state capitalists to pro-Western state capitalists. And the U.S. oil companies and military operatives were deepening ties to these existing governments.

Meanwhile, the Taliban sponsored Islamist movements in Central Asia, helping armed forces that were threatening new U.S. allies like Uzbekistan's secular President Islam Karimov. Karimov's army has been fighting his internal Islamist opposition, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)--whose forces reportedly find refuge under the protection of the Taliban and training from al-Qaida.

In many ways, 1996 marked a turning point for the U.S. imperialists. It became clear that the Taliban might not win the war and stabilize Afghanistan for larger U.S. imperialist plans. By 1996, the U.S. was developing stable new military and political ties with several formerly revisionist states in Central Asia--who were often facing internal Islamist challenges. And the U.S. was coming to see the fundamentalist Taliban and the permanent civil war in Afghanistan as destabilizing to its interests throughout much of Central and Southern Asia. And at the same time, the Taliban took its stand by welcoming the increasingly anti-American Saudi fundamentalist Osama bin Laden back into Afghanistan--and protecting him after he declared "jihad" on the U.S.

Also, after 1996, it became increasingly clear that Caspian oil was being bottled up by continuing instability of the post-Soviet governments. In 1996 only 140,000 barrels-a-day of Caspian oil were being exported outside the former Soviet republics, and Caspian oil was still less than 4 percent of total world oil production. The only pipeline that was successfully completed in the 1990s was the one over Russian soil, from the Tenghiz oilfields in Kazakhstan to the Russian port of Novorossiysk.

Only a small part of the U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan pipe has been built--opening a stretch from Baku to the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa in 1998. An ongoing civil war in Georgia has put even those operations in danger. With no outlet to the world market, Turkmenistan's natural gas production dropped from 2,000 billion cubic feet in 1992 to 466 billion in 1998.

The U.S. decided that the Taliban (and its al-Qaida allies) were inflaming "permanent smolderings" in parts of the world that the U.S. wants to pacify--and that made them U.S. targets, even before the events of September 11.

Maoists have a saying, "It's not easy being a running dog." And that applies well to the experience of the reactionary, backward-looking Islamist movement. It was nurtured as "freedom fighters" by the U.S. all through the 1980s, and now finds its most prominent leaders on the empire's "Most Wanted" lists.

Meanwhile, the former Soviet governments headed by Karimov and Niyazov are welcomed into the U.S. imperialist networks--with military aid and promises of investment capital.

Ten years ago, the U.S. started planning to run oil and gas pipelines through the Afghan town of Herat. This month, the U.S. bombers attacked that same desert town from the air--reportedly killing a hundred people in a hospital there.

There is a connection between these two events.

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