Operation El Dorado: The Road to a Resource War in Afghanistan

The roots of a war are rarely simple. In Afghanistan what at first looked like retaliation turned out to be the first preemptive resource war of the 21st century.

US troops in Afghanistan
US troops in Afghanistan
As troops and planes headed toward Afghanistan more than a decade ago, few people initially questioned the reasons for that military engagement. An enemy that didn’t hesitate to take thousands of civilian lives had attacked the nation’s capital and brought down New York’s tallest buildings. The identity of the chief “evildoer” also seemed self-evident: Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda network had struck the US before and was being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

In the wake of such an outrage, how could anyone doubt that a “war on terror” was just and necessary?

But the roots of war are rarely simple, and, as time passed, other motives for military action slowly came into focus. As it turns out, strikes against Afghanistan were in the works before the attacks. Like the Gulf War ten years before, the rationale was also, if not mainly, rooted in a struggle over access to oil and gas, in this case huge finds in the Caspian Sea Basin. The only thing missing was a plausible reason.

What looked like retaliation was really the first preemptive resource war of the 21st century. More than a decade later it shows no signs of ending.

For the major energy companies, the Caspian is “el Dorado.” North of the Persian Gulf, and including Russia, Iran, and several former republics of the Soviet Union, it is estimated to contain the world’s second or third largest reserves of petroleum, along with a vast supply of natural gas. The region is landlocked, however, so any energy found there must move to market by rail or pipeline through adjacent, often unstable states.

Despite various intra-state conflicts, complex geopolitics and considerable risks, the major – specifically Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP Amoco, and Royal Dutch/Shell, along with Norway’s Statoil, France’s Elf Aquitaine, Italy’s Agip, Russia’s Lukoil, and the China National National Petroleum Corporation – began acquiring development rights and preparing for production in the early 1990s. Offshore drilling operations were underway in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and set to commence elsewhere. Major firms were also investing significantly in the future construction of oil and gas pipelines to distant ports and refineries.

The first big move was a $20 billion joint venture between Chevron and Kazakhstan, signed in 1993 to develop the huge Tenzig oil field on the Caspian coast. Three years later, ExxonMobil purchased a 25 percent share from the government. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium, including the Tenzig partners and Russia, was expected to carry 750,000 barrels a day to the Black Sea coast.

Another consortium focused on Azerbaijan’s offshore fields. In 1994, BP Amoco, Lukoil, Unocal, Penzoil, Statoil and others joined with SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company, to form the Azerbaijan International Operating Company. Bush family adviser James A. Baker III, who subsequently spearheaded George W. Bush’s victory in the Florida election dispute, headed the US law firm representing this consortium, and sat on the US-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce advisory council, as did Vice President Cheney before him.

Before their investments could produce profitable results, however, critical roadblocks had to be removed. The biggest was how to get the oil and gas from production sites to markets. Since the US wanted to avoid relying on existing Soviet-era pipelines new ones would have to be constructed.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the US government’s preferred future route for oil and gas, known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) project, went from Azerbaijan through Georgia and then south to the Turkish coast. The policy goal was to reduce both Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s reliance on Russia and bring the southern Caucasus into the US fold. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice was a former director of Chevron, a lynchpin of the BTC consortium with extensive operations in Azerbaijan. Until 2000, Vice President Cheney was chief executive at Halliburton Co., a 2001 finalist for engineering work in the Turkish sector of the route.

Some companies showed more interest in a less expensive route to the Persian Gulf through Iran. But this clashed with official US policy, including a 1995 executive order prohibiting US business with Iran, as well as the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which specifically limited oil investments. A third option was a pipeline from the Dauletebad gas fields in eastern Turkmenistan south through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, a route across western Afghanistan. But after 1995 that meant dealing with the Taliban, a repressive regime locked in civil war.

Opening Shots

Negotiations began in the early 1990s when energy giants, including ExxonMobil, Texaco, Unocal, BP Amoco, Shell and Enron, paid top officials in Kazakhstan to secure equity rights in its huge oil reserves (then estimated up to 92 billion barrels). Unwilling to meet Russia’s price for use of its pipelines, the companies promised production and pipeline investments of $35 billion.

