Oil and 9-11: The Connection

News Abroad

Mr. Shughart is F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor of Economics and holder of the Robert M. Hearin Chair at The University of Mississippi.

Victory over the evil empire assured as a bloodied Soviet army withdrew in 1989, American policymakers lost interest in Central Asia. What they left behind in Afghanistan was a country Ahmed Rashid describes as "divided into warlord fiefdoms" over which tribal factions "fought, switched sides and fought again in a bewildering array of alliances, betrayals and bloodshed." Into this power vacuum stepped the Taliban. A series of military successes over rival warlords contending for local or regional supremacy, crowned by the Taliban's capture of Kabul in September 1996, triggered hopes that peace and political stability finally would be restored, at least to Afghanistan's southern provinces.

Political stability historically has been the principal goal both of foreign powers contending for spheres of influence and of the region's neighbors. In the twentieth century, that goal was pursued by redrawing the map of Central Asia in the now manifestly false hope that, by splitting major tribes and ethnic groups across new national boundaries, age-old loyalties would be weakened and grounds for conflict narrowed. (Click here for a brief history of the intrigue that led to the redrawing of the map of Afghanistan.)

The promise of political stability explains Washington's initial backing of the Taliban. The Clinton administration saw a peaceful, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a key factor in America's foreign policy strategy of isolating Iran. That strategy, which originated in the Ayatollah Khomeini's humiliation of Jimmy Carter, took advantage of the irreconcilable differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, grounded in a centuries-old doctrinal dispute over the proper line of succession (hereditary versus elective) to the Prophet Muhammad. Seeing a threat to its own security in the disintegration of the Afghan state, Iran, the only Islamic nation where Shias are in the majority, backed the United Front coalition opposing the intensely Sunni Taliban.

The Clinton administration also courted the Taliban's favor for a more parochial reason: to promote the interests of U.S. oil companies in exploiting the region's immense oil and gas deposits. The Taliban's success in quelling ethnic violence and tribal warfare seemed to offer an opportunity at long last to begin construction of a natural gas pipeline running North-South across Afghani territory, connecting up the Central Asian oil fields with Pakistani terminals located on the Arabian Sea. The completion of such a project would both enable the oil companies to comply with the American government's embargo on trade with Iran, whose pipelines run from ports on the Caspian Sea, and help undercut Russian influence in the region.

During the heyday of Soviet power, the Kremlin's central planners had neglected the petroleum riches of Central Asia in favor of exploiting Siberian oil and gas deposits. Indeed, the Central Asian Republics had been converted by Moscow into a cotton-based agricultural economy. Ecological damage of catastrophic proportions was produced in the process as the region's water resources were diverted to large-scale irrigation projects. Following the USSR's breakup, Central Asia's oil and gas deposits became a major source of foreign exchange, which Russia maintains an insular interest in exporting through its own pipeline network.

Although oil companies from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Japan and South Korea pledged to provide some of the financing, the chief investor in the proposed trans-Afghanistan pipeline was the American company Unocal. To the members of the investing consortium, the Taliban seemed to be a godsend for a project long delayed by civil war. Neither the Unocal executives nor the U.S. government representatives who conducted negotiations with Afghanistan's new regime to secure pipeline rights of way seemed to be much put off by the Taliban's virulent anti-modernity and subjugation of women, implemented under its strict interpretation of Islamic law (sharia). Not until feminist pressure was brought to bear on the Clinton administration in late 1997 did U.S. policy begin turning around, a reversal ultimately finalized by the bombing of Al Qaeda camps in August 1998. Unocal pulled out of the consortium in December of that year.

Washington's retraction of support for the Taliban, whose single most important channel of operating funds ran through the Al Qaeda network, added to Osama bin Laden's list of real and imagined grievances against the "Great Satan," a list that includes the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War, the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after Kuwait's liberation, rapprochement with post-Khomeini Iran and, not least, historical support of Israeli statehood. While 9-11 has many fathers, America's diplomatic neglect of Central Asia for much of the 1990s (Warren Christopher never once mentioned Afghanistan publicly during his entire term as Secretary of State), along with its reckless romancing of the Taliban to secure pipeline rights, surely played a role.