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How oil interests shaped U.S. policy
What the U.S. wants from this war

December 7, 2001 | Page 7

ERIC RUDER looks at what's behind the U.S. war against Afghanistan.

"EITHER YOU accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs." That's how one U.S. diplomat reportedly put it to Afghanistan's Taliban government during negotiations that began just after George W. Bush took over the White House in January 2001--and continued until just weeks before September 11.

Of course, it's difficult now to find any mention of U.S. efforts to woo the Taliban. That wouldn't fit with the Bush administration's agenda of claiming that U.S. bombs liberated Afghans from a sworn enemy of freedom.

But only a few months ago, the U.S. was trying to cut a deal with the Taliban--and it didn't have anything to do with human rights.

What's more, according to a new book, the Bush administration blocked efforts by U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate Osama bin Laden during its bargaining with the Afghan government--prompting FBI Deputy Director John O'Neill to resign in protest in July. "The main obstacles to investigating Islamic terrorism were U.S. oil corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia," O'Neill told French intelligence analysts Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, authors of the new book Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth.

This wouldn't be the first time that U.S. oil interests played a major role in shaping U.S. dealings with the Taliban. The U.S. began "romancing the Taliban," as journalist Ahmed Rashid put it, even before Islamist hard-liners established full control over Afghanistan in 1996.

"Between 1994 and 1997, the U.S. in fact was supporting the Taliban in the sense that it was allowing Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, its two allies in the region, to back the Taliban," Rashid said in an interview. "And this was because the U.S. and U.S. oil companies were interested in building oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia across Afghanistan, through Pakistan, to the Gulf…[T]here was the hope at one time, by U.S. policymakers, that the Taliban would provide a kind of security force for these pipelines, because these pipelines were crossing southern Afghanistan, which is the heartland of Taliban control."

The U.S. oil giant Unocal was particularly bold in sucking up to the Taliban, even flying representatives of the regime to its corporate headquarters in Texas. The Taliban "were offered a cut of the profits from the pipelines; 15 percent was mentioned," journalist John Pilger wrote in Britain's New Statesman magazine. "A U.S. official observed that, with the Caspian's oil and gas flowing, Afghanistan would become 'like Saudi Arabia,' an oil colony with no democracy and the legal persecution of women. 'We can live with that,' he said."

The U.S. attack on Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998--in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa supposedly organized by Osama bin Laden--effectively ended Unocal's plans.

But U.S. designs on the region were always bigger than one pipeline. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, U.S. oil companies have schemed to gain access to the huge oil and gas reserves--worth an estimated $4 trillion at current prices--in the former Soviet republics bordering the Caspian Sea.

The list of countries that want a piece of the action is predictably long--and includes Russia, China, Iran and Europe, in addition to the U.S.

Given the Bush administration's ties to the oil industry, it's not surprising that quiet but persistent negotiations with the Taliban were near the top of its agenda when it set up shop in Washington.

Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, has long understood the importance of the Caspian Sea. While still CEO of the oil services company Halliburton, Cheney said, "I can't think of a time when we've had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."

But after months of talks, U.S. officials weren't any closer to an agreement with the Taliban and were beginning to lose patience--and increasingly turned to the "stick" of threatened military strikes rather than the "carrot" of oil money.

At a UN-sponsored meeting in Berlin in mid-July, senior U.S. officials proclaimed that military action against Afghanistan was in the works and would likely take place by October, according to Niaz Naik, Pakistan's former foreign secretary.

The officials said the U.S. had plans to get Osama bin Laden. But the wider objective would be to topple the Taliban and install a "more moderate" regime in its place.

"The Americans indicated to us that in case the Taliban does not behave and in case Pakistan also doesn't help to influence the Taliban, then the United States would be left with no option but to take an overt action against Afghanistan," Naik told reporters.

As it turns out, the September 11 attacks provided the U.S. with a perfect excuse to carry out a strategy that it had been considering for months.

Before the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, Business Week magazine declared in an editorial: "Oil is worth going to war for." Now it turns out that the U.S. war for "democracy" and "justice" in Afghanistan is about the same thing--who will profit off the world's most valuable commodity.

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