Turkmenistan, with possible reserves of up to 80 billion barrels of oil and 155 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, didn’t want to be left out of this new Great Game. Thus, during a US visit in March 1993, President Niyazov hired former US National Security Advisor Alexander Haig to encourage investments and soften the US stand on a pipeline via Iran. Within two years, Unocal, one of the world’s largest independent oil and gas producers, was ready to step up. In June 1995, a Unocal delegation visited Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to discuss a pipeline through the latter. While visiting New York that October, Turkmeni President Niyazov signed an Afghan pipeline deal with Unocal and Saudi Arabia’s Delta Oil.

But another company was also making moves. Prior to Unocal’s bid, Bridas, the third largest oil and gas company in Latin America, struck a deal with Niyazov to develop gas fields discovered by the Soviets, and even began to export some oil from the Caspian. In March 1995, to fend off Bridas’ competing proposal, US Ambassador Tom Simmons urged Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to grant exclusive pipeline rights through her country to Unocal. Bhutto was offended, cried extortion, and demanded a written apology.

That August, while touring Afghanistan and Central Asia, US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel reiterated US interest in the project. By this time, Gazprom, a Russian company, had signed a deal with Unocal, Delta and Turkmenistan’s state energy company. An exclusive consortium arrangement for the proposed Afghan pipeline followed in October. By year’s end, Iran, Turkey and Turkmenistan also had struck a deal, this one for Turkey to buy Turkmen gas through Iran.

While visiting Kandahar in December 1995, Pakistan’s foreign secretary conferred with the Taliban, which had recently seized control of most of the country, about the Afghan route. In a statement that was later disavowed, Unocal expressed support for the Taliban’s takeover, suggesting that it would improve prospects for their project.

From his base in Afghanistan, bin Laden had already declared jihad against the US, and the Clinton administration considered him “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activity in the world.” But that failed to disrupt US-backed negotiations with his hosts.

Prospecting with the Enemy

Dealing was the Taliban wasn’t easy. Although a delegation from Afghanistan visited Washington in February 1997 to secure official recognition and meet with Unocal, only two months later, on April 8, the new regime unexpectedly announced that it would award a pipeline contract to the company that started work first. Unocal president John Imle was baffled by the change but refused to give up.

During the summer, a new association, chaired by Unocal, was formed to promote Turkmenistan-US cooperation. The company’s deadline to begin construction of a pipeline was extended one year; the new “drop dead” date would be December 1998.

Hoping to keep its options open, the Clinton administration reevaluated its resistance to a pipeline through Iran. In order to support US companies and “friends” in the region, it was now willing to drop objections to a Persian Gulf route. Encouraged by the shift, Shell entered the negotiations. The majors finally appeared ready to make their move.

At this point, the Taliban threw another curve ball, the announcement that it was leaning toward Bridas to build the pipeline. To press this advantage, the Argentina-based company joined forces with another major, Amoco. Still in the game, Unocal made some headway with Pakistan, signing a 30-year pricing agreement. Despite Bhutto’s complaints, US pressure was paying off.

By October the pieces appeared to be in place. Led by Unocal, Delta, Turkmenistan, Japan’s Itochi Oil, Indonesia Petroleum, Crescent Group, and Hyundai became partners in the new Central Asia Gas Pipeline Ltd. (CentGas). Gasprom signed soon after.

Still hoping to win over the Taliban, Unocal invited a delegation to visit corporate headquarters in Sugarland, Texas on December 4. The Afghan visitors also met with State Department officials. But efforts to negotiate a deal failed, allegedly because the Taliban asked for too much money. Sensing trouble, Gazprom pulled out of the consortium the following February, leaving Unocal at risk with a 54 percent interest.

Shortly thereafter, Unocal Vice President John J. Maresca, later to become a Special Ambassador to Afghanistan, testified before the US House. Until a single, unified, and friendly government was in place in Afghanistan, Maresca told lawmakers on February 12, 1998, a trans-Afghani pipeline would not be built. The need for a regime change had been put on the table.

A month later, Unocal announced that its pipeline project was on indefinite hold, citing financing difficulties and ongoing civil war in Afghanistan. Having spent $10-15 million already, however, it did not want to give up completely. Some shareholders had a different idea. At Unocal’s annual meeting in June 1998, several of them objected to the Afghan pipeline because of the Taliban’s obvious violations of human rights.

