Afghanistan: Pawn in the New Great Game
By Imran Vittachi
CLICK HERE TO SEE MAP OF OIL AND GAS EXPORT
ROUTES FROM CASPIAN BASIN.
TO SOME it is a linchpin to calm and hope for better times in a troubled land. To others it will stay a 900-mile pipe-dream as long as peace eludes Afghanistan.
"The pipeline doesn't have a prayer in hell until there's peace - real peace - in the country," a U.S. State Department official told this reporter on condition of anonymity. "Bankers know this. Bankers are not going to lend money for projects in risky places."
In spite of Afghanistan's risk-fraught past, CentGas, the project to which the official referred, was not long ago being pushed in Washington D.C. power circles by an American oil company, El Segundo, Calif.-based Unocal Corp. In August 1998, Unocal abandoned the project and pulled its operations out of Afghanistan. That was soon after the Clinton administration launched military strikes on the country. The United States was retaliating for bombings of American embassies in East Africa by punishing the Taliban regime and blacklisting it for its alleged support of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda worldwide terrorist.
During the mid to late 1990s Unocal competed with Bridas, an Argentine company, to cultivate contacts in Afghanistan and win over the country's leadership. Unocal prevailed. A majority stakeholder in a consortium of foreign investors, the company soon unveiled plans to build the pipeline through Afghanistan as a rival project to a proposed Iranian pipeline.
Now, as a new U.S. presidency looses its armed forces on Afghanistan in an internationally-backed effort to apprehend bin Laden, Black Tuesday's alleged mastermind and financier, and topple his Taliban hosts Unocal's past role and Washington's prior interest in a trans-Afghan pipeline are conspicuously absent from coverage of the region by the American press.
The project, while still confined to the drawing board, may just be a line on a map of southwest Asia that is dotted with vast and largely untapped oil and gas fields. CentGas, nonetheless, is strategically important. It would open a southerly export route out of the Caspian Sea basin connecting gas and oil fields in Turkmenistan and other Central Asian Republics with heavily populated markets in the Indian sub-continent. Should future wars break out in the region, it could also provide the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Indian Ocean and the approaches to the Persian Gulf, or any other regional power, strategic access to another re-fueling source.
Since the Cold War ended, American corporate interests have coveted the basin's oil and natural gas reserves. Central Asia observers and specialists have argued that these could help safeguard America's energy security, where imports of Saudi crude make up over 50 percent of the superpower's oil supply.
"The United States would pay a high price if it ignored the issue of energy security," John C. Gannon, a former high-ranking CIA official told an Energy Council conference at Keystone, Colorado in December 1996. "All expectations are that US dependence on imported oil will continue to grow."
The region, since 1991, has been a cockpit of competing regional and international interests that are scrimmaging to exploit a wealth of natural resources. American politicians haven't shied from stating that, for their country to stay ahead in a modern replay of the "great game," it must emulate imperial and colonial powers from other centuries that gained a strategic foothold at the crossroads of Asia.
"One hundred years ago, Central Asia was the arena for a great game played by Czarist Russia, Colonial Britain, Napoleon's France, and the Persian and Ottoman Empires...," Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Nebraska, told a hearing of the House Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific in February 1998.
"One hundred years later, the collapse of the Soviet Union has unleashed a new great game, where the interests of the East India Trading Company have been replaced by those of Unocal and Total, and many other organizations and firms," the Congressman said. "Today the subcommittee examines the interests of a new contestant in this new great game, the United States."
Against the backdrop of a new game in the place where chess was invented centuries ago, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and seasoned Afghanistan commentator, sees the land-locked country as wedged between the interests of two meddling neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, which compete to establish spheres of power and prestige.
While Teheran plans to build its own pipeline pointing to South Asian markets, Islamabad continues to be involved in the CentGas consortium. It is being led today by a Saudi oil company, the Delta Group, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the Taliban and Turkmen governments after Unocal quit Afghanistan three years ago. Asad Nayauddin, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy, told this reporter that, even before the start of the present war, the project has stalled because foreign investors are still trying to secure necessary loans.
