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Truth and Dissembling on Central Asian Oil Politics

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
October 15, 2001

What role do oil politics play in the war against the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan? That question has emerged in the liberal press in the last few days, and rightly so. Afghanistan is strategically crucial in the race to develop large oil and gas reserves in Central Asia - both as part of a potential route for oil and gas pipelines and as a source of political instability hindering any major energy development in the region. Such considerations are thus undoubtedly a part of the strategic calculus of American policymakers and yet have received little attention in the mainstream US press.

However, the issue is regrettably being twisted into anti-Bush screeds already. Notably, nationally syndicated columnist Ted Rall has written one of the most irresponsible pieces since the September 11 attacks, making a number of unsupportable allegations about US involvement in the region. These include a claim that US taxpayers funded the salaries of Taliban government officials as recently as 1999 and the absurd argument that the war is "solely" motivated by the desire to build a gas pipeline through Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and the race for Central Asian energy in the 1990s

In just the last few days, Rall (10/12), Nina Burleigh of TomPaine.com (10/12), Brooke Shelby Biggs of MotherJones.com (10/12), James Ridgeway of the Village Voice (10/10) and Benjamin Soskis of The New Republic (10/11) have all written about the importance of oil in Central Asian regional politics. This marks the first time the issue had received significant attention in the US press since the September 11 attacks.

The story is that the former Soviet republics in Central Asia - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - sit on some of the largest undeveloped oil and gas reserves in the world. These landlocked countries need a method of transporting these fossil fuels to market in order to make full-scale development economically feasible, leading to contemplation of a pipeline during the 1990s.

There are a number of possible routes for a pipeline, all fraught with political implications. The shortest route runs through Iran, which is under US sanctions. Other routes - also opposed by the US - would go through China and Russia. Most attention focussed, however, on a proposal from a consortium led by Unocal, a US oil company, to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, and possibly an oil pipeline as well. These routes would pass through southern Afghanistan, which has been controlled by the Taliban since the proposal was first made. As a result, Unocal courted the Taliban for several years. The company gave the regime some non-financial aid as part of that process before eventually abandoning the project in the wake of the US attacks on Osama bin Laden's camps in 1998. After that, the US backed a pipeline project that run from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey.

Up until 1997-1998, the US government's position on the Taliban was muddled and at times came close to tacit support. Why? Soskis cites a lack of good intelligence; deference to Pakistan, a key ally which backed the Taliban; hope for stability in the region and, possibly, a crackdown on opium production; and, finally, the possibility of building the pipeline. However, by 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned the Taliban, and the administration's position hardened as opposition by American feminists to the regime grew.

Clearly, the energy reserves of Central Asia are a factor that has to be considered when analyzing the US war in Afghanistan, particularly in examining the issues facing American policymakers considering post-war plans for the country. In fact, Pakistan recently lobbied the new US ambassador to the country on behalf of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as former oilmen, certainly understand the importance of the pipeline projects, but these are surely only part of a complex set of factors being weighed by the administration.

Rall's outlandish column

Universal Press Syndicate syndicated columnist Ted Rall's newest column twists these facts into a smear of President Bush and the US government. It is a regrettable sequel to his notorious comment last month as part of a diatribe against President Bush and the "imperial presidency [he] is shoving down our throats": "It may have seemed meaningless at the time, but now we know why 7,000 people sacrificed their lives -- so that we'd all forget how Bush stole a presidential election."

Consider Rall's account of recent history in Afghanistan:

As Central Asian expert Ahmed Rashid describes in his book Taliban, published last year, the U.S. and Pakistan decided to install a stable regime into place in Afghanistan around 1994-a regime that would end the country's civil war and thus ensure the safety of the Unocal pipeline project. Impressed by the ruthlessness and willingness of the then-emerging Taliban to cut a pipeline deal, the U.S. State Department and Pakistan's ISI intelligence service agreed to funnel arms and funding to the Taliban in their war against the ethnically Tajik Northern Alliance. As recently as 1999, U.S. taxpayers paid the entire annual salary of every single Taliban government official, all in the hopes of returning to the days of dollar-a-gallon gas.

However, Rashid's book - generally considered the authoritative account of the rise of the Taliban - tells a different story. There is no evidence of the supposed US-Pakistan decision. In fact, there is much evidence of indecision in US policy up to and after 1994, rather than some plan to "install a stable regime". There is similarly no evidence that State Department (or the US government in general) helped provide arms or funds to the Taliban. Rashid explicitly notes that while there were rumors that the CIA supported the Taliban directly during the 1990s, he found no evidence of this.

The third claim - that American taxpayers paid Taliban government salaries - is based on Rashid's account of Pakistan allocating $6 million for this purpose in late 1998. But Rall is simply dissembling when he implicates the US in this. Rall provides no evidence that Pakistan used US aid for the salary funds and additionally fails to make an explicit argument that it would be fair to assign responsibility in this way.

To understand just how weak Rall's case is, consider that he argued that the US has oppressed Afghanistan in his previous column, claiming that "[w]e've been at war with Afghanistan for years" and that "[t]his New War is merely an escalation of genocide by trade sanction." How the US could be both "at war with Afghanistan for years" and paying the salaries of Taliban government officials "[a]s recently as 1999" is never explained or even acknowledged.

Rall goes on to call bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, bizarrely, "an Egyptian group" (in fact, it is transnational, and not all the hijackers were Egyptian) and falsely labels the Taliban "[Washington's] former client":

When an Egyptian group whose members had trained in Afghanistan hijacked four airplanes and used them to kill more than 6,000 Americans on September 11, Washington's patience with its former client finally expired.

From there, the column devolves into more unsupportable allegations and smears:

Finally the Bushies had the perfect excuse to do what the U.S. had wanted all along: invade and/or install an old-school puppet regime in Kabul. Realpolitik no more cares about the 6,000 dead than it concerns itself with oppressed women in Afghanistan; this ersatz war by a phony president is solely about getting the Unocal deal done without interference from annoying local middlemen.

There is simply no indication that the US wanted to invade Afghanistan prior to the attacks of September 11. In fact, its neglect of the region is one of the historical facts upon which almost everyone (US critics included) agrees. Rall also makes the absurd suggestion that the war is "solely" about an oil deal, trivializing the overriding motive of the attacks - going after Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and the regime that harbors bin Laden. Oil may be a factor, but Rall's argument is ridiculous. Finally, note the insinuation that US policymakers don't care about the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks or the oppressed women of Afghanistan.

A responsible dialogue on oil in the current crisis

The significance of oil politics in Central Asia is very real, and should not be ignored by the press or the public. But a responsible dialogue should be based on facts, not dissembling and a reversion to lazy stereotypes about President Bush's devotion to oil to the exclusion of all other interests. At this time of crisis, we need to be smarter than Ted Rall.

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