It was quite clear that Afghanistan was one of bin Laden’s major operational bases. There was also the related warning from CIA Case Officer Robert Baer that Saudi Arabia was harboring an al-Qaeda cell led by two known terrorists. Yet the CIA apparently ignored the warnings until August 7, when the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. The trail led to bin Laden.

Thirteen days later the US retaliated, sending cruise missiles into Al Qaeda camps near Khost and Jalalabad. Finally getting the message, Unocal officially suspended its Afghan pipeline plan and pulled out staff throughout the region. Before the end of 1998, it also withdrew from the $2.9 billion Turkmenistan-to-Turkey natural gas project, as well as the Afghan pipeline consortium. The reasons cited were low oil prices, pressure on human rights, and the activities of bin Laden. Whatever the truth, Unocal’s quest for “el Dorado” had been postponed.

Taking advantage of an opening, Bridas resumed negotiations with Russia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan in February 1999. Turkmenistan’s foreign minister met with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to discuss the proposed pipeline. Enron also expressed an interest. With $3 billion already invested in a plan to build an electrical generating plant at Dabhol, India, it had recently lost access to plentiful liquid Natural Gas supplies from Qatar to fuel the plant. A trans-Afghani gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, terminating at the Pakistani city of Multan near the Indian border, was a promising alternative. Before the end of April, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and the Taliban sealed an agreement to revive the project.

During this period another pipeline opened, linking Baku in Azerbaijan to Supsa on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Azerbaijan had estimated reserves of 32 billion barrels of oil and 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it the third largest potential regional source after Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Despite the setbacks, US hopes for an eventual link from Georgia to Turkey, a long-term ally, were still alive.

Dropping the Ball

The Bush family was well acquainted with the bin Ladens, if not their alleged black sheep Osama, long before the Saudi renegade declared war on the US and its allies in Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Even after the 1998 embassy attacks, the relationship remained cordial, largely due to the intercession of the Carlyle Group, a large US defense contractor. In 1998, and again in 2000, the first President Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia on behalf of Carlyle, meeting privately with both the Saudi royals and several of bin Laden’s relatives.

This may help explain why, shortly after moving into the White House in January 2001, the Bush II administration reportedly told the FBI and intelligence agencies to back off investigations involving the family. The Bureau was interested in two bin Laden relatives, Abdullah and Omar, who were living near CIA headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. Bush’s blind spot for Saudi Arabia and contact with the bin Ladens may also explain why no action was taken when, on January 26, the FBI told the new administration there was clear evidence tying Al Qaeda to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

While covering a trial of Al Qaeda members in February, 2001 UPI Terrorism Correspondent Richard Sale noted that the NSA had broken bin Laden’s encrypted communications. Since officials insist that plans for 9/11 must have been in the work for years, it becomes hard to understand why no hint of what lay ahead was revealed. National Security Advisor Rice certainly knew something was up. Her predecessor Sandy Berger had briefed her in detail, advising that she would “be spending more time on this issue than on any other.” Yet, according to a Newsweek cover story on “What Bush Knew” released in May 2002, a strategic review “was marginalized and scarcely mentioned in the ensuing months as the administration committed itself to other priorities, like national missile defense (NMD) and Iraq.”

The administration didn’t ignore the Taliban, however. On the contrary, it offered the regime aid. In May 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a $43 million package for the regime, purportedly to assist hungry farmers who were starving since the destruction of their opium crop on orders from the Taliban’s leaders.

The US was also keen to resolve a decade-long conflict over a mountainous Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. Further fighting there might jeopardize other pipeline investments. Powell personally opened up talks in April between leaders of both countries. After a sit-down in Key West, the two leaders dashed off to Washington for separate sessions with Bush. Leaving little to chance, the administration promised large financial packages to the adversaries if they buried the hatchet. Armenia was in especially tough shape. Three of its four rail links were unused due to closed frontiers with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and the economy was in a long-term nose dive.

