Sherman DeBrosse : Pipeline Politics and the Afghanistan War

Worth all the blood?
The Trans Afghanistan Pipeline

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / November 6, 2009

President Barack Obama recently honored eighteen fallen American soldiers at a midnight ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Let us hope that none of these heroes died in order to pave the way for the Trans Afghanistan Pipeline.

Advocates of the TAP — sometimes known as TAPI — see it as a modern-day extension of the ancient Silk Road. Congress has passed two Silk Road Strategy Acts (1999-2006) that essentially voice strong support for projecting U.S. military and economic power into the Eurasian Corridor in Central Asia. Talk about moving natural gas on the TAP does not pass the lips of our politicians or pundits, but has been a big factor in our dealings with Afghanistan since the 1990s.

Operation Enduring Freedom was about terrorism, but much more was involved. Noam Chomsky has reminded us that the pipeline would sharply reduce the region’s dependency upon Iran for energy. There is also the matter of competition with Russia. In September, Zamir Kabulov, Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, said that the “U.S. and its allies are competing with Russia for influence in the energy-rich region… Afghanistan remains a strategic prize because of its location.”

The Clinton and Bush administrations both sought stability in Afghanistan to permit California-based construction of a planned twin pipelines — Caspian natural gas and oil — to take Caspian fuels through Afghanistan into Pakistan and India. TAP only briefly involved oil as well as gas; it is now a natural gas venture.

A major benefit is that it would provide Caspian fuel not controlled by Russia’s Gazprom. It would begin in the Daulatabad gas field and bring gas to Pakistan and India. The line would also outflank a proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) line that would probably benefit China and its China National Petroleum Corporation. India has been hedging its bets by using the second line with Iran and China, and there were some breakthroughs in the negotiations with Iran in 2008.

The United States, of course, has been actively opposing the project, in part because it would hasten economic development in Iran. The U.S. is pressuring India to withdraw from discussions of the IPI and not to agree to buy natural gas from the IPI. Iran is pressing India for a definite commitment and is threatening to go it alone, with the help of China. Recent reverses in the Afghan War have given new life to prospects for the IPI.

There is no way of knowing how important the pipeline is as a motive for the Afghan War. All we can do is review the facts.

Bridas vs. U.S. oil

The 1040 mile pipeline was the idea of Carlos A. Budgheroni of Bridas, an Argentine firm. In 1995, he thought he had a secure agreement with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to develop the project. He invited California-based Unocal to join his consortium, but the American firm soon elbowed out Bridas and launched its own consortium. In March 1995 the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan signed a memorandum of agreement to cooperate on the pipeline.

Unocal created the Central Asian Gas and Pipeline Consortium in August 1996, with Unocal holding 46.5 %. The government of Turkmenistan had some involvement and by 2000, Halliburton was in Turkmenistan to provide “integrated drilling services with an estimated value of $30 million for the total package.” There were firms from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, and South Korea.

Unocal, which was to be purchased by Chevron, soon began courting the Taliban faction and brought some of its leaders to its headquarters in Sugarland, Texas, in 1997. The delegation, led by Mullah Mohammed Ghaus, visited Unocal headquarters in Sugarland, toured NASA Space Center facilities, and visited the Houston Zoo. The corporation sponsored the training of Afghans in oil technology at the University of Nebraska, but soon backed off and gave the impression it was no longer interested in the Afghan venture It seemed that the desired deal was about to be signed, but the Taliban seemed to lose interest in dealing with the U.S .

The Taliban, which had been created with the help of the U.S. and Pakistan, was seen as a vehicle for providing stability in Afghanistan. It had a bad record on its treatment of women and on human rights, but the U.S. and Unocal still supported it. In 1996, the Taliban gained the upper hand in the civil war when it occupied Kabul. At that time it invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan as a guest.

The Taliban’s honored guest supported Bridas. His engineers had taken the trouble to sip tea with Afghan leaders, and some of the Taliban agreed with Bin Laden that the contract should go to Bridas. He also offered to let Afghanistan tap some of the gas from the line, while the Americans were not promising that. The French newspaper Le Figaro reported that U.S. intelligence people maintained contacts with Bin Laden in hopes that he could find a way to renew his ties with the United States. An agent met with him in July, 2001 but could not restore ties. Bin Laden remained angry that there were U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which he considered holy soil.

Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and President George W. Bush.

Unocal employed two influential Pashtuns — Taliban backer Kalmay Khalizad, a Chicago Ph.D., and Hamid Karzai, leader of the Pashtun Durrani tribe who also had ties to the royal family. Khalizad was to be on the Bush National Security Council, and Karzai would preside over the regime that U.S. would install in Afghanistan. Patrick Martin has written, “If history had skipped over September 11 and the events of that day had never happened, it is very likely that the United States would have gone to war in Afghanistan anyway, and on much the same schedule.”

