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Central Asia: Pipeline Plans Allegedly Motivating Afghanistan War

  • Michael Lelyveld

Critics say that pipeline plans for Central Asia are playing a major part in calculations about Afghanistan. But there seems to be little evidence that energy policy is driving the actions of the United States, Russia, or Iran.

Boston, 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Several countries have been suspected of pursuing pipeline strategies rather than peace in Afghanistan. But experts say the country's potential for energy exports has little to do with the war on terrorism or the actions of major powers.

In the past week, both Russia and the United States have been accused of seeking to control Central Asia's resources by pursuing the war in Afghanistan.

On 30 November, Iran's official news agency IRNA reported that the deputy commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps said the aim of the United States in Afghanistan "is to have influence on Central Asia and access to fuel resources and geopolitical conditions in the region."

Brigadier General Mohammad Zolqadr was quoted as saying, "Settling the problem of Afghanistan, the U.S. intends to stay in the region." U.S. officials have denied such plans.

On the same day last week, the London-based "Financial Times" quoted a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, who charged Russia with similar objectives in Afghanistan. Najmuddin Shaikh said Russia's interest is to assure unrest in Afghanistan so that Central Asia's oil and gas will flow north over Russian territory rather than south.

Shaikh said, "You cannot control Central Asia if Afghanistan provides alternative exit routes for Central Asia's oil." He added, "Russia is intent on ensuring there is only one controller of pipelines in this region so they can keep a finger on the jugular vein."

But Russia's ambassador to Pakistan, Eduard Shevchenko, denied the motivation. Shevchenko said: "Russia is eager to have peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is in the interests of all of us to have a stable country from where there will be no danger to neighboring countries or other countries in the world."

Iran's suspicion of U.S. energy interests stems from a failed pipeline project that was pursued by a U.S.-based oil company from 1995 to 1998.

The plan sponsored by Unocal Corporation was to build a 1,400-kilometer pipeline to take gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and possibly India. An oil line to the Arabian Sea was also envisioned, but sources of the oil were never firmly identified.

After years of effort, the project collapsed, in part because Afghanistan was never unified. Unocal finally abandoned the plan in August 1998, after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa were linked to Osama bin Laden. Former President Bill Clinton banned U.S. investment in Taliban-controlled areas in 1999.

Last week, a Unocal official in the southern U.S. city of Houston, told RFE/RL that the company has no further interest in Afghanistan pipeline projects and has now committed its resources elsewhere.

Unocal spokeswoman Terry Covington said, "We don't have any plans or interests in Central Asia." She also said she knows of no other U.S. companies that are considering a pipeline investment in the country. Covington said, "I haven't heard of anyone saying it looks like a good area to get in."

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov continues to make the case for gas exports through Afghanistan. In October, Niyazov urged the United Nations to consider supporting the project as a way of bringing stability to the country, the Caspian News Agency reported.

Last week in Moscow, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev also showed interest in an Afghan export option, when speaking of the country's attempts to form a new government. He was quoted by the Kazakhstan Today news service as saying: "Such (a) government must make (the) territory of Afghanistan open. We need to deal with rehabilitation of (the) Afghan economy. We are interested in Afghanistan as a transit country for us."

But despite the concerns of nearby countries, there seems to be no sign that the United States is motivated by energy strategy in Afghanistan. In an interview, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau said such suspicions ignore the obvious, namely the war against terrorism.

Pelletreau, who is now a partner at the law firm Afridi & Angell in Washington, said, "It just shows that conspiracy theories are alive and well." Pelletreau also believes that Russia's primary goal is to promote stability in a region that might threaten its southern border rather than to drive oil and gas north.

Julia Nanay, a director at Petroleum Finance Company, a Washington-based consulting firm, said, "They don't necessarily want to prevent a pipeline through Afghanistan, but the Russians would want to have a key role in it." Still, Nanay said, all such possibilities are in the distant future because stability may still be a long way off.

Iran also has an interest in pipelines in the region. At the end of two days of meetings with top officials in Islamabad, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on 1 December that two joint committees were being set up with Pakistan. The first is to plan for an Iranian gas pipeline to Pakistan and possibly India. The second is to aid reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Iran has tried to promote a line from its South Pars gas fields in the Persian Gulf for years, although there has been little mention of the project since last April. Reduced tensions with Pakistan following the defeat of the Taliban could make a pipeline more plausible, but there seems little doubt that peace, not a pipeline, is the first concern.

Nanay believes that Central Asian energy routes through region are inevitable, although they may take years. He said, "In the long run, you've got to find some way to get some of these resources to the Asian markets, and that means Iran or Afghanistan."

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