…and speaking of oil, just when we were barely getting used to Big Oil and Iraq hitting the front pages of American newspapers in tandem, here comes Afghanistan! Who now remembers that delegation of Taliban officials, shepherded by Unocal ("We’re an oil and gas company. We go where the oil and gas is…"), back in 1999, that made an all-expenses paid visit to the U.S. There was even that side trip to Mt. Rushmore, while the company (with U.S. encouragement) was negotiating a $1.9 billion pipeline that would bring Central Asian oil and natural gas through Afghanistan to Pakistan? Oh, and who was a special consultant to Unocal on the prospective deal? Zalmay Khalilzad, our present neocon ambassador to the U.N., George W. Bush’s former viceroy of Kabul and then Baghdad, and a rumored future "Afghan" presidential candidate.
Those pipeline negotiations only broke down definitively in August 2001, one month before, well, you know… and, as Toronto’s Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin put it, "Washington was furious, leading to speculation it might take out the Taliban. After 9/11, the Taliban, with good reason, were removed — and pipeline planning continued with the Karzai government. U.S. forces installed bases near Kandahar, where the pipeline was to run. A key motivation for the pipeline was to block a competing bid involving Iran, a charter member of the ‘axis of evil.’"
Well, speak of the dead and not-quite-buried. It turns out that, in April, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (acronymically TAPI) signed a Gas Pipeline Framework Agreement to build a U.S.-backed $7.6 billion pipeline. It would, of course, bypass Iran and new energy giant Russia, carrying Turkmeni natural gas and oil to Pakistan and India. Construction would, theoretically, begin in 2010. Put the emphasis on "theoretically," because the pipeline is, once again, to run straight through Kandahar and so directly into the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.
Pepe Escobar of Asia Times caught the spirit of the moment perfectly: "The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which cannot even provide security for a few streets in central Kabul, has engaged in Hollywood-style suspension of disbelief by assuring unsuspecting customers it will not only get rid of millions of land mines blocking TAPI’s route, it will get rid of the Taliban themselves." Nonetheless, as in Iraq, American (and NATO) troops could one day be directly protecting (and dying for) the investments of Big Oil in a new version of the old imperial "Great Game" with a special modern emphasis on pipeline politics.
There has been a flurry of reportage on the revived pipeline plan in Canada, where — bizarrely enough — journalists and columnists actually worry about such ephemeral possibilities as Canadian troops spending the next half century protecting Turkmeni energy. If you happen to live in the U.S., though, you would really have no way of knowing about such developments, no less their backstory, unless you were wandering the foreign press online.
To put the lack of coverage here in perspective, consider Nick Turse’s latest piece on the Iraq/Big Oil story that did, at last, hit the mainstream news here (only a few years late in the Great Game). Turse offers further leads for mainstream reporters finally ready to pursue the story wherever it leads, even back into an ignored, and oily, past. Let’s hope Afghanistan’s pipeline gets similar attention one of these days. Tom