In January, 1998, the Taliban selected CentGas over the Argentine firm to build the pipelines. The Russians pulled out of the deal in June. Due to Al Qaeda’s bombing of two African embassies, the Clinton administration, in 1998, banned further negotiations with Afghanistan.

Enron and the line

Unocal suspended activities in pursuit of the pipeline, in December, 1998, but Enron quietly began to take a leadership role. Enron was facing a financial crisis, and the pipeline would make Enron lands in the Caspian Basin very valuable. Enron had just purchased enormous tracts of land in Turkmenistan and gambled that the pipeline would make the acquisitions very profitable. Construction of the TAP would also make it possible to get cheap natural gas to the Dabhol, India, power plant, which was then a huge financial liability for Enron and General Electric.

Bush policy toward Afghanistan

The Bush administration, in early 2001, lifted the Clinton ban, probably to give Enron one last chance to negotiate a successful pipeline deal and possibly reverse its fortunes. Secretary of State Colin Powell quickly gave the Taliban $43 million for “humanitarian purposes.” It is possible that the younger Bush knew nothing about the pipeline deal. Condoleezza Rice was a former member of the Chevron board, but it should be recalled that she did not see the Phoenix memo on terrorism before 9/11. It was thought essential that relations with Saudi Arabia improve if the pipeline negotiations were to be successful.

The effort to force the Taliban to accept U.S. demands was probably related to attempts to assist Enron Corporation avoid financial shipwreck. If a coalition government emerged quickly in Afghanistan, it was believed conditions would be right for the construction of gas and oil pipelines across that country, a venture in which Enron was heavily involved. The gas pipeline would also place Enron’s $3 billion power plant in Dabhol, India, on a profitable basis. In an unprecedented effort to assist a private concern, the National Security Council was then coordinating a government-wide drive to force India to make payments to the Enron power plant in Dabhol. To assist Enron and other energy wholesalers make the most of the energy crisis in California, the administration resisted calls to reinstate price caps on interstate energy sales. Enron and Ken Lay were permitted to exert great influence in fashioning the Bush energy plan.

The Bush administration sharply reversed U.S. policy with respect to Afghanistan. Whether the new approach to diplomacy with the Taliban was related to the administration’s somewhat relaxed approach to counterterrorism cannot be known. Contacts with the Taliban were reopened and a vigorous carrot and stick approach was pursued in an effort to have Bin Laden turned over and set in motion a coalition government there. A coalition government, which would open the door to the proposed twin pipeline across Afghanistan. The Afghan government would benefit from fees paid for construction rights and later for sending oil and natural gas through the lines.

Laili Helms, niece by marriage to former CIA director Richard Helms and a relative of King Zahir Shah, quickly arranged for Sayed Rahmatullah Hashami, an envoy of Mullah Omar, to visit Washington. Helms, whose two grandfathers had been Afghan officials, was working as a public relations consultant for the Taliban. Hashami brought a carpet for George W. Bush, a gift from his one-eyed leader. According to the Village Voice, he offered to detain Osama bin Laden long enough for U.S. agents to seize the terrorist, but for some reason the U.S. did not accept the offer. Not long after that, bin Laden announced in a written statement that he and Omar had sworn baya or blood brotherhood. At this time, the Voice of America’s Pashtun service broadcasted so much favorable information about Mullah Omar and the Taliban that wags called the woman heading that division “Kandahar Rose.”

Dr. Christina Rocca, who had been a CIA operative in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1997, began working on the Afghanistan problem for the State Department in May, 2001. At the same time, State maintained constant contact with the Taliban diplomatic mission in Queens and remained hostile to the Northern Alliance’s Islamic State of Afghanistan, which was recognized by the United Nations. As late as July, the CIA welcomed Qazi Hussein Ahmed, head of the pro-Bin Laden Jamiaat-i-Islami Party, at the George H. W. Bush Intelligence Center in Langley, Virginia. The policy was clearly to work out a gas deal with the Taliban.

Enron gambled that the pipeline would make their land in the Caspian Basin much more valuable.

Diplomacy rarely discussed in U.S. press

State Department representatives met with counterparts from Iran, Italy, Germany, and in Geneva to devise ways to force the Taliban to enter an oil/gas deal with the United States. The Six plus Two negotiating process was also in motion with Francesc Vendrell, personal representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, making five trips to Kandahar and Kabul between April 19 and August 17, 2001. There was also a stormy UN-sponsored meeting in Brussels on May 15 which the Taliban foreign minister refused to attend because Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance representative, was there. Twenty-one nations had representatives at Weston Park in England in July, where a coalition government under the oversight of former King Zahir Shah was tentatively agreed.

There was a March meeting of the UN-sponsored A group of Six plus Two in Berlin. The Six plus Two meetings were “level-2” discussions because they were attended by former government officials. These former officials tried to reflect the policies of their governments, but their lack of official positions gave their governments a large measure of desirability if something went wrong. Nevertheless, they were useful forums for exchanging ideas that clearly represented the positions of the governments involved.