"Today's Great Game is also between expanding and contracting empires," Rashid writes in Taliban, an acclaimed book about Afghanistan published last year. "As a weakened and bankrupt Russia attempts to keep a grip on what it still views as its frontiers in Central Asia and control the flow of Caspian oil through pipelines that traverse Russia, the USA is thrusting itself into the region on the back of proposed oil pipelines which would bypass Russia. Iran, Turkey and Pakistan are building their own communication links with the region and want to be the preferred route of choice for future pipelines heading east, west or south."
South is where CentGas would point. It would cost an estimated $1.9 billion to build the pipeline, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). Should the project ever be completed, CentGas would provide an overland transportation route to Arabian Sea ports and Indian sub-continent markets for Central Asian oil and gas. The pipeline would tap a natural gas bed in the southern part of neighboring Turkmenistan, carrying up to 700 billion cubic feet per year to the huge markets of Pakistan and India (which would be plugged in via a 400-mile extension), according to an EIA project assessment.
CentGas and a sister pipeline, designed for transporting Central Asian oil along a southerly export route, would traverse parts of Afghanistan that were controlled by Taliban forces before President Bush's declaration of America's "new war on terrorism". The proposed oil pipeline, estimated by EIA to cost $2.5 billion, would extend 1,050 miles from Kazakhstan to Gwadar, Pakistan via Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It would have a capacity of 1 billion barrels.
This month, as American B-52s fly daily sorties over Afghanistan to bomb Taliban guerrilla positions and bin Laden's suspected terrorist training camps, EIA and National Security Council spokesmen withheld comment on the Afghan connection to Turkmen and Central Asian oil and gas. When questioned about whether American energy security planners were now thinking of reviving U.S. interest in the country's potential role as a conduit for that oil and gaspresuming that Operation Enduring Freedom does precipitate the fall of the Taliban regime and the installation of a U.N. or U.S.-backed coalitionthey declined to speak on or off the record, citing the "sensitivity" of the questions and their circumstances.
"It's only a very small part of a much larger energy puzzle," the nameless State official said of the pipeline. Spokesmen for Unocal and the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp, the infrastructure engineering firm, which, a decade ago, was among the first Western companies to enter "liberated" Kuwait and repair the emirate's network of burning oil fields, said neither of their companies was interested in reviving an American role in Afghan pipelines.
"I can assure you that Bechtel is not presently engaged in any discussions or planning related to Afghanistan," said Alexander Winslow, the media relations director at Bechtel, whose board of directors includes former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. "Our strategic planning and business development efforts are much more prosaic, i.e., we monitor market opportunities and engage with potential customers in countries where it is possible to do business now and in the foreseeable future. Afghanistan is not on our radar screen."
Another factor to consider is Iran's indirect support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, the ragtag Afghan insurgency that is being depicted by the press as a trusted partner of the Americans in the war. Whether this signals a thaw in relations between Washington and Teheran for a future strategic relationship, and whether such a partnership might include their collaborating to build the Iranian pipeline to the sub-continent has yet to discerned.
When these questions were also put to the EIA and NSC spokesmen, they again declined comment InWashington, however, U.S. lawmakers, academics and Central Asia policy specialists have long been monitoring the situation in the region. A more conservative faction indeed continues to warn that Iran is still an arch-enemy of the U.S., because, they say, it is a state that still sponsors anti-Western Islamic militant and terrorist movements. Therefore, in their minds, a policy of sanctions should remain.
But there is another wing calling for that policy to be re-examined to see whether it is serving U.S. interests more than two decades after the 52 American embassy hostages were released by the Islamic Republic. Members of this wing suggest that an end to sanctions for Teheran could be a way ahead for securing America's strategic interests in Central Asia and, at the same time profiting from the export of oil and gas supplies to South Asia.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is one of these revisionists. At a May 2001 conference on Central Asia organized by the Brookings Institute, the influential Washington D.C. think-tank, he echoed the undercurrent of sentiment that U.S. national security rests in part on continually maneuver and working strategic relationships in the region.
"American influence must not be held hostage to one or two particulars...," he said. "There will be a long-term pay-out for stability, for American self-interests.... But if American interests are cut out of this area, not just in energy, but in influence, in leadership, in relationships, in exchanges we will pay a high price for that short-sighted lack of vision, lack of leadership in years to come."