U.S.-Taliban Relations: Friend Turns Fiend
By Ishtiaq Ahmad, a Pakistani journalist-turned academic, currently lecturing in International Relations at the Eastern Mediterranean University, North Cyprus.
In December 1997, a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Muhammad Ghaus arrived at a five-star hotel in Houston, Texas. Their itinerary for the next few days included shopping at the city's best supermarkets, visiting the zoo and the NASA Space Centre having dinner with Marty Miller, Vice-President of the U.S. Oil Company Unocal.
The Taliban's visit was reported by Reuters on December 13, a day before the Sunday Telegraph carried a detailed story by Caroline Lees titled "Oil Barons Court Taliban in Texas."
Unocal was then competing with its Argentinean rival, Birdas, to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. Taliban's sojourn to Texas as VIP guests was part of a series of attempts on the part of Unocal to woo the Taliban towards its own pipeline project and forbid them from cutting a pipeline deal with Birdas. The same month, when the Taliban delegation visited Houston, another Taliban delegation was being hosted similarly by Birdas chiefs in Buenos Aires.
In February 1997, a delegation of Taliban leaders had flown to the Unocal headquarters at Sugarland, Texas, for a whirlwind of corporate hospitality. Two months later, Unocal opened a project office in Kandahar, the seat of Taliban power.
In this deceitful pipeline politics - inclusive of pleasure trips abroad by leaders of the Taliban - the competition was not restricted solely between commercial interests; the governments of regional states as well as the great powers were also dragged into what became known as the New Great Game.
As for the U.S. government, it wanted Unocal to build the oil and gas pipelines from the Central Asian states to Pakistan through Afghanistan so that the vast untapped oil and gas reserves in the Central Asian and Caspian regions could be transported to markets in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Far East and the Pacific.
No surprise then that the very people who are being accused today by the U.S. as harbouring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network were courted by Washington for years in order to secure a commercial interest - the Unocal pipeline deal.
The Clinton administration ignored the rise of the Taliban from October 1994 onwards, with the active backing of its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. For political reasons as well, Washington did not object to the emergence of an inherently anti-Iran Sunni force in Afghanistan, which secured its first major victory against the then Afghan government of Burhanuddin Rabbani in September 1995, when the Herat province bordering Iran and Turkmenistan fell. For the next three years, between 1995 and 1998, especially after the fall of Kabul in September 1996, Clinton administration officials openly lobbied Taliban authorities for Unocal. That America ignored the rise of the Taliban and courted them on behalf of the U.S. oil concerns led to a widespread perception in the regional media, also expressed officially by the anti-American Iranian regime, that the CIA was behind the Taliban movement.
It was only after the August 1998 bombing of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the consequent cruise missile attacks on alleged, Al-Qaida terrorist camps in Afghanistan, that official U.S. contact with the Taliban was restricted, as per official U.S. claims, to the provision of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance and the visit of a number of U.S. officials to Kabul until a couple of months before the September 11 terrorist strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It took three months, after the August 1998 terrorist act and U.S. military response, for Unocal to withdraw from the Cent-Gas consortium which it had organized to build a gas pipeline from Turkmen-istan's old Dauletabad gas field to Pakistan through Afghanistan.
Unocal held a 70% stake in the Cent-Gas Consortium, the Saudi oil company Delta-Nimir held 15%, Russia's state-owned gas company, Gazporm, had 10% and the Turkmen state-owned company, Turkmenros-gaz, had 5%. In October 1997, after Gazporm left Cent-Gas, the consortium was expanded. Unocal's share was reduced to 54.11%, Delta 15%, Turk-menrosgaz 7%, Indonesia Petroleum (Japan) 7.22%, CIECO Trans-Asia Gas (Japan) 7.22%, Crescent Group (Pakistan) 3.89% and Hyundai (South Korea) 5.56 %.