The small U.S. delegation included Tom Simons, former ambassador to Pakistan, and Robert Oakley, a Unocal lobbyist and former ambassador. In a May meeting in Geneva, the U.S. unveiled plans to attack Afghanistan. Representatives of Iran, Germany, and Italy were present. In July, war with Afghanistan was again discussed at the Group of Eight meeting in Genoa. An Indian observer was also present for these discussions and even contributed plans. The U.S. was busy acquiring base rights in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Another Berlin meeting was held in July. The Taliban was expected to send a spokesman, but he did not appear, probably because the Northern Alliance was represented there. It was later reported in Europe that the U.S. spokesman said that the Taliban could either “accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” Simons denied that a direct threat was made in these words but conceded that the subject of force may have come up in connection with a discussion of the investigation of the attack on the USS Cole. He also said, “It is possible that an American participant, acting mischievously, after some glasses, evoked the gold carpets and the carpet bombs.” Whatever Simons’ exact words were, people came away convinced that the U.S. was determined to employ force in Afghanistan if it did not get its way.

A British newspaper later reported that it was said that the bombing could begin as early as October. Niaz Naik, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, reported back to his government in mid-July that the U.S. would resort to force if Pakistan could not persuade the Taliban to come into line. Pakistan passed this information on to the Taliban. It was later reported on French television that “Islamabad and Pakistani military circles were buzzing with rumors of war.” The Indian press reported in October that “Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will lead the ground attack with a strong military back up of the U.S. and Russia. Vital Taliban installations and military assets will be targeted.”

MSNBC reported that the plan to invade Afghanistan was on Bush’s desk before 9/11 and included giving a red light to the Northern Alliance to mount a major campaign against the Taliban. On the afternoon of September 11, General Richard Myers reported at a teleconferenced NSC meeting that the Pentagon had 42 major Taliban bombing targets. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration immediately attributed it to Osama Bin Laden, but he repeatedly denied any involvement for several weeks. Later, a videotape turned up in Afghanistan in which Bin Laden supposedly took credit for the attack; however, some translators deny that is what he said.

Dr. Christina Rocca, represented the U.S. at its last meeting with the Taliban, which occurred on August 2 in Islamabad — five weeks before September 11. The Taliban, at this point, was in the process of awarding the twin pipeline deal to an Argentine-led consortium. At that meeting Rocca demanded that the Taliban turn over bin Laden. In an interview, Brisard commented on the Islamabad meeting:

We believe that when [Rocca] went to Pakistan in [August] 2001 she was there to speak about oil, and unfortunately the Osama bin Laden case was just a technical part of the negotiations. He said “ I’m not sure about the pipeline specifically, but we make it clear she was there to speak about oil. There are witnesses, including the Pakistani foreign minister.

Journalists outside the United States have discussed these events in detail and raise the possibility that the threat of military action may have had a direct effect on the timing of Al Qaeda’s attack on America. The last US-Taliban meeting occurred five days before 9/11. The Taliban continued to grant hospitality to Osama bin Laden and refused to turn him over until the U.S. promised him a fair trial and submitted the proper extradition papers. Those papers were not submitted.

After the successful U.S. attack on Afghanistan, the U.S. installed a government led by a former employee of Unocal/Chevron, Hamid Karzai. His regime, on February 8, 2002, agreed with Pakistan to enter into a long-term agreement with a U.S.-led consortium to build a twin pipeline that would bring gas and oil from the Caspian Basin down through Afghanistan and to the coast of Pakistan and to India. Kevin Phillips, a Republican writer, was to note that U.S. troops in Afghanistan were to become “pipeline protection troops.” The value of Caspian oil and gas has been placed at $4 trillion. However, little progress has been made on the pipeline, and Unocal, since 1998, has claimed that it is no longer involved in the consortium.

Recent developments

In December, 2002, the leaders of Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan signed a new agreement to move ahead with the pipelines. Six years later, the governments of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan agreed to purchase gas coming through the pipeline. The Asian Development Bank will finance the $7.6 billion venture. In 2006, the United States assured India that the project would go ahead. In 2008, Afghanistan assured India that land mines would be cleared, making construction possible. Technical experts met in Ashgabat to deal with transit agreements and other details.

It appears that the project will be financed through the Asia Development Bank, whose largest share holders are the U.S. and Japan. The Indian Gas authority has suggested that Russia’s Gazprom be brought in as a consultant and maybe even be the eventual operator of the line. However, the project cannot move forward because southern Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban.

If the TAP is ever built, the Afghan government will receive 8% of the revenue. It may well be that the Afghans, in their failure to resolve their problems, have frittered away the prospect of this windfall There is growing doubt in the region that stability will be restored in Afghanistan, and there is now talk of using the proposed IPI line that would not involve Afghanistan. Two problems are that using this line would benefit Iran and China, not the U.S.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a retired history teacher. Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]

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