Did the United States go to war with Afghanistan for Central Asian oil and gas? That's what many readers keep asking me. They clearly distrust the White House's jingoistic bombast about defending freedom and western values from evil Islamists.
The answer is no, and yes.
The U.S. attacked Afghanistan's Taliban government to exact revenge for the Sept. 11 attacks on America. But it quickly occurred to former oilmen George Bush and Dick Cheney that retribution against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden offered a golden opportunity to expand American geopolitical influence into South and Central Asia, scene of the Caspian Basin oil boom.
The ex-Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caucasus - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Azerbaijan and Chechnya - contain the world's most recently discovered major oil and gas deposits.
The world has ample oil today. But according to CIA estimates, when China and India reach South Korea's level of per capita energy use, within 30 years, their combined oil demand will be 120 million barrels daily. Today, total global consumption is 60-70 million barrels a day. In short, the major powers will be locked in fierce competition for scarce oil, with the Persian Gulf and Central Asia the focus of this rivalry.
Central Asia's oil and gas producers are landlocked. Their energy wealth must be exported through long pipelines. Competition over potential pipeline routes has become the 21st century's geopolitical equivalent of the great power race to build strategic railroads, a rivalry that helped spark World War I.
He who controls energy, controls the globe. The U.S. imports only 7% of its energy from the Mideast, but holds on to this vital region in order to control the energy source of its European and Japanese allies.
Russia, the world's second largest oil exporter, wants Central Asian resources to be transported across its territory. Iran, also an oil producer, wants the energy pipelines to debouche at its ports, the shortest route. But America's powerful Israel lobby has blocked Washington's efforts to deal with Iran.
The United States and Pakistan have long sought to build pipelines running due south from Termez, Uzbekistan, to Kabul, Afghanistan, then down to Pakistan's Arabian Sea ports at Karachi and Gwadar. Oilmen call this route, "the new Silk Road," after the fabled route used to export China's riches. But this requires a stable, pro-western Afghanistan.
Iran has intrigued in Afghanistan since 1989 to keep that nation in disorder, thus preventing rival Pakistan from building its long-sought Termez-Karachi pipeline.
When Pakistan ditched its ally, the Taliban, in September, and sided with the U.S., Islamabad and Washington fully expected to implant a pro-American regime in Kabul and open the way for the Pak-American pipeline. But this was not to be.
In a dazzling coup, Russian President Vladimir Putin stole a march on the Bush administration, which was so busy trying to tear apart Afghanistan to find bin Laden it failed to notice the Russians were taking over half the country.
The wily Russians achieved this victory through their proxy Afghan force, the Northern Alliance. Moscow, which has sustained the Alliance since 1990, re-armed it after Sept. 11 with new tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, helicopters and trucks. The Alliance's two military leaders, Gen. Rashid Dostam and Gen. Muhammed Fahim, were stalwarts of the old Communist regime with close links to the KGB.
Putin put the chief of the Russian general staff, Viktor Kvashnin, and the deputy director of the KGB, in charge of the Alliance. During the Balkan fighting in 1999, the hard-charging Kvashnin outfoxed the U.S. by seizing Pristina's airfield, thus assuring a permanent Russian role in Kosovo.
Now, he's done it again. To the fury of Washington and Islamabad, Kvashnin rushed the Northern Alliance into Kabul, in direct contravention of Bush's dictates. The Alliance is now Afghanistan's dominant force and, heedless of multi-party political talks in Germany this weekend, styles itself the new "lawful" government, a claim fully backed by Moscow.
The Russians have regained influence over Afghanistan, revenged their defeat by the U.S. in the 1980s' war, and neatly checkmated the Bush administration which, for all its high-tech military power, understood little about Afghanistan.
America's ouster of the Taliban regime meant Pakistan lost its former influence over Afghanistan and is now cut off from Central Asia's resources. So long as the Alliance holds power, the U.S. is equally denied access to the much coveted Caspian Basin. Russia has regained control of the best potential pipeline routes. The "new Silk Road" will become a Russian energy superhighway.
By charging like an enraged bull into the South Asian china shop, the U.S. handed a stunning geopolitical victory to the Russians and severely damaged its own great power ambitions. Moscow is now free to continue plans to dominate South and Central Asia in concert with its strategic allies, India and Iran.
The Bush administration does not appear to understand its enormous blunder, and keeps insisting the Russians are now our friends.
Dear President Bush: Ask your dad. He will tell you that where oil is concerned, there are no friends, only competitors and enemies.
© Eric Margolis
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