By Jahanzeb Hussain
The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is perhaps the only American military venture whose cause and purpose is the most misunderstood. Why did the US attack Afghanistan? Is it because of Central Asian energy resources that the US wants to control? Did the US want to install itself right in the heart of Central Asia in order to dictate whatever economic and political development that can potentially take place in that region? After all, that region has the world’s last proven source of conventional gas and oil reserves – it is a powerhouse whose potential has yet to be properly exploited. It is also a region over which Russia, Iran, Turkey, China and India vie for influence. The only country missing in this Great Game is the United States, which, as an empire, cannot allow an important region such as Central Asia to be run by other countries, whether they are rivals or not. Following this logic, many conclude that Afghanistan was invaded to this end – for America to posit itself in a country which is the center of that region’s development (Afghanistan connects South Asia, Central Asia, Russia, China, Iran and Turkey together), as well as to surround Iran even further, and to install military bases on the Western/Southern front of China. In general, the invasion of Afghanistan was seen as a natural extension of America’s desire to militarize its energy politics in Muslim countries. The invasion of Iraq two years later was another proof of this policy. Afghanistan had all the credentials to qualify as yet another country that was targeted by the US for its geostrategic and economic importance. Many would argue that attacks on the World Trade Center were welcomed by the United States as they helped provide a pretext for Washington to occupy Afghanistan and to continue its quest for global dominance.
However, my paper argues that Afghanistan was not invaded for the above mentioned reasons. Certainly it is true that Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caspian Sea are a region that cannot be overlooked, for they are too wealthy in gas and oil; but the United States never had an established policy and doctrine for that region as it does, for example, toward the Middle East. There is no evidence that the US thought that it would be useful to invade Afghanistan in order to surround Iran. The same is true for the American policy towards China and Russia. The United States, had it wanted to enter the Central Asian energy market and transport oil and gas through Afghanistan, would have certainly done so when it had ample opportunity after Najibullah’s government in Afghanistan fell in 1992 and the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, began to make advances toward Kabul. The Taliban and the Afghan warlords did not have any significant objections to American involvement in their country when it came to transportation of oil and gas. In fact, they were in favor of it, as were Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were equally eager for American companies to exploit and transport their energy reserves. The United States did not have any qualms about dealing with the Taliban either, notwithstanding the latter’s gross human rights violations. However, the reason why the US was not able to gain a foothold in the region was because of too much instability in Afghanistan and, perhaps more importantly, due to a lack of coherent American policy and strategy for Central Asia.
The purpose of this paper is to show that the United States did not invade Afghanistan so that it could dominate Central Asia gas, oil and its transportation routes. In order to do that, I will go into detail about America’s dealings with the Central Asian states and the Taliban regarding energy pipelines, which will in turn bring to light that the United States never faced any resistance from the concerned countries that could have forced Washington to go to war in order to break that resistance. Needless to say that, in highlighting America’s policy towards the Taliban from 1992 to 2001, it will become clear that, contrary to what is normally said, the United States did not have any concerns or objections over Taliban’s violent behavior toward their own people. This paper will show that US had a very confused, ambiguous and halfhearted policies for Afghanistan and Central Asia, which is why they were never able to achieve anything substantial in that region. At the end, when all of the reasons put forth by many leftist and anti-war activists are proved to be wrong, the paper will show that the only explanation for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is: Superpower arrogance, American desire to flex its muscles and to punish a country it believed to be responsible for 9/11. Beyond that there is no ground to believe that Afghanistan was attacked for any other purpose. The paper does not negate Afghanistan’s importance to Central Asian energy routes; however when it comes to replying to the question whether the United States invaded Afghanistan as per Washington’s usual energy policy, the answer is: No. The United States always had alternative and much easier options available to it regarding the control of the region’s energy resources.
Unocal was the first American oil company to get involved in Central Asia. It was introduced to that part of the world by an Argentinian oil company called Bridas. Before Bridas, no foreign (by foreign I mean those countries who not immediately border or are concerned with Central Asia) corporation had thought of entering the former Soviet Republics because they contained too many political problems for foreign companies to deal with, along with a lack of concrete policy by their respective governments regarding Central Asia. Bridas approached Turkmenistan first, where President Niyazov awarded them two gas and oil blocks. The plan was to export Turkmenistan’s gas and oil to China and South Asia via Afghanistan. This was when Afghanistan featured in the puzzle for the first time. The Argentinians were able to convince Pakistani Premier Benazir Bhutto to join forces with Turkmenistan – on March 16, 1995 the two countries signed a memorandum to allow Bridas to study the feasibility of the proposed project. However, Niyazov’s attention turned towards the US once Unocal became involved. This is because he thought that it would be politically more beneficial for Turkmenistan to ally itself with the United States. From this moment onward, Unocal began imposing itself and proposed its own visions for the construction of Central Asian pipelines: One pipeline from Daulatabad, Turkmenistan to Multan, Pakistan; and a second pipeline called Central Asian Oil Pipeline Project from Chardzhou in Turkmenistan, from Surgut and Omsk in Siberia to Chymkent in Kazakhstan and Bukhara in Uzbekistan – and bringing these pipelines all the way down to Karachi in Pakistan’s coastal south.