Another priority was Pakistan, particularly its conflict with India over Kashmir. To address that, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a former covert operative who had also worked at the Department of State for Bush I, was sent to India on a publicized tour. Meanwhile, CIA Director George Tenet quietly visited Pakistan to meet with General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1998 coup. While in Islamabad, Tenet and Musharraf held what was described later as “an unusually long meeting.” Tenet’s Pakistani counterpart, Lt. General Mahmud Ahmad, was also on hand.

A few months later, Ahmad told an aide to wire transfer $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, who the FBI later described as the lead terrorist in the suicide hijackings. Ahmad resigned in October after the transfer was disclosed in India and confirmed by the FBI. Armitage’s peace mission didn’t go any better. A year later, India and Pakistan had a million troops at their borders and another regional war looked possible.

By June 2001, the warning signs were obvious for anyone willing to look. German intelligence had informed both the CIA and Israel that Middle Eastern terrorists were “planning to hijack commercial aircraft to use as weapons to attack important symbols of American and Israeli culture.” On June 28, CIA Director Tenet informed Condoleeza Rice that it was “highly likely” that a “significant Qaeda attack” would take place “in the near future.”

Before he reached Genoa in July for the G-8 summit, President Bush obviously understood the danger. Among others, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had issued a blunt warning: someone wanted to crash a plane filled with explosives into the conference site.

Word of imminent US military action was also leaking out. One scenario appeared on indiareacts.com, an online magazine which reported on June 26 that “India and Iran will ‘facilitate’ US and Russian plans for ‘limited military action’ against the Taliban.” The story indicated that US and Russian troops would do most of the fighting, with the help of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Other reports said that Tajik and Uzbek forces were training in Alaska and Montana, and that US rangers were preparing special troops in Kyrgyzstan. The BCC and Times of India published similar predictions.

During a meeting with Pakistani and Russian intelligence officers in Berlin, three former US officials — Tom Simmons (US Ambassador to Pakistan), Karl Inderfurth (Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian affairs) and Lee Coldren (State Department expert on South Asia) — said much the same thing: The US was planning military strikes against Afghanistan. They even speculated on a launch date — October 2001. Unfortunately, Taliban members may also have been in the room, or at least privy to what was said, according to Bin Laden – La Verite Interdite, a French book released after 9/11. In any event, the British press later reported that Pakistan’s secret service relayed the news to the Taliban’s leadership. So much for the element of surprise.

The Plots Thicken

When revelations eventually surfaced that the US received credible warnings of an impending attack by Middle Eastern radicals, officials protested that the information was too vague and that, in any case, President Bush did not know about the possibility that airplanes might be hijacked until his August 6, 2001 briefing.

A key element of this defense was that intelligence available to the CIA, including a report forwarded from Russian intelligence that 25 terrorist pilots had been training specifically for suicide missions, simply never reached the president’s desk. Neither, apparently, did a July 10 report from the FBI’s Phoenix office. In that document, a well-respected field agent warned that the unusual number of Middle Eastern men enrolling in US flight schools might be part of a bin Laden plot. Although his analysis did make it to headquarters, follow up action was delayed, supposedly due to the expense and staff time involved.

Was this a problem of poor coordination? True or not, that was adopted as the most convenient explanation. But credible evidence points in other directions. To start, the government had been taking steps toward military action against Afghanistan for some time, and Bush knew bin Laden was a serious threat. Surely, coordination wasn’t the only issue.

Even more troubling was a report that the CIA may have made contact with the “evildoer” two months before the attacks. According to a controversial story in the French paper Le Figaro, published on October 31, 2001, bin Laden allegedly received treatments for his kidney ailment at a hospital in Dubai, a Gulf port city, sometime between July 4 and 14. While there, he reportedly met with someone from the CIA. “Several days later the CIA officer bragged to his friends about having visited the Saudi millionaire,” the story claimed. “From authoritative sources, this CIA agent visited CIA headquarters on July 15th, the day after bin Laden’s departure for Quetta.”

Although an intelligence finding issued by President Clinton before leaving office made him eligible for execution, for some reason bin Laden was allowed to leave without incident on a private jet, the French newspaper charged.

Among other things, the story indicated that Arab diplomatic sources and French intelligence itself believed “precise information was communicated to the CIA concerning terrorist attacks aimed at American interests in the world, including its own territory.” In a subsequent meeting with French intelligence, it claimed, US agents asked for details about Algerian activists connected to bin Laden through Dubai banks. When asked “what do you fear in the coming days,” they “responded with incomprehensible silence.”

