The 'War On Terrorism' And
The World's Biggest Oil Discovery
By Ted Rall
San Francisco Chronicle
New York - Nursultan Nazarbayev has a terrible problem. He's the president
and former Communist Party boss of Kazakstan, the second-largest republic
of the former Soviet Union. A few years ago, the giant country struck oil in
the eastern portion of the Caspian Sea. Geologists estimate that sitting
beneath the wind-blown steppes of Kazakstan are 50 billion barrels of oil --
by far the biggest untapped reserves in the world. (Saudi Arabia, currently
the world's largest oil producer, is believed to have about 30 billion barrels
remaining.) Kazakstan's Soviet-subsidized economy collapsed immediately
after independence in 1991. When I visited the then-capital, Almaty, in 1997,
I was struck by the utter absence of elderly people. One after another,
people confided that their parents had died of malnutrition during the
brutal winters of 1993 and 1994.
Middle-class residents of a superpower had been reduced to abject poverty
virtually overnight; thirtysomething women who appeared sixtysomething
hocked their wedding silver in underpasses, next to reps for the Kazak state
art museum trying to move enough socialist-realist paintings for a dollar
each to keep the lights on. The average Kazak earned $20 a month; those
unwilling or unable to steal died of gangrene while sitting on the sidewalk
next to long- winded tales of woe written on cardboard.
Autocrats tend to die badly during periods of downward mobility.
Nazarbayev, therefore, has spent most of the past decade trying to get his
landlocked oil out to sea. Once the oil starts flowing, it won't take long
before Kazakstan replaces Kuwait as the land of Mercedes-Benzs and ugly
gold jewelry. But the longer the pipeline, the more expensive and
vulnerable it is to sabotage. The shortest route runs through Iran, but
Kazakstan is too closely aligned with the United States to offend it by cutting
a deal with Tehran. Russia has helpfully offered to build a line connecting
Kazak oil rigs with the Black Sea, but neighboring Turkmenistan has
experienced trouble with the Russians -- they tend to divert the oil for their
own use without paying for it. There's even a plan to run crude through
China, but the proposed 5,300-mile-long pipeline would be far too long to
The logical alternative, then, is Unocal's plan, which is to extend
Turkmenistan's existing system west to the Kazak field on the Caspian Sea
and southeast to the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Arabian Sea. That
project runs through Afghanistan.
As Central Asian expert Ahmed Rashid describes in his book "Taliban,"
published last year, the United States and Pakistan decided to install a stable
regime in 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 State Department and Pakistan's Inter- Services
Intelligence agency 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. Pakistan, naturally, would pick up revenues from a Karachi oil
port facility. Harkening back to 19th century power politics between Russia
and British India, Rashid dubbed the struggle for control of post-Soviet
Central Asia "the new Great Game."
Predictably, the Taliban Frankenstein got out of control. The regime's
unholy alliance with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, their
penchant for invading their neighbors and their production of 50 percent of
the world's opium made them unlikely partners for the desired oil deal.
Then-President Bill Clinton's August 1998 cruise missile attack on Afghanistan
briefly brought the Taliban back into line -- they even eradicated opium
poppy cultivation in less than a year -- but they nonetheless continued
supporting countless militant Islamic groups. When an Egyptian group
whose members had trained in Afghanistan hijacked four airplanes and used
them to kill thousands of Americans on September 11, Washington's
patience with its former client finally expired.
Finally the Bushies have the perfect excuse to do what the United States has
wanted to do all along -- invade and/or install an old-school puppet regime
in Kabul. Realpolitik no more cares about the thousands of 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.
Central Asian politics, however, is a house of cards: every time you remove
one element, the whole thing comes crashing down. Muslim extremists in
both Pakistan and Afghanistan, for instance, will support additional terrorist
attacks on the United States to avenge the elimination of the Taliban. A U.S.-
installed Northern Alliance can't hold Kabul without an army of occupation
because Afghan legitimacy hinges on capturing the capital on your own.
Even if we do this the right way by funding and training the Northern
Alliance so that they can seize power themselves, Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun
government will never stand the replacement of their Pashtun brothers in
the Taliban by Northern Alliance Tajiks. Without Pakistani cooperation,
there's no getting the oil out and there's no chance for stability in
As Bush would say, "make no mistake": this is about oil. It's always about oil.
And to twist a late '90s cliche, it's only boring because it's true.
Ted Rall, a syndicated editorial cartoonist, has traveled extensively
throughout Central Asia. In 2000, he went to Turkmenistan as a guest of the
State Department. His latest book is "2024: A Graphic Novel" (NBM Books May 2001).
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