What goes down comes around. Amidst all the attention to United Airlines' post-September 11 woes, no one noticed the ringing irony of its tapping John W. Creighton Jr. as the new CEO to pull it out of a downward spiral. John Creighton is best known as the Weyerhaeuser president who turned the timber giant around in the early 1990s, but he's held another position closer to the events that sent one United jet crashing into the World Trade Center and another into the Pennsylvania countryside two months ago. Creighton has sat on the board of the California-based oil multinational Unocal since 1995–the period in which Unocal became the main American corporate suitor seeking to do business with the Taliban.

When it comes to building in war zones and dealing with unsavory regimes, Unocal has long been renowned as what Burma democracy activist Larry Dohrs calls "the bottom feeder of the oil business." It completed a billion-dollar gas pipeline in Burma even after Texaco and Arco bowed to environmental and human rights protests. And in 1995, during the scramble for Central Asia's newly opened oil and gas bonanza, it conceived an audacious plan: a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. It enlisted Saudi, Pakistani, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian partners. And it embarked on a fossil-fuel version of the Great Game against the Argentine firm Bridas, which also sought the pipeline franchise.

In December 1997 Unocal hosted Taliban delegates in Texas and even took them to the beach. It also gave nearly $1 million to a job-training program in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, out of up to $20 million it spent on the pipeline effort. It hired former US ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley to press its case; hired special ambassador John J. Maresca to, in Unocal spokesman Barry Lane's words, "look at corporate responsibility globally"; and hired Henry Kissinger to cap the Turkmenistan side of the deal. "We didn't focus on the Taliban," Lane insists. "We also sponsored a training program in Northern Afghanistan," and hosted some of the warlords now in the Northern Alliance. But with the Taliban gaining, and controlling the pipeline's southern route, the focus was inevitable. "If the Taliban leads to stability and international recognition," Unocal executive vice president Chris Taggart declared after the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, "then it's positive."

That merely mirrored the US government's complacent, fumbling Afghan dealings; Lane claims, and Ahmed Rashid confirms, in his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, that Unocal even disadvantaged itself against Bridas by admonishing the Taliban on human rights. But the company hung in even after women's groups protested, after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Taliban practices "despicable" in 1997 and after Taliban guest Osama bin Laden declared a fatwa against the United States in 1998. After the summer 1998 embassy bombings and US missile reprisals, Unocal had to pull out of Afghanistan. In December 1998 it formally withdrew from the project.

Jack Creighton became Unocal board chairman in 2001 but stepped down on August 31. Unocal spokespeople will say only that this resignation was prompted by his United Airlines appointment. His new office at United will say only that "Any inquiries regarding Unocal or its business practices–past, present or future–should properly be directed to the Unocal Corporation." Creighton remains on Unocal's board.