Finally, the French expose charged that “the FBI discovered certain plans that had been put together between the CIA and its ‘Islamic friends’ over the years. The meeting in Dubai is, so it would seem, consistent with ‘a certain American policy.'”

Was any of this true? Le Figaro claimed to have confirmed bin Laden’s visit with hospital staff. The next day, however, several of those quoted issued denials, and the CIA insisted that no meeting between one of its agents and bin Laden had taken place. Someone was lying. The question was who.

An equally perplexing lead involved a US Navy Lieutenant, Delmart “Mike” Vreeland, who was in a Toronto jail on US fraud charges at the time. Vreeland claimed to be an officer in US Naval intelligence. The Navy initially denied that, claiming that Vreeland never worked in intelligence and was discharged as a seaman in 1986 for unsatisfactory performance.

In any case, Vreeland reportedly wrote down details of a planned attack on the World Trade Center in early August, placed his notes in a sealed envelope, and handed it over to the Canadian authorities. Three days after 9/11, they opened the envelope and discovered that Vreeland’s description was correct.

Four months later, on January 10, 2002, attorneys for Vreeland called the Pentagon’s switchboard operator from a speakerphone in open court. The operator confirmed that Vreeland was a Naval Lieutenant on active duty. She even provided a phone number and the extension for his office in the Pentagon.

Even so, how did a Navy officer get such information, and how many others also knew in advance? One person clearly in the loop was Zacarias Moussaoui, an Islamic militant linked to bin Laden who was arrested by the FBI on August 17, 2001. A key member of the Al Qaeda network, he had been taking flying lessons but showed little interest in learning how to take off or land.

At the time of his arrest, Moussaoui had technical information on Boeing aircraft and flight manuals. An FBI agent warned his superiors that Moussaoui might have been planning to “fly something into the World Trade Center.” Even this failed to set off a serious alarm. The CIA did know enough to offer a detailed list of known terrorists to Saudi intelligence. But like those at the top in the Bush administration, the Saudis ignored it.

Finally, there was a warning from Russia. Based on reports he received, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB chief, ordered Russian intelligence in August to tell the US government “in the strongest possible terms” that attacks on airports and government buildings were imminent. Still, no action.

Afterward, the Bush administration denied having any specific prior knowledge. But given the available warnings, not to mention US plans to mount an attack on Afghanistan, the failure to take effective preventive measures looked, at the very least, like a case of willful disregard.

The Eve of Disaster

As summer 2001 waned, the fledging administration in Washington faced a growing list of problems, both at home and abroad. Vermont Senator James Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican Party in April altered the congressional balance of power, putting much of the Bush domestic agenda in jeopardy.

Fast Track trading authority had been stalled. Enron was about to implode. Europe was breaking with the US on missile defense, trade, environmental policy, and Latin American intervention. Protests challenging globalization were gaining momentum worldwide. China and Russia were learning to cooperate, and NATO looked like it might be obsolete. In late August and the first days of September, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 900 points, which increased speculation about a looming economic crash.

But the Bush administration had some information that the rest of the public did not. For example, it had just sent two US carrier battle groups into the Gulf of Arabia, just off the Pakistani coast. Meanwhile, about 17,000 US troops joined more than 20,000 NATO soldiers in Egypt for Operation Bright Star, while 23,000 British troops steamed toward Oman for Operation Swift Sword. In short, the people in charge knew a military engagement was imminent. What better way to change the dynamic?

On September 7, in a move that was either prescient or premeditated, the president’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, signed emergency executive order number 01-261. It contained provisions allowing the Florida National Guard to assist law enforcement and emergency management personnel in the event of large civil disturbances, disaster, or terrorism. Had Jeb Bush heard something, or was he just being cautious?

By this time, the President certainly understood that an attack on US symbols, probably involving hijackers, was just a matter of time. Attorney General Ashcroft knew enough to begin using a privately chartered jet for security reasons, even though he refused to increase the number of FBI counter-terrorism agents.