This focus on Central Asia and Caspian Sea energy resources was championed by major American oil companies who in 1995 formed a private group called Foreign Oil Companies in order to lobby Washington and push their case. The group went about hiring prominent American personalities such as Henry Kissinger. It was Kissinger who oversaw the deal between President Niyazov and Unocal. But, at the same time, it cannot be said that the American government also had the same drive and coherent plans for Central Asia. We will come back and elucidate this aspect of their policy; first, we should look take a look at Washington’s initial attitude towards the Taliban.
As soon as the aforementioned pipeline plans were conceived, it became obvious that the US would be interested in the Taliban, who, at that time, were still in the process of fighting a civil war and had not yet conquered Kabul. When Kabul finally fell in September 1996, Chris Taggert, an executive of Unocal, said that the pipeline project will be easy to implement now that the Taliban have taken control of the Afghan capital. Hours after the Taliban conquest of Kabul, the US State Department announced that America would soon establish diplomatic relations with the new government. State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said that the US found “nothing objectionable” when it came to Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law and its imposition. In fact, numerous US diplomats saw Taliban in a positive light as they reminded them of the same type of religious groups back in the American Bible belt – many American officials had the similar sympathy for the Mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Besides cultural and religious sympathy for the Taliban what else did the US see in the Taliban? There was also a political and ideological concord. Taliban offered the US a relationship that would curtail Iranian and Russian influence in the region, while augmenting the Saudi-Pakistani influence. Pakistani army and secret services, along with Saudi Arabia, helped the Taliban take power in Afghanistan. As the two are staunch allies of the United States, adding Afghanistan to this fold would increase the pro-American clout in the region. Throughout the Afghan civil war, the United States went along with the wishes of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who wanted in install the Taliban in Kabul and who had convinced the US that the Taliban are best available option in Afghanistan. Even though there is no proof that the US directly financed and/or armed the Taliban, it did, however, indirectly support them by giving tacit approval to Pakistani and Saudi Arabian backing of the Taliban. The Taliban are also a Sunni group and are vehemently opposed to Iran, which is a Shia country and furthermore supports anti-Taliban factions inside Afghanistan because of its hostile relations with the Taliban. Added to this is the historic Pashtun and Persian rivalry. Therefore, in the Taliban, the US was guaranteed a partner that would help alienate Iran. The Taliban were also opposed to the Russians, which was another bonus for the US. If the Taliban agreed to the pipeline deals, it would also help the US in breaking the Russian and Iranian monopoly over transportation of Central Asian energy resources.
Moreover, the end of the civil war and Taliban takeover led to relative stability and calm in Afghanistan. As violence subsided it became more and more feasible for the pipeline project to go ahead. The optimism was clear when Senator Hank Brown, a supporter of Unocal project, remarked that “the good part of what has happened is that one of the factions at last seems capable of governing Afghanistan”. The Taliban were eager for American investment in their country since that would simultaneously mean US recognition of their government. ISI and the Pakistan Army were also restless for the US to officially acknowledge the legitimacy of the Taliban as that would equally mean American recognition for Pakistan’s own aims and policies in Afghanistan. Pakistan pushed the Taliban to wrap up the deal with Unocal. In February, 1997 State Department officials and Unocal received a Taliban delegation in Washington. On their return, the delegation stopped in Mecca where they met with the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki. Delta Oil, an American oil company but with Saudi origins, was working with Unocal as its partner. In November of the same year, there was another meeting in Houston between Unocal, the State Department and the Taliban.
However, nothing conclusive could come out of these meetings. One of the main reasons is because violence had not quite subsided in Afghanistan. The Taliban had taken over Kabul but they were yet to fully conquer the country and unite it under their command. This was looking more and more unlikely at that time, especially after the Taliban were defeated and driven out of Mazar-e-Sharif, an important stronghold for the Northern Alliance, Taliban’s main Afghan rivals. More than anything else, the United States had placed hope in the Taliban and had gone along with the Pakistani analysis that the Taliban will be quickly able to control the entire country. There were moments when this looked possible, for example when Herat fell to the Taliban in 1995. It is important to note that the US did not have a single word to say about Taliban’s gender policy when they threw out thousands of girls out of their schools after capturing Herat. American silence was consistent with their usual policy of ignoring the crimes of those who are or those who could potentially be their allies. In fact, the fall of Herat was seen as a positive development as it helped surround Iran, while the Pakistani ISI pushed the Taliban to open up pipeline routes via Kandahar and Herat to Turkmenistan. But the Taliban faced considerable challenges in completely controlling the country and fighting started again in the spring of 1998. The situation on the ground forced Unocal to ask Turkmenistan and Pakistan for an extension as they could not start working on the pipelines in midst of a civil war.
