I’m glad Peter Bergen [“Waltzing With Warlords,” Jan. 1] found things to approve of in my book Kabul in Winter. But I’m dumbfounded that he charges me with “sometimes” displaying “a tendency to see sinister conspiracies where they don’t exist”–because I give a brief account of the influence of US oil interests on our Afghanistan policy. Surely this is old news.
The prospect of US oilmen building a pipeline from the Caspian fields to Pakistan by way of Afghanistan (thus circumventing Iran) was one reason the Clinton Administration tried to do business with the Taliban. Twice in 1997 Taliban leaders traveled to Washington (and Texas) to discuss the pipeline with officials of the State Department and the US oil conglomerate Unocal. Unocal itself disclosed that it spent between $15 million and $20 million on the initial stages of the project, including the salaries of two consultants hired to negotiate the deal: Hamid Karzai, now President of Afghanistan, and Zalmay Khalilzad, then a Pentagon planner, later Ambassador to Afghanistan and currently Ambassador to Iraq. Khalilzad’s predecessor in Afghanistan, George W. Bush’s first ambassador there, was Robert Finn, well-known Caspian oil expert. These facts, well documented by others, apparently suggest a “sinister conspiracy”–Bergen’s term, not mine.
He doesn’t quit there. According to Bergen, I write that Washington withdrew support from the Taliban “only” because the Taliban could not provide “security” for the pipeline project. This is a misrepresentation. In fact, I discuss at length what Bergen calls “the real reasons” the United States turned against the Taliban: their harboring of Al Qaeda and their treatment of women–although US concern for Afghan women has always been more PR than policy.
Bergen asserts, “The one thing the Taliban did provide was security, which is why they had legitimacy and popularity when they first came to power.” This received wisdom applies to the Taliban’s reception in southern Afghanistan but not the north, where anti-Taliban forces went on fighting. In addition Bergen says there is still no pipeline across Afghanistan “because it just doesn’t make economic sense to build it.” There is no pipeline today because there is still no security, the United States and NATO having thus far failed, like the Taliban, to provide it.
That doesn’t mean dreams of oil are over. Plenty of people have pocketed plenty of money merely by making plans, and Afghan officials periodically announce that construction is imminent. Recently a US construction firm and a Russian manufacturer of oilfield equipment formed a “strategic alliance” to “help the Government of Afghanistan reopen and redevelop its oil and gas fields.” The press release went by e-mail to US contractors under the heading “Smart place to be sending your resumes/CVs” and opened with this advisory: “It’s private sector, so it’ll pay.” Is that a “sinister conspiracy” too, or oil business as usual in post-conflict “development” zones?