Central Asia: Gateway to global power

Afghanistan’s natural resources make it pivotal in US foreign policy in Central Asia.

Halford Mackinder, the famous 19th century British geopolitical theorist, wrote: “he who controls Central Asia controls the world.”

Central Asia is home to some of the world’s largest untapped natural resources worth trillions of dollars and, as elsewhere, they play a large role in US foreign policy in the region, particularly in Afghanistan.


The war-ravaged country is a
highway for gas and oil riches

In every crisis there is an opportunity and the collapse of the Soviet Union had oil prospectors in Washington drooling with anticipation. But unlocking the oil dividend would not be without its problems.

Turkmenistan and other former Soviet states are landlocked. The easiest and cheapest pipeline would be the so-called eastern pipeline through Iran. But this is ruled out by a US embargo on trade with Tehran.

One obvious alternative was Afghanistan. This route would allow Washington to export natural reserves to the world’s most lucrative markets, particularly Pakistan and India where demand is booming and competitors few.

But it also promised other dividends. A trans-Afghan pipeline is more than a highway for gas and oil riches. It has been described as key component of a broader geo-strategic agenda for total military and economic control of the Middle East.

Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has described Central Asia as the “centre of world power.”  National Security Council energy expert Sheila Heslin was quoted in 1997 as saying, “US policy was to promote the rapid development of Caspian energy…We did so…to in essence break Russia’s monopoly control over the transportation and oil from that region, and frankly, to promote Western energy security through diversification of supply.”

In 1998, US Vice-President Dick Cheney, then also CEO of Halliburton oil company, said, “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”

Afghanistan holds only limited oil and gas reserves but straddles the most direct route for exporting oil and natural gas from neighbouring Turkmenistan. Gas reserves alone in Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert holds some three trillion cubic metres, the world’s third largest, and an estimated six billion barrels of oil.

The combined total or proven and estimated reserves in Central Asia stand at more than 800 billion barrels in crude petroleum, making it possibly the second largest in the world after the Arabian Gulf.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration softened its position towards the Taliban government in Afghanistan to open negotiations for California-based oil company UNOCAL’s planned gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. Iron grip or otherwise, the Taliban had brought to the fractious country the kind of stability needed to interest big business, and which the interim US-sponsored government of Hamid Karzai has struggled to foster since the removal of the Taliban in 2001.

Today Afghanistan’s importance as a highway for releasing landlocked Central Asian republics’ oil and gas resources are remote, according to John Gershman, Asia-Pacific editor for the US-based think-tank Foreign Policy in Focus.

“Because of (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai’s difficulty to rule, oil and gas companies are looking elsewhere, where it is less risky,” explained Gershman.

History of failure

According to the US Energy Information Administration’s country analysis brief on Afghanistan, Karzai has tried to revive the idea of a gas pipeline plan from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. In 2002 leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed a $3.2 billion gas pipeline deal, one of the first major investment projects in Kabul in decades. 

The agreement will do well to hold; so far the history of the trans-Afghanistan pipeline has been one of delays, disputes and disappointment.
Argentina’s Bridas oil company was the first to secure the Turkmenistan pipeline in 1992 when Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov rewarded it gas exploration rights from Yashlar block in the eastern part of the country near the Afghan border and the Keimar block near the Caspian Sea in western Turkmenistan. By March 1995 Bridas’ chief Carlos Bulgheroni had accords with Turkmenistan and Pakistan granting Bridas construction rights for a pipeline running through Afghanistan pending negotiations with the war-torn country.

Following extensive meetings between Bulgheroni and Afghan power brokers in 1996 Bridas secured a 30-year agreement with then Afghanistan president Burhanuddin Rabbani to build and operate a gas pipeline across Afghanistan. Bulgheroni approached other companies, including UNOCAL to join an international consortium.

But UNOCAL was not interested in a partnership and began wooing the Taliban, which was then in control of some 85% of the country, and Pakistan, to give the US company exclusive rights instead of Bridas.

The Argentinean company brought a $15 billion law suit against UNOCAL for preventing it from developing gas fields in Turkmenistan. But Texas Republican Judge Brady G. Elliot threw the case out in 1998, ruling that the state had no jurisdiction over the matter.

UNOCAL hired former US diplomats like Henry Kissinger and Robert Oakley to lobby for the pipeline deal after Washington said it would not materialise until an Afghan government was recognised by the US.

Then US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel was also in favour of the UNOCAL project. Speaking in Islamabad after visiting Kabul in 1996 Raphel said, “We have an American company which is interested in building a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Pakistan. This pipeline project will be very good for Pakistan and Afghanistan as it will not only offer job opportunities but also energy in Afghanistan.”

Former UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Yasuki Akashi in 1997 was quoted in Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid’s book “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia,” as saying, “The outside interference in Afghanistan is now all related to the battle for oil and gas pipelines. The fear is that these companies and regional powers are just renting the Taliban for their own purposes.”


The United Nations said outside
interference in Afghanistan
was related to pipeline politics

UNOCAL abruptly withdrew from the pipeline project after Washington bombed Afghanistan in 1998.

As of 1992, eleven Western oil companies controlled more than 50% of all oil investments in the Caspian Basin, including UNOCAL, Amoco, Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Pennzoil, Texaco, Philips and British Petroleum. Rashid wrote, “US oil companies who had spearheaded the first US forays into the region wanted a greater say in US policymaking.”    

US oil companies started lobbying publicly in 1995 when they formed the private Foreign Oil Companies, a pressure group petitioning for a greater say in US-policy making. UNOCAL was a member of the lobby group. 

The new Afghanistan

Today Afghanistan’s geo-political importance plays a greater role in shaping US foreign policy in Central Asia than oil and gas. Prior to the 2001 military campaign in Afghanistan Central Asia was a gaping hole in Washington’s global network of military bases, he said. The war against the Taliban gave the US a pretext to set-up military and logistic bases in countries surrounding Afghanistan and expand trade and commercial interest in Central Asia.

“If the US was really interested in gas and oil we would see a much larger military force in Afghanistan because oil and gas companies don’t have the luxury to wait around for stability,” believes Gershman.

With US military bases in Georgia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Washington now has military and logistics bases on the doorstep of countries it has concerns with like Pakistan, India, Iran, China and Russia. Washington will also push its trade and commercial interests in former Soviet republics where Russia and China have greater influence.