A recent diary by Turkana asked the question Afghanistan: What Are We Fightin For? First of all, let me just say that I don't claim to have the definitive answer. The only one who really knows this are people like Barack Obama, David Petraeus, George Bush, and Stanley McCrystal, and judging by the seeming internal dischord within the U.S. government over Afghan policy, they might give you entirely different answers.
In fact, one thing that has bugged me about American politics lately is both the left and the right's seeming enthusiasm to jump to conclusions on issues of foreign policy by embracing the first conspiracy theory that comes their way. I could link to plenty of far-left or far-right blogs claiming this or that reason for the operation, but I won't do that. At the same time, it's notable that mainstream media discussion in Western societies vs. those in the Eastern world take a notably different tact on the subject of the U.S presence in Afghanistan.
In Turkana's diary, one commenter suggested that a natural gas pipeline was one of the motivating concerns for the continued U.S. presence in the region. In response, another commenter claimed that this was a "conspiracy theory" that had been "debunked." This is typical of the confusion about Afghanistan.
Well, we should be able to find the answer to this. Are major world powers currently engaged in constructing a pipeline in the region or not?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. But not one pipeline. Two pipelines.
From the very beginning of the War On Terror, Afghanistan's strategic importance in terms of energy has been a key (albeit rarely remarked on) subtext. But not so much because Afghanistan itself has such great resources. It's because it lies between energy-rich central Asian states - countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan - and the sea.
Ironically, CNN carried a story which described the dynamic with blunt honesty all the way back in 2001:
A new struggle for dominance could be set to be played out in Central Asia as the world's energy companies watch the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
More than 100 years ago, the country was at the heart of the matter as two great empires battled for dominance in Central Asia.
Afghanistan was at the centre of a power game between Britain and Russia as both sought to protect their interests and improve communication links to outposts all over the region.
Now, despite carrying the scars from years of conflict, it is significant in terms of its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.
Indeed, plans for pipelines were underway in the mid-1990s -- but stumbled because of continuing instability in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Now the world's oil and gas companies will be eyeing the situation again as the Taliban crumbles....
The primary attraction is the existence of oil and gas reserves in Central Asia.
Afghanistan is important because of its location between those reserves and the growing economies of south Asia.
In a statement to the U.S. House subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific in 1998, John J. Maresca, vice president, international relations of U.S. company Unocol said natural gas reserves in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan equal more than 236 trillion cubic feet.
In "Slouching Towards Balkanization," Asia Times points out that the intellectual godfather of the pipeline project is a man who is still taking an active role in Afghanistan policy: veteran neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad.
Khalilzad was critical in pushing for Hamid Karzai, the current President, to be installed after the initial U.S. invasion. There is a persistent rumor that Karzai was actually an employee on the oil company Unocal - however, this has not been proven, and appears to originate from an article in Le Monde which may have confused Karzai with Khalilzad.
As Asia Times notes:
The "prize" - from president Bill Clinton to Bush and now Obama - is still the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline, then known as TAP and now known as TAPI, with the inclusion of India.
Khalilzad was a key player in setting up the Afghanistan-America Foundation in the mid-1990s, a lobby that during the Clinton administration became very influential because of its spinning of TAP, hyped as a key pipeline to bypass both Iran and Russia.
Karzai's brother Qayum was on the advisory board, along with Khalilzad and Ishaq Nadiri, who later conveniently became "economic advisor" to Karzai. Qayum and another Karzai brother - Mahmoud - owned a Baltimore-based restaurant chain in the US (that's why people in Kabul and western Pakistan call Karzai "the kebab seller").
The struggle for resources in this region isn't just a case of the U.S. swooping in to take the spoils - it's a geopolitical power struggle between rival power blocks, which involve an overlapping cast of characters. On one side is the China-backed IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India), on the other, the U.S.-backed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) project.
The dynamic at play is probably best summed up by Robert Wirsing, in a document authored for the U.S. government in April of 2008. You can read it here. (PDF format)
Two projects for transporting natural gas via overland pipelines to markets in Pakistan and India are today being actively considered. One is the proposed 2,700-kilometer-long (nearly 1,700-miles) Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline with a capacity to transport 2.8 billion cubic feet (bcf) of gas daily from Iran’s huge offshore South Pars field to
terminals in Pakistan and India. Estimated originally to cost about $4 billion and more recently anywhere from $7 to $9 billion, it has been under discussion since the mid-1990s. The other project is the proposed 1,680-kilometer-long (about 1,050-miles) Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, with cost estimates currently running somewhere between $3.3 billion and $10 billion. This pipeline would have the eventual capacity to transport up to 3.2 bcf daily from Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad field to markets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, having been invited to join
the project in February 2006, India.
He goes on to say:
Energy experts are generally agreed that the trilateral IPI project, which gained ground in 2004 with the relaunching of the India-Pakistan peace process, would bring enormous economic benefit to all three
countries involved—Iran, because the project would help it bypass the U.S.-imposed and economically painful Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 (renamed by Congress the Iran Sanctions Act at the time of its renewal in September 2006); India and Pakistan, because in both countries energy supplies are falling increasingly below energy demands.
And here is a map showing the proposed routes of the IPI and TAPI pipelines:
So, what has happened since Wirsing's piece was published over a year ago? In the spring of 2009, the Western block reached an agreement, and the TAPI pact was signed.
An Inter-Governmental Framework Agreement on the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline project was signed on Thursday
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, while stressing the need for the early implementation of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (India) (TAPI) gas pipeline project, said that this project would usher in a new era of prosperity and progress of the region, as well as improve relations among the member countries.
A month later, the member countries announced the beginning of construction of the TAPI pipeline.
The 10th steering committee of oil ministers from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have agreed to start construction work on the much delayed TAPI pipeline project in 2010.
This was stated at a joint press conference by Mr Khwaja Muhammad Asif Pakistan’s minister for petroleum & natural resources, Turkmen minister for oil & gas industry Dr Baymurad Hojamuhamedov, Afghan minister of mines Mr Mohammad Ibrahim Adel and Indian minister for petroleum & natural gas Mr Murli Deora here after the conclusion of the steering committee meeting.
The second meeting of the technical working group of the 4 countries was also held the same day.
The gas pipeline project, to be completed at the cost of USD 7.6 billion, will start supplying 3.2 billion cubic feet gas per day through 56 inch diameter pipeline. The pipeline will start from Dauletabad field in Turkmenistan to Fazilka at the Pakistan India border, passing through Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan and Multan in Pakistan. Key principles for future gas sales and purchase agreement will be agreed bilaterally between the buyer and sellers under the heads of agreement discussions.
As for the IPI project, it is also proceeding, with one important caveat - India has jumped ship. This is widely viewed as a result of the U.S.'s willingness to offer its nuclear technology to India and help enhance their security. So, at the moment, what we have is TAPI vs. IP.
So while I don't think it's right to attribute one or another knee-jerk motive for the U.S. presence in the region, I have to say I find the idea that energy issues are NOT a key factors entirely unconvincing. The U.S. may indeed be there to defeat terrorists - but why do we care so much about this part of the world and not, say, the vicious drug war in Mexico right at our doorstep?
This leads to all kinds of difficult questions. If energy concerns are at least a partial motivating factor, does that mean it's wrong to be there altogether? Should America not be pursuing realpolitik interests to secure resources at the same time that the other great powers are? Or does the presence of figures like Khalilzad and Karzai's druglord brother cast a pall on the whole enterprise? Either way, it would probably be better if the American public had a better understanding of some of these realities, which the media seems strangely uninterested in or unwilling to provide.