Who else knew, and how detailed was the information? Apparently, some interested parties had specific enough information to purchase 4,744 put options (speculation that a stock will go down) on United Air Lines (UAL) stock on September 6-7. Only 396 calls were bought those two days. It was a dramatic, abnormal increase in sales. Many of the puts were purchased through Deutschebank/AB Brown, a firm managed until 1998 by the Executive Director of the CIA, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard.

Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Munich re, and AXA Re, an insurance firm that owned 25 percent of American Airlines, also purchased an unusually high number of puts in the four working days before the attacks. On September 10, American Airlines saw similar activity: 4,516 puts and 748 calls. No other airlines showed similar trading. Three weeks later, at least $2.5 million worth of puts on American and UAL stock remained unredeemed. A suspension in trading on the New York Stock Exchange after the attacks had given the Securities and Exchange Commission time to prepare if the owners showed up. Inexplicably, the puts were 600 percent above normal at a time when Reuters was reporting that “airline stocks may be poised to take off.” Someone felt certain enough to place heavy bets that the two airlines would take a hit.

It was the right wager. Early on that sunny Tuesday, September 11, after taking off from airports in Newark, Boston and Washington DC for routine cross-country trips, three American and United Airlines flights with fully-loaded fuel tanks destroyed the world-famous Twin Towers of downtown Manhattan’s World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon. A fourth flight was forced to crash by a group of brave passengers before reaching its destination, possibly the White House.

Although FAA and the military recognized within minutes that the planes had been simultaneously hijacked and diverted off course shortly after 8:15, no one notified Bush until 9:05. TV cameras captured his apparent lack of surprise. By the time Air Force planes were scrambled to intercept at 9:30, it was too late. Despite the unprecedented nature of the attacks, the National Command Authority waited 75 minutes before responding. Soon afterward, US airports were shut down for the rest of the day.

Within hours, the FBI helped Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar fly members of the bin Laden family out of the country.

A week later, FBI Director Robert Mueller updated the press. “There were no warning signs that I’m aware of that would indicate this type of operation in the country,” he claimed. It sounded reasonable at the time.

Back to Business

In the weeks after 9/11, national mourning, frustration and anger, adroitly stoked by the mainstream media, provided a more than adequate justification for the military battle plan hatched months before. A worldwide campaign against terrorism and an alleged “axis of evil” that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea would have sounded needlessly militant or overly ambitious before the attacks. Afterward, it was hard, even risky, to speak out against the call to war. The order of the day was unity, and whatever the administration needed, Congress (and the public) seemed willing to supply. As people often said at the time, the world had changed.

After suffering a precipitous drop, the Dow Jones Industrial Average recovered most of its pre-attack losses by mid-October. Although still weak, and vulnerable to negative earnings reports and bombshells about Enron’s troubles, a crash had been narrowly averted. But the magic bullet was a massive infusion of government spending on defense programs, subsidies for “affected” industries, and planned tax cuts for corporations. Wartime spending was in fashion again.

Plans to turn the Caspian basin into an alternative source of energy, especially if oil deliveries from the Persian Gulf were blocked or suspended, were also revived. For example, once Pakistan was engaged as a US ally (despite its connections to Al Qaeda and other extremists), US Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain paid a call on the Pakistani oil minister. The war had barely begun, but the outcome looked certain. “In view of recent geopolitical developments,” she told the minister on October 10, Unocal’s pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Pakistani coast is back on the table.

After the Taliban was routed, the appointment of Hamid Karzai as interim leader of a western-friendly Afghanistan provided the project with another boost. As Le Monde revealed, Karzai was a former Unocal consultant and a long-term CIA asset, just the kind of leader the oil companies hoped to see. Bridas was out, Unocal was back in.

Bush further increased the odds of success early in 2002 by appointing Zalamy Khalilzad, a former Unocal employee, as his special envoy to the recently invaded nation. It apparently did not matter that, four years earlier, Khalilzad had been a Taliban booster, even writing op-eds for the Washington Post.

It took only a month to work out the details. On February 9, 2002, Pakistani leader Musharraf and Afghan leader Karzai proudly announced an agreement to “cooperate in all spheres of activity,” especially the proposed Central Asian pipeline. Pakistan was even prepared to subsidize some of the costs, offering $10 million to help pay Afghani government workers.

