Taliban Oil

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CURWOOD: One of the ironies of the current crisis of terrorism is that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban both enjoyed American support not so very long ago. In the '80s, the U.S. encouraged fighters from across the Arab world to go to Afghanistan and repel the Soviet invasion. Once the Soviets were defeated, this force stayed in Afghanistan and from there began exporting their violent politics.
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has been covering these developments for decades. He's author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," and he joins me from his office in Lahore, Pakistan.
Mr. Rashid, some folks say the United States/Afghanistan policy in the 1990s focused on oil and gas to the exclusion of other key issues. How fair is that analysis?
RASHID: Well, between 1994 and 1997, the U.S. in fact was supporting the Taliban in the sense that it was allowing Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, its two allies in the region, to back the Taliban. And this was because the U.S. and U.S. oil companies were interested in building oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia across Afghanistan, through Pakistan, to the Gulf. And this would be an alternative route to the intense gamesmanship that was going on between the Americans, the Russians, and the Iranians about building new pipeline routes from Central Asia. So, you know, there was the hope at one time, by U.S. policymakers, that the Taliban would provide a kind of security force for these pipelines, because these pipelines were crossing Southern Afghanistan, which is the heartland of Taliban control.
CURWOOD: What U.S. companies were involved in this oil interest?
RASHID: Well, there were several, but the most important was Unocal. Unocal had a plan to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to transport Turkmen gas across southern Afghanistan to Pakistan, and then on to India, and then possibly on to the Gulf. Unocal set up offices in Taliban controlled areas, gave quite a lot of financial help and aid to the Taliban, and U.S. State department officials were very supportive of this process.
There was another oil company, an Argentinean oil company called Bridas, who were also in competition with Unocal, and one of the first acts of the U.S. State Department was, in fact, to convince the Pakistanis and the Turkmens to dump Breedas in favor of Unocal. So there was this intense gamesmanship going on between these two oil companies which was being watched very closely by other U.S. oil companies in central Asia to see if this would work. And really, this kind of fell apart after the Taliban took Kabul and the U.S. media began a kind of intensive depiction of Taliban repression, and also then in '96, of course, you get the return to Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden. So then the U.S. kind of support for its oil companies and the strategy of building pipelines through Afghanistan falls apart.
CURWOOD: How does the American thirst for oil and gas play into the present diplomacy now with Afghanistan?
RASHID: Well, you know, in the last ten years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been what I call a new great game between Russia, the United States, China, Iran, the European companies, for control of the new oil and gas resources that have been discovered in the Caspian Sea and in the Caucuses and Central Asia. Now, this, you know, it's a two-pronged game, basically, between trying to buy up oil fields and gas fields and also, of course, deciding on what routes this energy can be exported. Because Central Asia is totally landlocked, distances are huge, and the U.S. strategy has been essentially to keep, new oil pipelines should not be built through Russia and they should not be built through Iran. And of course Iranian strategy has been to try and persuade the Central Asian and the oil companies to build routes through Iran.
So this game has continued and has unfortunately resulted in probably destabilizing Central Asia and not allowing adequate international pressure to get the Central Asian regimes, who have also become very authoritarian, very repressive, not to get them to carry out economic reforms, democratic reforms. This is creating a major crisis in Central Asia.
We have to see now how much this gamesmanship is going to continue after this war in Afghanistan.
CURWOOD: How does Iran play into this situation now?
RASHID: Iran is a major rival. Iran offers one of the shortest export routes for the Central Asian republics for their oil and gas, because building pipelines across Iran straight to the Gulf, where tankers could pick up oil and gas, is not a long distance. But U.S. sanctions against Iran and the ban on U.S. companies doing business in Iran has prevented U.S. companies from taking advantage of this.
The Europeans, on the other hand, have taken advantage of this. They are in Iran in a very big way. European oil companies are building pipelines and developing the oil and gas resources of Iran. And this is one of the causes of resentment for U.S. oil companies.
CURWOOD: The U.S. depends a lot on oil from the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states that are there. How does that dependence impact the diplomacy and military options now for the United States dealing with the Afghanistan and the terrorism situation?
RASHID: Well, it does impact a lot on the U.S. role in Central Asia. I mean, Central Asia is being seen now by the oil companies as the last virgin territory, if you like, for unexplored oil and gas resources in the world. So U.S. interests sees it as vital to secure some of this oil and gas, not perhaps in the short-term, but in the long term, in case there are problems in the Middle East, in case other sources of supply dry up. What is needed to secure U.S. interests in central Asia, oil interests, is a stable Afghanistan, where terrorists and extremists in Afghanistan don't come into Central Asia and destabilize the regimes.
CURWOOD: What about Saudi Arabia? Is it going to be destabilized by the U.S. presence there in Central Asia?
RASHID: Well, again, I think this depends a lot on the Middle East and the point is the Americans are taking, they're going to take military action in Afghanistan. And at the same time, if there's an eruption in the Palestinian territories against Israel, the Saudis and the Arabs, who are presently supporting the American action in Afghanistan, are going to be under enormous pressure to dump the Americans. This is the real dilemma. This is a moment when I think American pressure on Israel to keep tensions with the Palestinians at a minimum is going to be required. But this should lead to also a long-term strategy of trying to restart the Middle East peace process.
CURWOOD: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. His book is called, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Thank you for joining us.
RASHID: Thank you.
"Taliban - Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" by Ahmed Rashid">