Here’s some excerpts from an article at the World Socialist Web Site that was written in February 2001. The whole article is fascinating reading.
While the US and Russia jointly sponsored the latest UN sanctions against Afghanistan, there are sharp tensions between the two countries and with other major powers that are vying for domination in Central Asia. The region has some of the richest reserves of oil, gas and minerals in the world and has the potential to become a key link in trade and transport links between Europe and Asia.
An oil deposit estimated at 50 billion barrels found last July in the Kazakhstan sector of the Caspian Sea is the largest discovery in the last 30 years.
The major powers and oil corporations have competing plans for major pipeline projects to pump oil and gas out of landlocked Central Asia. One route backed by Washington-via Azerbaijan and Turkey-cuts across tentative Russian deals with Iran and Armenia. Afghanistan and the Taliban not only pose a threat to the political stability of Central Asia but also threaten to become a focus for other rivals. One of the shortest, and therefore potentially cheapest, routes from Central Asia to seaports is via the Indian subcontinent.
In an article entitled “The ‘Great Game’ continued” in the July-September 2000 issue of World Affairs, Rahul Peter Das commented: “The US, but also many other Western States, seems to prefer links that do not have to traverse Russia, China or Iran. The option via Turkey, though viable, is at the same time also quite risky, especially because of the restless Caucasus region that must be passed through; this is apart from the fact that to avoid Russia and Iran, this route must also lead through the Caspian Sea. The only other route available is the route through South Asia, and it is obvious that this must, in such a context, assume great importance. But this route to the sea has to traverse the connecting link between Central and South Asia, namely Afghanistan”
The giant US Unocal corporation, in partnership with Saudi-based Delta Oil, drew up plans in the mid-1990s for a $6 billion pipeline from Central Asia through northern Afghanistan to Pakistan. But the companies were forced to abandon the project in 1998 after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996 and fighting intensified. An article published by the eCountries web site this month reported tentative talks between the Taliban and the US company, Central Asia Oil and Gas Industry, in Turkmenistan over investment in Afghanistan’s oil and gas industry and a pipeline project.
The high stakes involved and the uncertain character of all the alliances in the region are a formula for further political instability. The imposition of UN sanctions on Afghanistan is not only creating a social disaster within the country but also threatens to add to the tensions in neighbouring countries of what is already a volatile area of the globe.
Here’s some excerpts from another article that was written in November 1999:
The aim of the US-led resolution is not only to capture bin Laden. Over the past several years American interests in Central Asia have expanded, focused on its drive to control the vast untapped oil and gas resources in the Caspian, and Washington perceives Taliban rule in Afghanistan as an obstacle. The UN sanctions could be a step in the direction of more aggressive US intervention.
There are two main factors in the shift of US policy towards Taliban. The first is the Taliban’s support for Islamic fundamentalist groups which have an anti-American posture. These groups vary from bin Laden’s Al Queda to groups in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Taliban has connections with a multitude of Sunni Muslim groups in Pakistan and has recruited and trained Mujahedins (holy warriors) in Kashmir. America now sees the influence of Taliban as a threat and destabilising factor which threatens its interests. The second factor is the belief that Taliban rule will not create sufficiently stable conditions within Afghanistan to make that country serviceable as a corridor for Central and South Asia. Washington is also concerned that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan could lead to a fundamentalist take-over of Pakistan
Here’s an excerpt from the Yahoo International Finance Centre “Fact Sheet” on Afghanistan:
Afghanistan recently has acquired significance from an energy standpoint as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.
In January 1998, the Taliban signed an agreement that would allow a proposed 890-mile, $2-billion, 2-billion-cubic-feet-per-day natural gas pipeline project led by Unocal to proceed. Unocal subsequently estimated that construction on the line, which would transport gas from Turkmenistan’s 45-Tcf Dauletabad gas field to Pakistan, would begin in late 1998. The proposed $2-billion pipeline tentatively would run from Dauletabad south to the Afghan border and through Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan, to Quetta, Pakistan. The line would then link with Pakistan’s gas grid at Sui. Gas shipments had been projected to start at 700 Mmcf/d in 1999 and to rise to 1.4 Bcf/d or higher by 2002. In March 1998, however, Unocal announced a delay in finalizing project details due to Afghanistan’s continuing civil war.
Here’s some excerpts from a January 3, 2001 article from the World Socialist website, describing how China also wants the oil in Central Asia, and is building a huge pipeline into their most Eastern province.
The construction of pipeline networks to China’s western borders, under the control of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and other large Chinese energy companies, also opens up the potential for China to exploit the huge energy resources of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
In 1997, CNPC acquired the right to develop two potentially lucrative oilfields in Kazakhstan, outbidding US and European oil corporations. In exchange for development rights, CNPC is committed to build pipelines to Xinjiang to enable the large-scale export of up to 50 million tonnes per year of Kazakh oil to China. Feasibility studies are also underway for the construction of over 3,000 kilometres of gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang.
Theoretically, oil and gas pipelines to China from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan could be extended to link into the pipeline networks of both Russia and Iran. This model has been dubbed the “Pan Asian Global Energy Bridge”-a Eurasian network of pipelines linking energy resources in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia through to China’s Pacific Coast.
The strategic implications
China’s pipeline network has the potential to bring about a significant strategic realignment in the region. Central Asia with its huge reserves of oil, gas and minerals and strategic position is already a key arena of sharp rivalry between the US, Europe and Japan. All of the major powers, along with transnational corporations, have been seeking alliances, concessions and possible pipeline routes in the Central Asia republics.
Mutual self-interest has brought China and Russia together in the “Shanghai Five” group of nations, along with the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Through the grouping, China has sought to align Russia economically and politically toward China and north-east Asia, while Russia has sought to preserve its traditional influence in Central Asia. The South China Morning Post commented after the last summit of the group in July: “If anything is going to bring the two countries and their two economies closer, it is Russian exports of its vast oil and gas wealth”.
More than economic considerations are at work though. Particularly since the NATO war on Yugoslavia and the subsequent occupation of Kosovo, a feature of Sino-Russian relations is fear that their own separatist strife-as in Chechnya or Xinjiang-will be exploited by the United States to intervene in the region. Both China and Russia are also bitterly opposed to the development of an American missile defense system that would nullify their nuclear deterrent against US aggression. Consequently, the two states are seeking to counter US influence in Central Asia and develop their relations with other key regional players such as Iran.
Among the most recent developments, Russia has secured a contract with Turkmenistan to purchase 30 billion cubic metres of gas each year. This further undermines the trouble-plagued US-backed TransCaspian Gas Pipeline-a pipeline for Turkmen gas across the Caspian Sea and out to Turkey.
No alliance has been cemented between Russia and China, but such a partnership could dramatically alter relations in Central and East Asia. It would create the necessary political framework for large-scale investment to flow into a web of pipelines crossing Central Asia and Russian Siberia to China’s Pacific coast. Within 10 years, China could emerge as a major distribution hub for oil and gas exports to South Korea and Japan, two of the largest energy importing states in the world. —