It is practically an article of faith among the antiwar Left that the Afghan war is not really about terrorism at all, but, in reality, is an effort by the US (and specifically the oil-connected Bush administration) to seize Middle Eastern oil supplies and secure the profits of US petroleum companies. They are on the right track, in a sense, but, then again, it isn't that simple.
An interesting piece in Slate, "Russia, Oil, and Conspiracy Theories," by London Telegraph writer Anne Applebaum, floats the theory that what is going on here is not an attempted seizure so much as an effort to shift the locus of world oil production from the Arabian peninsula to the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus – and Russia. The recent Bush-Putin summit, in which the two leaders made kissy-face for the cameras, was a display of public affection that seemed out of all proportion to its actual results. While for much of the time it seemed that Bush was whispering sweet nothings in Putin's ear, the two leaders still agreed to disagree about missile defense, and not much progress was made on the ABM issue, either. So why were the two leaders spooning like newlyweds?
Applebaum points to Russia's refusal to join with OPEC in limiting oil production as key to understanding the much-heralded Russo-American alliance. However, for every dollar decrease in the price of oil, says Applebaum, Russia loses a billion in revenue. So what's up with that? "Those who prefer the deepest, darkest, most dramatic answers to this question already suspect the existence of a plot," she avers: "a Russian conspiracy to destroy OPEC in general and to destabilize Saudi Arabia in particular, the better to increase Russian market share."
But there is nothing particularly deep about this sort of purely economic motivation: nations invariably act in their own self-interest, and if Putin has calculated that the costs of the Russo-US alliance will bust his budget for several years, he is also counting on a payoff: in this case, a veritable jackpot. For as Ted Rall points out in a perceptive piece, "The New Great Game," this is all about control of the enormous oil reserves recently discovered in the Caspian Sea region – and how to pipe it out to Western consumers. Beneath the soil of Kazakhstan, alone, is enough buried treasure – 50 billion barrels of oil – to surpass the legendary wealth of the Arab sheiks. Saudi Arabia has only 30 billion barrels left.
Taking this "conspiracy theory" one step farther, Applebaum posits
"An advanced version of this conspiracy theory [that] has the United States in on the plot to destroy the Saudis. Admittedly, such an intrigue would have a certain historical symmetry to it: There are those who believe that the United States, in league with Saudi Arabia, also tried (successfully) to destroy the Soviet Union in the 1980s by lowering oil prices. And certainly it is true that in the wake of Sept. 11 America's close relationship with the Saudis is under tough scrutiny. OK, they're our allies-but who needs an ally whose citizens fly airplanes into American buildings?"
The real deal on the chorus of anti-Saudi rhetoric coming out of the War Party, in recent weeks, is that the Americans may have indeed decided to throw their Saudi puppets overboard: together with their newfound ally, Russia, and the Oriental despotisms of Central Asian "republics," they hope to get in on the "Great Game" – the pursuit of almost unimaginable wealth in the legendary land of the Golden Horde. As I pointed out in "A Saudi Connection?", Crown Prince Abdullah, heir to the House of Saud, is not likely to be as compliant as his predecessors, and the long-standing deal between the Saudi princes and US oil interests shows signs of unraveling. As Rall puts it: "Once the oil starts flowing, it won't take long before Kazakhstan replaces Kuwait as the land of Benzes and ugly gold jewelry."
The question of how to make this happen now preoccupies the Big Oil-GOP-corporatist alliance. The radical wing, energized by 9/11, advocates a preemptive American first strike against Saudi Arabia, and, indeed, against the whole Arab-Muslim world. For a war on Iraq – their cause of the hour – would not only destabilize the House of Saud, but also lead to a spike in oil prices, as supplies are interrupted, further shifting the focus of oil extraction efforts to the Caspian region and the construction of a pipeline.
Unable to take the shortest route, through Iran because "America's powerful Israel lobby has blocked Washington's efforts" to deal with Teheran, as Eric Margolis puts it one plan is for the Russians to build a pipeline to the Black Sea. But Islamic rebels are on the rampage in the region, and the Turkmen government has had a rocky relationship with the Russians, who tend to run out on their bills. Rall points out that "the logical alternative, then, is Unocal's plan, which is to extend Turkmenistan's existing system west to the Kazakh field on the Caspian and southeast to the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Arabian Sea. That project runs through Afghanistan."
Here's a wire service story on how the Afghan war, while it may have devastated a great deal of the country, has at least fueled some local businesses: an exporter of rugs, a maker of gloves and sweaters – and Big Oil. After the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa prompted US strikes against Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Unocal pulled out of the pipeline deal. But plenty of others are eagerly pouncing on the opportunity to play – and perhaps win – the Great Game.
According to Rob Sobhani, president of Washington-based Caspian Energy Consulting and a former consultant in Central Asia for Amoco (now British Petroleum), "Other major energy companies could see big opportunities in a deal crucial to restarting Afghanistan's economy." Sobhani pointed out that a new pipeline plan could bring in revenues totaling $100 million – "a fortune for a country with no effective infrastructure that has been ravaged by 22 years of war."