Unocal and the Turkmen authorities signed a second, even more ambitious agreement with wide appeal across the region. Unocal's Central Asian Oil Pipeline Project envisaged a 1,050-mile oil pipeline from the Chardzhou oil field in Turkmenistan to a terminal on Pakistan's coast.
Eventually, in the battle for pipelines, both Birdas and Unocal both emerged as losers.
Birdas was ditched by the government of Turkmenistan and Unocal, which had been brought to the region by the Argentinean firm, in the first place. For that, Birdas filed a $15 billion suit against Unocal, which it eventually lost. It also got a ruling passed by the International Chamber of Commerce against the Turkmen government decision to freeze the company's assets and stop its gas and oil exploration and extraction work in the country. But Turkmenistan's President Niyazov simply ignored the internationally-binding ruling. Turkmenistan and Pakistan had signed a memorandum of understanding on the pipeline with Birdas in March 1995 and a formal deal in July 1995.
The Argentinean oil firm also lost the battle because there was no official backing for it from the government of Argentina, at least not to the extent of Unocal's backing from the U.S. government). In addition, the cunning Taliban played a "double game" by dealing with the two rival oil concerns.
Still, the Argen-tinean firm could have succeeded, since its officials, unlike the Un-ocal management, had apparently succeeded in convincing the Taliban by establishing a close rapport with their leaders and offering them attractive proposals. However, although Birdas managed to conclude a pipeline agreement with the Taliban in November 1996, it faced difficulty in arranging the finances for the project. Difficulties were due to (1) the lack of political clout over the governmental authorities in Islamabad and Ashgabad, the Turkmen capital, (2) the financial losses it suffered after the Turkmen authorities reneged on their previous agreements with the company to extract oil and gas from the new Turkmen gas reserves and (3) failure to secure capital financing from an influential Saudi Prince with enormous influence over Taliban, Turki bin Faisal, the chief of Saudi intelligence.
Even though Unocal secured a $2.5 billion pipeline deal with the Taliban, Turkmenistan and Pakistan in May 1997, it failed to meet the Taliban's two demands (1) that Unocal should simultaneously reconstruct the country's infrastructure and (2) that the pipeline should be open for local consumption at some points within Afghanistan. Birdas promised to meet these pre-conditions. The Taliban were not just interested in receiving $100-million-a-year rent for the pipeline route, they also wanted the oil companies to build roads, water supplies, telephone lines and electricity power lines. Birdas proposed to build an "open" line, which could also meet local needs for natural gas. Unocal proposed to build a "closed" pipeline pumping gas for export only.
More importantly, despite the fact that Unocal enjoyed the formal U.S. backing, the growing feminist pressure against the U.S. oil company as a result of Taliban's treatment of women eventually seriously constrained the lobbying bids of Clinton administration officials. Finally, the August 1998 terrorist attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the U.S. cruise missile attack against Afghanistan sealed the fate of the Unocal pipeline deal.
After the blaze of Unocal's gas ambitions in Afghanistan in August 1998, the U.S., in principle, had no further interest in the fate of Afghanistan, beyond a burning desire to get bin Laden "dead or alive." The U.S. bombing of bin Laden camps forced Unocal to pull its staff out of Pakistan and Kandahar.
Although the project was all but over, Pakistan tried to keep it alive. In April 1999, at a meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and the Taliban tried to revive the project saying they would look for a new sponsor for Cent-Gas. But by now, nobody wanted to touch Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the peculiar factors resulting in the failure of both Unocal and Birdas, despite so much of time, energy and money spent by the two rivals, the fundamental reason for their failure was the absence of peace in Afghanistan. The U.S. was led to believe by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that a Taliban regime would be able to herald an era of stable peace in Afghanistan. However, the Northern Alliance did not allow the Taliban to rule the country without a military challenge. Washington also misjudged the Taliban resolve on the human rights front, hoping they might soften their stand on women's rights. So did Unocal, which donated $900,000 to the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Omaha, Nebraska. This Centre set up a training and humanitarian aid program, opened a school in Kandahar to train some 400 Afghan teachers, electricians, carpenters and pipe-fitters to help Unocal lay the pipeline.