During the attack on Afghanistan, the Pentagon had used Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as rear bases and aid corridors. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan hosted no troops, but agreed to open airspace and airfields. By early 2002, experts were evaluating the Tajik airfields as operational bases for future missions. Thousands of US soldiers were deployed in former Soviet Central Asia, many of them on an Uzbekistan airfield near the Afghan border. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, a key ally, saw no need to set a deadline for their departure. It was easy to see why; Uzbekistan had been promised up to $150 million in loans and grants. Meanwhile, outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital, military facilities were under construction at Manas international airport, eventually to house up to 3000 troops. Slowly but surely, under careful western guidance, the region was being militarily transformed.

As usual, the policy goals were obscured. Speaking to Congress early in the year, Elizabeth Jones, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, offered the official line: the administration envisioned a permanent US presence that would boost economic development and sustain democratic reforms, she said. Translation: more US investments and a bit less outright brutality.

Deputy Defense Secretary James Wolfowitz was more direct. By upgrading its military presence, he explained, the US wanted to send a message. It would not forget its new friends.

At the same time, however, the administration was pushing to scrap a Cold War-era law placing conditions on former Soviet republics’ trade relations, based on their human rights records. This also sent a message; in return for loyalty, the US was prepared to cut local tyrants some slack.

With Afghanistan a safe place for investments, the focus shifted to Georgia and the BTC pipeline project, still the key to moving Azerjaijan’s oil and gas to the Turkish coast. Chevron and Halliburton were waiting in the wings. As US Caspian envoy Stephen Mann explained, the US was willing to promote almost any pipeline that bypassed Iran. (Energy companies were also exploring a section of the Caspian claimed by both Iran and Azerbaijan). To keep the BTC pipeline on track, Georgian Defense official Mirian Kiknadze told Radio Free Europe on February 27, “The US military will train our rapid reaction force, which is guarding strategic sites in Georgia — particularly oil pipelines.”

Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, a former co-chairman of the US-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, also chimed in, emphatically re-affirming US support for the BTC pipeline during a March 8 visit with Turkish premier Bulent Ecevit. Within weeks, words were matched by funding: a $4.4 million aid package for Azerjaijan, prominently featuring military support and hardware.

A month later, more US military advisors began to arrive in Georgia, along with 10 combat helicopters. Officially, the objective was to help combat Islamic radicals in the Pankisi Gorge, allegedly a safe haven for al Qaeda and their Chechen allies. But as most Georgians, though not many US citizens, understood, their main task was to protect US interests in Caspian oil and gas. With Turkish air force operations due in Azerbaijan later in 2002, the US was actively promoting a NATO-friendly axis to guard the BTC route and counter a potential alliance between Armenia, Iran and, if relations ever turned sour, Russia.

Waging war in Afghanistan did not destroy Al Qaeda or eliminate the threat of further attacks. But it had driven the Taliban from power and cleared the way for a pipeline. Across the region, US aid and military operations designed to prevent obstructions elsewhere were rapidly put in place. At home, Bush surfed a wave of patriotism that even the Enron scandal and charges of an “intelligence failure” prior to 9/11 could not stop.

Access to Power

Understanding the interests of energy companies, and how US influence can make a difference, came naturally for George W. Bush. Though his start as an oilman in the 1970s was unimpressive, his father’s presidential victory eventually made him an asset for Harken Energy, a modest Texas oil company with large ambitions. By January 1990, he was on the board, receiving generous consulting fees and holding substantial stock.

The timing was perfect: Harken had defied the odds by making an oil production sharing deal with Bahrain. It gave the company the exclusive right to explore for gas and oil off the shores of the Gulf island nation. If anything was found near two of the world’s largest gas and oil fields, Harken would have the exclusive marketing and transportation rights.

For a company that had never drilled an offshore well, the agreement was a remarkable leap. But since Harken lacked sufficient financing to do the job alone, a partnership was established with Bass Enterprises Production Company of Fort Worth, Texas. The Bass family contributed more than $200,000 to the Republican Party during the Bush I years. Nevertheless, only five months after Harken’s Bahrain deal, Bush suddenly sold most of his stock for $848,560, a remarkable 200 percent profit. Another timely move.