But the old UNOCAL route, south to Karachi, may be abandoned, in the near future, in favor of a Eurasian route, as Richard Norton-Taylor points out in the [UK] Guardian. With the Europeans clamoring for their fair share of the oil bonanza, an EU delegation visited the Caucasus recently, whereupon
"Soon after the EU visit, Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze, welcomed European and US support for the 'Great Silk Road idea.' The plan, backed by Washington and American oil companies, including Chevron, is for a pipeline taking Turkmenistan and Kazakh oil to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, through Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and through eastern Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan."
And not only the Europeans, but the Russians and the Chinese are "desperate" to get in on the act. The various factions, then, are roughly defined by which pipeline plan they favor. The relatively moderate wing of the Bush administration, centered around Colin Powell's State Department, seems to be sticking with the original UNOCAL route, south to Karachi: this is reflected in Powell's concern to keep Pakistan intact and within the American sphere of influence. On the other hand, the neoconservative-warhawk faction, led by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, seems to be going for the Eurasian route – in which case placating the Pakistanis is irrelevant and unnecessary. Another factor, however, aside from oil, is involved in this equation.
By deleting the Arab world entirely from US geopolitical considerations – invading Iraq, destabilizing the Saudis, and plunging the entire region into chaos and war – the "Eurasianists" will have eliminated Israel's enemies in a single stroke. This is a major consideration, if not the only motivating factor, in the neoconservative jihad against Iraq.
Of course, the ideologues of the War Party claim that an economic analysis of the "war on terrorism" is morally insensitive. After all, what about the 3,500 or so victims of the 9/11 atrocity? This war, they claim, is about making sure that never happens again. But is it? Such an effort, seriously undertaken, would necessitate a wholesale review of the American policy initiatives that made Taliban rule over the Afghans possible – an effort, we are told (predictably, by these same people) that cannot be undertaken because to do so would have to mean that the innocent victims of 9/11 somehow deserve it. That is "blaming America." The blame must be pinned on the American government, not ordinary Americans, and if that is what they mean by "blaming America," well, tough because it's true.
As Central Asian expert Ahmed Rashid points out in his book, Taliban, published last year, we created the Taliban, with the cooperation of the Pakistani intelligence service and Saudi assistance. Citing Rashid's book, Tall points out that "as recently as 1999, U.S. taxpayers paid the entire annual salary of every single Taliban government official, all in the hopes of returning to the days of dollar-a-gallon gas. Pakistan, naturally, would pick up revenues from a Karachi oil port facility." When the Taliban turned against their sponsors, however, the Great Game took a different turn.
It is interesting to note that the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Saudis, and even the original cadre of Al Qaeda all were previous allies of the US in the cold war era. Without the Afghan war of "liberation" against the Soviet occupiers, which Zbigniew Brzezinski boasted brought down the Kremlin, perhaps Osama bin Laden would have been just another rich Saudi wastrel, whoring and gambling his way through the Riviera. Without the milieu provided by the Afghan war, Al Qaeda, at any rate, would never have developed into a effectively murderous cult with an international following. The Afghan war against the Soviet occupation may, in the short term, have helped bring down the Evil Empire – but, in the long run, it also brought down the twin towers, and threatened to erect yet another evil empire in its stead.
The anti-war Left, then, sees the oil factor in overly simplistic terms. In their anti-corporate, anti-capitalist demonology, all oil companies are evil, by definition, and in collusion with the US government to profit through war. In this case, however, as we have seen, there are competing factions within the corporate elite, each contending for the prize, and bidding for support from the US government.
During the Clinton era, a whole sub-department was created to facilitate the extraction of oil profits from the Caspian Sea region, and this has certainly not been abolished by the Bushies. The point is that some companies will win out, and others will lose, in the battle to gain Washington's favor. If the Powell faction wins out, the route through Pakistan will not destabilize the region and we will be spared the extension of the war throughout the Middle East. If the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz group triumphs – and there are some disturbing indications that this is indeed the case – the entire Middle East will be plunged into war, with US soldiers in the thick of it.
The leftist dogma that it doesn't matter which wing of the "ruling class," the capitalists, wins out in the end is refuted by this reality. Capitalism, per se, doesn't breed war: indeed, laissez-faire requires quite the opposite. And don't think the ordinary capitalist profits from war: this privilege is reserved for those with the right government connections.
The very real economic harm done by war – the cost in wasted wealth, as well as wasted lives – could pull the US, already mired in a sharp recession, into a full-fledged depression. The stock market is not going to like World War III – and neither will most Americans once they realize that all this talk about nothing ever being the same again means economic catastrophe. The Vietnam War drained the life out of the US economy during the late sixties and early seventies, and the financial shock of a prolonged Mideast conflict could well be far worse. In the end, the markets are vehemently antiwar – a phenomenon that must mystify Noam Chomsky to no end.
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