As recently as July 2001, Christina Rocca, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, met Taliban officials in Islamabad and announced $43 million in food and shelter aid, bringing to $124 million the U.S. contribution to the Internally Displaced Persons this year alone. This money is spent by the Taliban, without any accountability. Renewed U.S. contacts with the Taliban, including two visits by U.S. officials to Kabul in April 2001, led to media speculations about a shift in U.S. policy away from a single-focus on the Osama issue and towards a cautious engagement with Taliban, even as they were under stringent sanctions by Washington and the UN Security Council.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban in September 1996, the U.S. State Department announced it would establish diplomatic relations with Taliban by sending a diplomat to Kabul. State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the U.S. found "nothing objectionable" in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law. (See opposite page.) Senator Hank Brown, a supporter of the Unocal project, said, "The good part of what has happened is that one of the factions at least seems capable of developing a government in Kabul." Unocal's Vice-President Miller called the Taliban's success a "positive development."
After capturing Kabul, as the Taliban started their military push northward, top U.S. officials continued to pay regular visits to Kabul. They included former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel, her successor Karl Inderfurth, Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, and the U.S. ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson. The U.S. policy towards Afghanistan between the fall of Kabul until the November 1997 visit to Pakistan by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright seemed to be primarily motivated by commercial concerns involving the realization of the Unocal pipeline project. Tightening the noose around Iran could be a political goal, but it was also appeared to be motivated by the economic factor, as Tehran had also concluded a couple of gas supply deals with the Turkmen government involving European oil companies.
Albright was the first U.S. diplomat who came out categorically against the "despicable" attitude of the Taliban on women's rights. All previous top U.S. leaders visiting the region, particularly Kabul, since it came under Taliban's occupation, had spoken altogether different words about Taliban.
"We have an American company which is interested in building a pipeline from Turkmenistan through to Pakistan. This pipeline project will be very good for Pakistan and Afghanistan as it will not only offer job opportunities but also energy in Afghanistan," said Robin Raphel in Islamabad on April 21, 1996, soon after visiting Kabul. In October, she was in Kabul for another week, and after returning, she told reporters in Islamabad that the international community should "engage the Taliban" instead of "isolating them."
Inderfurth, who succeeded Raphel in July 1997, was quoted by the Washington Post (January 12, 1998), after Medeleine Albright's remarks about the Taliban, as saying: "We do believe they [Taliban] can modify their behaviour and take into account certain international standards with respect to women's rights to education and employment."
Bill Richardson was the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Afghanistan since Henry Kissinger. During his visit in April 1998 - six months before the U.S. embassies were attacked and two months after Al-Qaida issued a declaration of jihad to "kill the Americans and their allies, civilian and military" - the U.S. ambassador to the UN reportedly offered U.S. recognition of the Taliban regime in exchange for handing over of Osama bin Laden. Since then, even after the U.S. embassy bombings in August 1998, the Taliban maintained official contact with the State Department through their representatives in Washington. They urged the U.S. administration to recognize their government since they were now in control of over 90% of Afghanistan - meaning they could provide a secure environment for U.S. oil concerns. It was only after stringent UN Security Council resolutions were passed in December 2000, that they were asked to leave the U.S.
It is ironic that the very force Washington is up against today was being courted by it for years in a bid to advance the commercial interests of U.S. oil barons. President Bush, who himself has had huge stakes in the U.S. oil business, might like to have a broad-based, Afghan government willing to toe the official U.S. government line and to work with his administration on an oil and gas pipeline project from Central Asia to South Asia. Then, the U.S. government might not face the same difficulty in advancing the commercial interests of oil companies such as Unocal in the pipeline politics of Central Asia.
Source: Nicosia, October 3 <http://www.tehelka.com/channels/currentaffairs/2001/oct/3/ca100301us1.htm>
Related Map: <http://www.mujahideen.fsnet.co.uk/afghanistan-oil.htm>