Consequently, the United States became skeptical of Pakistani claims that the Taliban will be able to unify the country. The US started to look for alternative pipeline routes and, surprisingly, it announced that it would be in favor of a Turkmenistan-Turkey pipeline, going through Iran. This was perhaps the first instance where it started to become clear that the US did not have a consistent and coherent policy for the region. What purpose does it serve to announce that the US will allow a pipeline to cross Iran, a country which the US was bent on boycotting and spent so much effort and time to alienate? Maybe it was to send a message to the Taliban and to Pakistan that not enough was being done to stabilize Afghanistan. Whatever the reason might be, the only message it relayed was that the American policy was not firm and fluctuated as the conditions on the ground changed.
From a geostrategic point of view, the failure of the American policy was that it did not try to resolve any of the conflicts of the region, especially the civil war in Afghanistan. Since conflict resolution for the region was not on the American agenda, it was a hopeless attempt to even consider building pipelines in Central Asia. The United States abandoned Afghanistan after the retreat of the Soviet Union and Washington never had any real policy framework for that country after that. At best, the US left its allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to have a free hand in Afghanistan and did not have any serious commitment towards that country. A part from the fact that Afghanistan was burning, the United States did not have a clear policy towards Iran and Russia either. It caused considerable confusion when, on one hand the US wanted to support the Taliban in order to surround Iran, but on the other hand was willing to allow American and other Western oil firms to invest in Iran and build a pipeline in that country. The US was also looking to improve relations with Russia and did not want to interfere in Central Asia – Russia’s backyard – but at the same time it was not entirely willing to do what was required to build trust with Moscow. During this oscillation, the US did not want to go against the wishes of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia either. While it seemed that the Americans were supportive of the Taliban, it also looked at the same time as if they were unsupportive of them. At times it would appear that the US wanted a quick resolution to the Afghan civil war, but then it at the same time it would also look as if they were not really interested in the Afghan outcome.
Furthermore, when Osama bin Laden carried out attacks against American military and diplomatic installations in Africa and the Middle East, Bill Clinton reacted by launching cruise missiles against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. After this point, there was no chance that the US or any of its corporations would deal with the Taliban. However, even after it became clear that significant threat emanated from Afghanistan, the United States only halfheartedly dealt with the problem. It was Pakistan, America’s most important ally in the region, who had introduced Bin Laden to the Taliban and it was the ISI that facilitated and set up their relation. Despite their alliance, the US did not push Pakistan to deliver Bin Laden to them, nor did it put any pressure on Saudi Arabia to cease the funding of radical religious schools in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Such a laissez faire American attitude towards Afghanistan sums up their relationship with that country during the 90s.
Thus, it becomes clear that the United States did not face any real political and absolutely no military resistance when it came to investing in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Had it wanted to, the United States would have actively looked to secure the ground and snap up the deals that its oil companies were trying to make. However, the American government did not have the desire for it. Along with the lack of initiative, the unstable situation in Afghanistan made the pipelines harder to build. On top of that, as we saw, the US did not have a proper, thought-out policy for the wider region and Afghanistan’s place in such a policy. Therefore, to give a conclusive answer to the question regarding the motivation in invade Afghanistan in 2001, we can confidently say that the United States did not attack Afghanistan to steal or to dominate Central Asian energy resources.
Oil and gas of that region were up for grabs, and every superpower prefers peaceful ways to dominate and acquire what it wants, especially when nobody is there to challenge it. It is challenge and defiance that bothers an empire the most; this is why Iraq got invaded in 2003, because Saddam Hussein had become a bit too independent when it invaded Kuwait in 1990. If it was only about control of oil, then Iraqi oil was always in control of the United States. But, teaching people a lesson by thrashing them in public is the only way empires like to lay down the rules. And, it is here that the invasion of Afghanistan finds its rationale: Punishment. Punishment for 9/11 attacks, regardless if anyone in Afghanistan was responsible for it or not, and regardless the fact that it is the poor and innocent Afghan civilians who have to pay the price for something that they never did. The empire can punish anyone it likes and it does not have to give reasons for it. Even when it has to explain its actions, any little excuse can suffice.
Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: militant Islam, oil, and fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of the magazine. He is a 22 year old student based in Vancouver, Canada, where he goes to Simon Fraser Univeristy. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans for Peace.