Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the discovery of large oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea and its littoral states, Afghanistan has been an important piece on the board of the energy industry’s “great game.”
US energy interests in Afghanistan during the 1990s were represented by Unocal. In 1997, the company formed a consortium called CentGas, to build a natural gas export pipeline between Turkmenistan’s gas fields and Asian markets. Unocal was also interested in developing an oil export pipeline, which would have brought central Asian oil to the east. Both pipes would have crossed Afghanistan. The proposed $2 billion gas pipeline was planned to stretch 900 miles from Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad field (one of the world’s largest gas fields, with reserves of 25 trillion cubic feet), to central Pakistan, delivering 2 billion cubic feet of gas per day.
Unocal is now under scrutiny for its allegedly cosy relationship with the Taleban. The company says that it has always made clear that it would only proceed when the US and UN recognised the Afghan government. But it can’t get off so easily and nor should the US’s energy policy in the region. The state department’s efforts to ensure that oil export pipelines from central Asia are not controlled by Iran, Iraq or Russia meant that exports through Afghanistan were promoted alongside the development of an export line from Azerbaijan to Turkey, (this Baku to Ceyhan pipeline is now set to go ahead).
The US’s reasoning was clear. If Russia, which remains an enemy to many people in the CIA and state department, controlled the export routes from the Caspian basin, it could oversee the flow of 8m barrels of oil per day on top of its own production, making it as important as Saudi Arabia.
Iran, already one of the world’s largest oil exporters, would also grow even more dominant in world oil markets if a main export pipeline from the Caspian were to cross its land. The US found that prospect alarming, as did Saudi Arabia. No doubt the state department and its friends in the kingdom were therefore happy to see Unocal’s development plans for the trans-Afghan line move forward.
Helping to promote its proposal to the rulers in Afghanistan, Unocal is said to have entertained senior officials from the Taleban in the US. According to Michael Griffin, author of a book on the…