A week later, the company announced a $23 million loss in earnings, and less than two months after that, on August 2, 1990, Iraqi troops moved into Kuwait.

Over half a million US troops were deployed to the Gulf over the next six months, while Harken stock lost 60 percent of its value. According to US News and World Report, solid evidence suggests that Bush cashed out because knew the company was facing trouble in advance. Harken obviously didn’t hold a grudge and continued to provide generous payments for the younger Bush’s consulting services throughout the 1990s. After all, once the Gulf War was over, the Bahrain deal still held the promise of profits for those who stayed the course.

Bush II’s executive brain trust was even more connected. Both his vice president and national security advisor worked previously with oil companies that had Caspian ambitions. Commerce Secretary Don Evans was the former CEO of Tom Brown, Inc., a mid-sized oil and gas outfit. Gale Norton, appointed Secretary of the Interior, began her career with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank funded by oil companies and founded by her mentor and predecessor, the infamous James Watt. She also chaired the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates, a front group backed by BP Amoco and the Ford Motor Company. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham had auto company connections, and Attorney General Ashcroft received major contributions from ExxonMobil, BP Amoco and Enron during his failed 2000 bid for Senate reelection. After Enron’s crooked books were exposed, Ashcroft had to recuse himself from the investigation. But he didn’t back away from federal grand juries investigating bribery and corruption charges against ExxonMobil and BP Amoco.

This was not the first US administration to work closely with big energy. In the days before laws regulating campaign finance, oil interests contributed half of the $100 million used in Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign. His victory assured the removal of federal control over domestic offshore oil, at the time valued at about $40 billion. Republican control of the Federal Power Commission was equally helpful to the gas end of the industry.

A Rockefeller brother-in-law, Winthrop Aldrich, then Chair of Chase Manhattan Bank, became Ambassador to Britain, a strategic posting that helped to safeguard Standard Oil’s interests and keep an eye on overseas rivals. Robert B. Anderson, manager of a Texas oil company and member of the National Petroleum Council, was named to head the Navy Department, the country’s biggest oil customer.

It didn’t take long before access to oil led to covert action. Responding to Iran’s nationalizing of the Anglo-Iran Oil Company, the only energy concern operating there at the time, Eisenhower approved a plan to overthrow its defiant Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and install the young Shah of Iran. The argument was that the 1953 operation, reportedly costing the CIA $19 million, saved the country from a Communist takeover. But the main beneficiaries were the five leading US oil companies, which were subsequently able to cut a deal for 50 percent of Iran’s “liberated” operations through a new international consortium negotiated by the State Department.

In other words, Afghanistan was not the first place where the interests of the energy industry served as a powerful motivating factor for US intervention.

Even the most clever schemes can have unintended consequences, however. Twenty-five years after the Iranian coup, an anti-Western fundamentalist regime drove out the Shah, setting off a major “oil shock” and fatally damaging the Carter administration. The new Iranian regime posed a more serious long-term threat to oil supplies and regional peace in general, than the one overthrown in 1953.

And the Caspian Basin? There, a “war on terrorism” – really a battle for control over resources – emboldened local tyrants who saw their tactical alliances with the US as protective cover to pursue brutal agendas. By late May 2002, this took the world to the brink of a nuclear exchange as Pakistan’s leadership (a US ally in the Afghanistan operation and key player in pipeline politics) threatened to use nukes in its protracted dispute with India in Kashmir.

Did Bush and his team know in advance about plans to take down the World Trade Center? Despite the denials, the jury will probably be out indefinitely. Yet, there is little doubt that many people, in and out of government, expected a major attack before it happened. Some may even have been counting on it. Without a pretext, after all, it might have been difficult to convince the US public that it was necessary to overturn a faraway regime, even one that systematically abused women and executed people in a football stadium. This, of course, wasn’t the real point of the campaign.

Then again, neither was “bringing terrorists to justice.” The true objective, established before any planes went down, was to control future supplies of oil and gas. Whatever the risks and whoever might suffer, the road to el Dorado had to stay open.

Greg Guma is an author, editor and the former CEO of Pacifica Radio. He lives in Vermont and writes about politics and culture on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).